HOW TO SHOP: BEAT THE MANIPULATION AT THE GROCERY STORE

By: MIGHTY PURSUIT TEAM

When you think of a grocery store, the first thing that comes to mind isn’t naturally manipulative.  Politicians? Yes.  Social media influencers? Maybe But grocery stores? Not so much.  As you probably know with many other aspects of life, things are not always as innocent as they seem. Molecular biologist Marion Nestle, perhaps the top food researcher in the world, explains in What to Eat: “Breathtaking amounts of research have gone into designing these places. There are precise reasons why milk is at the back of the store and the center aisles are so long. You are forced to go past thousands of other products on your way to get what you need.” Every time you step into a grocery store, you are in a psychological battle – with your health at stake. As we’ve discussed in other blogs, 70% of the food stocked in supermarkets is ultra-processed, which is a main contributor to the rise of disease in the United States. Yet as you walk through the aisles of supermarkets, this food is being strategically placed to lure you into temptation. The design of supermarkets and strategic placement of unhealthy foods makes it much more difficult to identify the location of healthy foods. Especially if you know next to nothing about nutrition. In What to Eat, Nestle explains the problem, “supermarkets have one purpose and one purpose only: to sell food and make a profit, and as large a profit as possible. [The consumer wants] foods that are good for [their] health.. and the conflict between health and business goals is at the root of public confusion about food choices.” It’s normal for a business to want to maximize profits, but the food industry is in its own category. Since we consume food, and this puts people’s health on the line, it is extremely unethical to run your company or supermarket the same way you’d run a regular business. When this is unregulated, you get the rise of disease and greed like we are witnessing in the United States.  Generally speaking, most supermarkets are not your friend.  However, there are wonderful exceptions like PCC Community Markets in the Greater Seattle area. They sell almost exclusively organic food Their mission is that “in everything, we strive to inspire and advance the health and well-being of people, their communities and our planet. And then there is Whole Foods, which has locations in most major U.S. cities, with 505 supermarkets in all. They have famously banned 260+ toxic ingredients from their grocery stores. This is encouraging, since most American supermarkets are regularly infested with ingredients that have been proven to cause disease. But Whole Foods can also be a mixed bag, as some of their products are not organic and/or healthy. Their hot bar is also a mess and not made from the same high-quality ingredients Whole Foods is known for. All this to say, if we mindlessly walk through the aisles of grocery stores, we’re likely going to lose the battle for our health. It’s too psychologically manipulating, in ways we don’t consciously realize. However, if we go into the supermarket armed with the knowledge of the manipulative and deceptive strategies at play, we’ll do much better. And over the long-term, our health will do better as well. So let’s get started.

THE ILLUSION OF GREAT PRICES

Because supermarkets want to maximize their profits, they want to get you to buy as much as possible. And one of their top strategies for getting you to buy more is giving the illusion of great prices, which is basically what Wal-Mart is built off of. “Low prices sound good for people without much money, but nutritionally, there’s a catch. Low prices encourage everyone to buy more food in bigger packages. If you buy more, you are quite likely to eat more. And if you eat more, you are more likely to gain weight and become less healthy,” Nestle explains. As we talked about in our blog on fasting, the human body is designed to function best when we eat less, not more. However, the problem with low prices is not that it just makes us eat more, but it’s in the food itself. Cheap comes at a cost, but supermarkets get us to fixate on price so much that we ignore WHY the food is cheap to begin with.  Whole Foods is often criticized for their high prices, but this is where the illusion lies. The reality is that more often than not, Whole Foods’ prices reflect how much actual real foods costs. When you start investigating the dark underbelly of cheap food, you discover unethical practices, labor injustice and extremely unhealthy ingredients. When something is so cheap, the first question we should be asking ourselves is what’s the catch? Cheap food is exactly that – cheap. It’s low-quality and filled with the same toxic additives and ingredients Whole Foods has pledged to ban. As we’ve discussed elsewhere, eating a diet with heavily processed, low-nutrient foods takes a significant toll on our bodies. Cheap food contributes, if not being the direct cause, to a whole host of chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, cancer and digestive disorders. However, many people struggle with their budget and feel they cannot afford to buy food at places like Whole Foods. This is real, and an injustice itself. Healthy and organic food should be accessible to all. But even in the midst of this problem, there are a couple strategies you can employ even with a low budget.   One of the most practical ways is to simply eat less.  As we discuss in a separate blog, there is extensive scientific research that supports the health benefits of fasting. In recent years, intermittent fasting has become very popular as well. If you only commit to eating within a 8-to-12 hour period everyday, you will naturally eat less, which will be good for your body and also your wallet. If you struggle with overeating itself, perhaps your first step would be to develop a healthier relationship with food. But if that’s not something you struggle with, perhaps fasting will come more naturally to you. Alternatively, making sure you meal plan and cook meals at home is a great way to stick to a budget. Not to mention stocking up on healthy snacks that will make you full, rather than ultra processed snacks that are designed to keep you munching. Ultimately, as we said from the top, great prices are an illusion. If you see tons of signs advertising low prices, like in Wal-Mart, there is likely a catch. And it’s your health.

