Shopping for Change or More of the Same?

At the supermarket we make choices based not just on price, but relationships, associations, emotions, memories, identity, and values. Using multi-focus lenses, we fill our shopping carts with choices we hope are trustworthy, safe, comfortable, unique, healthy, green, and cheap – but not too cheap. (Wouldn’t hunting and gathering be easier?) We make many of these decisions quickly as we nervously consult our watches, and unfortunately, the food Americans bring home often results in obesity and diet-related diseases such as diabetes and heart failure. The processed foods that now fill supermarket shelves are low in water and fiber (making them easier to ship) but packed with added fat and sugar, making them less filling, more fattening. Author and activist Bill McKibben observes, “The supermarket crammed with its thousands of brightly packaged offerings is a mirage: if you could wave a magic wand and break everything down into its constituent ingredients, a pool of high-fructose corn syrup would fill half the store.”

In the book “Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy,” marketing expert Martin Lindstrom’s research sheds much light on the convoluted, interconnected thoughts that perc in our brains as we make choices. Standing in front of the peanut butter display, Lindstrom’s shopper thinks,


“I associate Skippy with childhood…it’s been around forever, so I feel it’s trustworthy…but isn’t it laden with sugar and other preservatives I shouldn’t be eating…Same goes for Peter Pan, plus the name is so childish. And I’m not buying that generic brand. It costs 30 cents less, which makes me suspicious. In my experience, you get what you pay for…The organic stuff? Tasteless, the few times I had it… always needs salt, too… Jif…what’s that old advertising slogan of theirs: “Choosy Mothers Choose Jif”…Well I am a fairly discriminating person…”

How can we escape this brightly-packaged parade of industrial food that makes that makes our minds chatter? The only thing that will really work is a cultural movement that demands changes in what the food industry provides and how they provide it. Processed food is artificially cheap right now because energy has been cheap, and because our tax dollars subsidize the growing of crops like wheat, corn and soybeans – primary ingredients in “industrial” food. As a society, we don’t charge ourselves for the many environmental and health side effects of food. We allocate less of our household budget to food than we ever have before, and we don’t, as a nation, allocate enough capital to mentor new farmers.

The truth is that we need to spend more of our household budget for food, not less.

The truth is that we need to spend more of our household budget for food, not less. By rearranging both our household and national expenditures, we should give a higher priority to fresh, healthy food and a lower priority to electronic gadgets, mall booty, cars, lawns, and vacations. Our overall expenses don’t have to go up, they just need to be realigned with our changing values. By choosing higher quality food and better ways of growing it, we also begin to reshape the American culture.

In the meantime, here we are in the supermarket aisles, making the best choices we can. Though brightly colored promises on the boxes and packages (“all natural!” “low-fat!” “high in Omega 3!”) seem a little overwhelming, with patience and peer support, we can learn what these slogans really mean, step by step. For example, “free-range” egg-laying hens are typically out of cages but inside barns or warehouses. They have some outdoor access, but how much is not specified, and there is no third-party quality control. A higher level of quality assurance for eggs is “USDA Certified Organic,” which guarantees not only outdoor access, but also an organic, all-vegetarian diet free of antibiotics and pesticides.

Food labels like these are an agreement, an understanding, between producer and consumer, for a certain level of quality; a certain set of core values. The labels not only help the buyer but also guide the grower, holding production standards higher. Rather than remaining Lone Rangers for truth, justice and quality in food, many Americans are now opting to let Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s or the local food co-op prescreen food products for key traits like fair trade, organic, local, and ecological sensitivity. After learning what brands they prefer, smart shoppers also learn which conventional supermarkets carry those products, often at slightly lower prices. (And they learn to request those products from conventional store managers.) Step by step, they are changing not only the household diet, but also America’s diet.

“You shouldn’t need a Ph.D. in nutritional biochemistry to go supermarket shopping,” says David Katz of the Yale Prevention Research Center, who wants to bring “traffic light” labeling system to the U.S. “The index, with green, yellow, or red labels, should take into account the quantity of calories, beneficial nutrients, and potentially harmful nutrients such as trans fat, in a serving of any given food. Why shouldn’t even dummies wind up with a shopping cart filled with the good stuff?”

The website concurs with Katz that label reading should be easier, but maintains that a lot of important nutritional information is already on the labels, if you know how to scan them. Keeping it simple, they suggest:


Limit Products With:

Saturated fat: As low as possible; less than five grams per serving.

Trans fat: should be zero. (Hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” oils means trans fats).

Sodium: As low as possible. The FDA allows a “healthy” label on foods with less than 480 mg/serving for entrees, less than 360 mg for all other foods.

High fructose corn syrup: A cheap form of highly concentrated sugar (words ending in “ose” are pseudonyms for sugar).

“Enriched” or “wheat” flour (aliases for “white”) Choose whole-wheat flour instead.

Choose Products With:

The shortest possible ingredient list.


Fiber: Three or more grams per serving.

Whole grains: Preferably first or second in the ingredients list.

“Liquid” or “high-oleic” vegetable oils: Heart-healthy unsaturated fats

Fruits and vegetables: Dried or fresh, in whole form.