STICK TO YOUR SHOPPING LIST

If you walk into a supermarket without a list, things are bound to go wrong. This is not necessarily a bad thing if you don’t have a strict budget and if you’re in a place like PCC Markets, but having no plan at most supermarkets usually ends up sideways for your health. Supermarkets are designed for you to impulse buy and what they are usually trying to get you to impulse buy is extremely unhealthy.  For example, consider the check out lines. As you stand waiting to pay, they strategically place everything from low-quality candy and chocolate to soda drinks and gum right in your face. Low-cost items that are designed for you to scoop up as you’re waiting.  “If you find yourself in a supermarket buying on impulse and not minding it a bit, you are behaving exactly the way store managers want you to. You will be buying the products they have worked long and hard to make most attractive and convenient for you – and most profitable for them, “ Nestle writes.  You’ve likely never heard of the term “slotting fees” before, but it represents one of the biggest injustices within the entire American food system. Nestle explains, “food companies pay supermarkets “slotting fees” for the shelf space they occupy. The rates are highest for premium, high-traffic space, such as the shelves near cash registers.” This isn’t necessarily a bad thing if it’s healthy products that the supermarket is promoting, but they almost always are not. Large food companies, also known as Big Food, are some of the biggest perpetrators of disease in our country. And more often than not, they are the ones that pay the slotting fees.  Nestle continues, “the stores create demand by putting some products where you cannot miss them. These are often “junk” foods full of cheap, shelf-stable ingredients like hydrogenated oils and corn sweeteners, made and promoted by giant food companies that can afford slotting fees. This is why entire aisles of prime supermarket real estate are devoted to soft drinks, salty snacks, and sweetened breakfast cereals, and why you can always find candy next to cash registers.” This is just a small window into the manipulative psychological practices at play, which the government is well aware of. Nestle explains that “the system is so corrupt and so secret that Congress held hearing about it in 1999. The industry people who testified at those hearings were so afraid of retribution that they wore hoods and used gadgets to prevent voice recognition.” Nonetheless, nearly a quarter-century later slotting fees still exist. So next time you see a grocery store go out of their way to promote a product, it’s probably for a reason. Someone paid for it. Stick to your shopping list. As much as possible, avoid impulse buys.

DECODING FOOD LABELS

However, if you find yourself unable to resist the temptation of impulse buying, all is not lost. To win at the grocery store and protect your health, you need to understand how to read food labels. This stems back to the food companies themselves, who mask their unhealthy foods with deceptive labels that sound healthy.  As Nestle writes, “politics make food labels exceptionally complicated and they often appear in very small print.” The shame of living in the United States is that the government allows many ingredients and additives in our food that are banned in Europe. When we mindlessly purchase food, and the ingredients aren’t obvious, nor do we even know what they are, it puts our health at risk. But at the very least, we do have the labels that show the ingredients in whatever product you are considering buying. Which goes to say, to decode food labels means you need to be intentional about looking at the back of the package of every product you buy. Although this requires effort at first, over time you will start to form a collection of trusted brands that you regularly buy from. Intuitively, you will start to know which ingredients are toxic, and which ones are safe and nutrient-rich. This takes practice, but practice makes perfect. While we have a full blog on this subject, here’s a few of the biggies.

All Natural vs. Organic

The “Natural” or “All-Natural” label is particularly deceptive on meat products. Food companies want you to think that the chicken lived as it was naturally intended and we are eating it in its “natural” state.  They want to confuse you so that you think of the terms “organic” and “natural” as interchangeable. But in reality, “all-natural” means nothing. It’s just marketing speak, designed to deceive you. Don’t buy products that have the “All-Natural” label. When possible, always buy products with USDA or Certified Organic labels.  Specifically with poultry and/or beef, this ensures that the animal is raised without hormones or antibiotics. However, not all companies can afford the certification for the USDA Organic label, so in the worst-case scenario opt for products that simply have the organic label. When it comes to packaged food, the same principle applies. Unless it says on the package that the ingredients are organic, don’t buy it. It’s likely the food has lower-quality ingredients and/or ingredients that are infused with harmful pesticides. If you were to take nothing else out of this blog, this is a relatively simple point that will take you a long way: always buy organic when possible. Do this for meats, vegetables, packaged foods – everything.

Sugar-Free

It’s no secret that the United States is the biggest consumer of sugar around the globe. So while it’s true that we eat way too much sugar, and that takes a significant toll on our health, sugar-free products are not necessarily the solution. Many brands are starting to advertise this, and it’s deceiving because the sugar replacements they use – like sucralose – can lead to health problems as well. It’s swapping one evil for another. If you’re going to have sugar, just go for the highest quality. This means ingredients like organic cane sugar and organic coconut sugar, or alternative natural sweeteners like organic honey, organic dates or organic maple syrup.  We still shouldn’t consume sugar in excess, but these are much safer options than the sugar found in ultra-processed foods.

Can't Pronounce It?

When in doubt, if you can’t pronounce an ingredient, it’s probably not good for you. Like propylparaben. Some food products also include mysterious abbreviations like “BHA”, short for butylated hydroxyanisole.  Both additives are toxic for you and stand in sharp contrast to the simple-sounding, normal ingredients like “organic apples” or “organic oats” on the back of a package.  There are ingredients that also sound like they came directly from a lab, like food dyes. M&M’s are full of these ingredients, such as Blue 1, Red 40 and Yellow 6, which you should never eat.

SEARCHING FOR TREASURE

Lastly, it’s important to simply just know your way around the grocery store. If you’re not at a supermarket like PCC Community Markets or Whole Foods, then the likelihood is that the healthy food is buried. That’s just how it is in the United States. Most products you encounter will not be organic. Most aisles will have ultra-processed food Even the fruits and vegetables might not be high quality, as they are cloaked with harmful pesticides. Navigating the supermarket then becomes like searching for treasure. However, once we identify the health sections of the store, it becomes easier upon repeat visits. Typically, along the perimeter you’ll find produce, seafood & meat, eggs, dairy and brand, whereas the middle contains more of the ultra-processed stuff.  Within the sea of vegetables and fruits, most places at least are starting to have a small organic section. Start picking from them. It’s a similar deal with seafood, meat and chicken. Most options are “All-Natural”, but usually they have a few options for organic and/or grass-fed meat. When it comes to the middle aisles, it will really be like searching for treasure. If you’re lucky, a supermarket might have a “healthy” aisle with all organic packaged foods. If they don’t, then you’ll have to sift through the different aisles and see if they happen to have organic options in amongst the sea of unhealth, depending on what you are looking for. Live near and/or shop at Whole Foods or a PCC equivalent? All the better! The skies will part, the sun will come out and health options will be much more prevalent around you.

PUTTING IT INTO ACTION

“That the supermarket, restaurant, and fast-food industries are not doing everything they can to promote short and long-term health is a sign that these industries are in deep, deep trouble,” Nestle writes. As we’ve covered extensively elsewhere, the food industry is corrupt. Profit and greed are their number one priority, not health. This has given way to a full-blown health crisis in the United States. Chronic diseases are skyrocketing, and obesity is four times the rate it was 60 years ago. It’s a mess that sadly extends beyond the food companies and into our supermarkets as well. They are co-conspirators, especially with slotting fees and manipulation tactics. “Supermarkets could do more to help you make better dietary choices if they made it convenient for you to make those choices..put healthier foods where it is easier to get to them, advertise them, price them attractively and give healthier foods the same kind of marketing attention that gets paid to junk foods,” Nestle writes. As Nestle points out, more supermarkets could do what Whole Foods has done, which is ban a list of ingredients from ever making it onto their shelves. But they don’t, and we have to live in that reality. “Supermarkets could demand that food producers grow fruits, vegetables, crops, animals and farmed fish in ways that protect the health of the environment as well as of people,” Nestle remarks. Which goes to say, if a Whole Foods (or local equivalent) IS near you we would recommend shopping there. Most major cities now have a Whole Foods. For instance, there are 17 in New York City, 8 in San Francisco, 5 in DC, 8 in Boston and 39 in Southern California.  Another 7 are in Chicago, 5 in Miami and 11 in the Greater Denver area. Not to mention 16 PCC Community Markets and 9 Whole Foods in Seattle. So for many city-dwellers, there is likely that option. You might have some hesitation because Whole Foods has gained a reputation for taking your “whole paycheck”, but as we mentioned from the top, that’s generally what real food actually costs. Unlike PCC, all of Whole Foods is not healthy so you still have to navigate the store. They offer “natural” meats and conventional vegetables, so you still have to choose organic. While some of their packaged food has all good, organic ingredients, others do not. But the ratio of healthy to unhealthy is significantly higher than the average American supermarket. Nonetheless, the four strategies we’ve discussed today will empower you in any grocery store. For more on nutrition, visit our Nutrition Hub here.

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