Tonight’s Match: Super Versus Pseudo

An everyday visit to the grocery store becomes a study in contrasts, from organic, air-chilled chicken, to chocolate-chip-cookie spread.


My cart is filling nicely.  Grapefruit and cauliflower; carrots and green beans; mushrooms and brussels sprouts.  Fresh salmon (albeit a little tired from having to crawl so far inland) and air-chilled chicken.  I wonder idly what other ways there might be to chill chicken, and what difference it makes anyway.

But there is no time for idle wondering.  Down another aisle I go, looking for chicken broth to help turn my Thanksgiving ham bone remnants into pea soup.  So many choices.  I don’t usually pay extra for ‘organic’ anything, and it seems silly to buy ‘low salt’ when that means paying for them to take out something that I’ll just have to put back in.  But look, here’s one made from free-range chickens that committed suicide in the wild.  I’ll get that: it will annoy the Big Guy, who’s a free-ranging curmudgeon himself, just a little skeptical about marketing claims.    

Time or not, though, the idle-wondering engine will not go into idle.  As I add the boxes to the bottom shelf of my two-tier cart, I wonder idly whether the free-range chickens that gave their all for this broth were happy before being . . . what?  Ground up?  Ee-yew!  No, no, boiled is more like it.  Even so, yikes.  Definitely time to move on.

Next stop, the ‘natural foods’ section.  I’m looking for a different brand of almond butter.  This store’s store brand isn’t as nice as the organic version which is my other grocery store’s only offering in this category (which is, in turn, my excuse for even having tried it), but it’s more reliably in stock.  I pick up a jar that’s the right shape and size for almond butter and check the label.  It’s an excited label, but it seems to be blaring conflicting claims.  Here it says, Tastes just like peanut butter! but just over an inch or so it says, Peanut free!  What, then, I wonder idly, is in it, to make it taste like peanut butter, if not, you know, peanuts?

But I know the answer already, at least in general terms.  The specifics this time are ‘toasted soy nuts’ followed by a long list of ingredients that I would have said had little place in a ‘natural foods’ section.  I decide I’ll pass on toasted soy nut butter—I wonder idly whether they were free-range soy nuts, but the label is silent on this matter—and continue my quest.

As I pick up my lactose-free milk, I pass a display of small plastic jars of . . . something dark.  Could this be almond butter?  No, this is ‘chocolate chip cookie spread’ and I decide to pass on reading the label.  I’m pretty sure the first ingredient isn’t ‘chocolate chip cookies,’ although it’s not impossible that it’s ‘toasted soy nuts.’  

My selections completed, I move on to the  less than user-friendly self-serve checkout—Put the item in the bag!—and reflect idly on the range (none of it free) in this one grocery store: the study in contrasts, not to say conflicts, that it represents.

Organic fruits and veggies, and free-range chicken, chicken broth, and eggs, hold down not just the health-conscious but, maybe, the health-preoccupied end of the spectrum.  These foods are supported by marketing that slyly invites me to imagine their benefits, without actually stating them, thereby avoiding the lie direct.

Organic cauliflower!  That must be tastier or at least healthier, right?

Air-chilled chicken!  That must be better somehow, right?

Free-range chickens!  They must have been chicken-foot-loose and fancy free, right? Or not.

But at the health-unconscious end of the spectrum, the chocolate-chip-cookie spread and the ‘I Was Pretty Damned Sure It Wasn’t Peanut Butter’ soy nut offering, are both proof that anything with enough fat and sugar tastes, you know, good.  These tasty treats are supported by marketing that slyly invites me to imagine them as food, without actually saying so, thereby avoiding a different lie direct.

As I head out the store, I reflect sort of sadly that even a trip to the grocery store is a gauntlet of constant pressure, whether from supposed super-foods or pseudo-foods.  On the bright side, though, it seems that even marketeers don’t like to lie.  Not, at least, directly.

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8 Comments

  1. Devastated by the recession in the early ’80s, living on faith day by day with an empty refrigerator and pantry, we moved to a farm property where the obvious thing to do to survive was to plant a vegetable garden. Ignorantly, I made it unnecessarily huge. A friend sent me a book on raising chickens, so that became the next obvious thing to do: we got 10 layers and 30 meat chicks. The morning after we arrived a neighbour came to the door asking to pasture his cattle on our land in exchange for a whole beef in the fall. The new friends across the road who came to help us with chicks dying in the middle of the night that spring also taught us how to slaughter, pluck, draw, and dress the meat chickens in the “chill air” of November. I had never in my life eaten peas fresh from the garden, made sauce for spaghetti from tomatoes, onions, and peppers I had planted, or had a year’s food on hand in freezer and on pantry shelves. I learned that much of the deception and outright lying one sees in food advertising harks back to a time when most people knew that fresh, free-range, “organic,” newly-laid, grain-fed, antibiotic-free, and no pesticides tastes marvellously different (and is no doubt nutritionally different) from the produce and products in grocery stores. Such riches for the impoverished–a delicious irony!

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Laurna – What a delightful reminiscence, not just for the food but also for the community! These days, with our extended supply chains, by the time ‘organic’ produce makes its way to our neighbourhood store, I wonder whether the difference between it and factory-farmed produce is even noticeable. But I sure don’t doubt that food straight from the garden or farm tastes better – the challenge is to take the time to chase it down. So quick and easy to pop over to the local grocery chain outlet.

    2. Vince

      What an outstanding comment/reply!
      Thank you both.
      Now to decide whether I want to reflect on the origins of that delicious pork tenderloin from last night…

      1. Isabel Gibson

        Vince – I’d say that there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle, but I know too well how easy it is to let this sort of thing slide. I believe it was St. Paul who said, The good that I would eat, I do not; the tasty that I would not eat, I do. Well, perhaps I paraphrase, but “knowing” is not the same as “doing”, that’s for sure.

  2. Alison

    We started gardening as a couple as soon as we got married. I think that’s what happens when you marry a boy from the farm. We learned as we went along, and when we had growing kids it made sense economically to produce our own vegetables. We also became the provider for extended family. Somehow though, I think I thought it would be something we’d “grow out of” as we became empty-nesters, and cost of groceries was no longer a big factor. However, we NOW garden because we DO want to have control of where our veggies come from, and what they are exposed to. We now are planning how we can continue to garden as we age – containers, raised beds.. etc.
    As far as label reading, Mark was home last weekend, and was telling me that he makes his kids choose cereal by reading the labels, and they can choose one as long as “sugar” is not the second ingredient. Apparently I made the same restriction on MY kids as they grew up – and amazingly, that stuck with him as important.

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Alison – Dad gardened until into his 80s, planting little rows of carrots and beans and such just outside the fence along a City right-of-way. The City wasn’t a problem, but the rabbits were! I haven’t vegetable gardened since about 1980 – not sure where I’d do it in this place, but I can see the attraction, at least on a small scale. As for things sticking with kids, it’s good to know that some does. But why should we be surprised? Some of our folks’ rules for living stuck with us.

  3. Jim Taylor

    Soon after we moved here from Toronto, we had a dinner in which the corn, peas, and potatoes all came from our own garden, and the pork chops came from a friend’s farm about five miles away (ahem, 8 km). The friend sold the farm not long after, so we now find that only half of any meal is local and organic. Still, local is less tainted by fossil fuel transport than tomatoes from Mexico. I don’t think soy grows in the Canadian climate, does it?

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Jim – The whole argument over “local versus not” is multi-dimensional. For GHG, in addition to transportation distances, there’s transportation efficiency and cultivating efficiency to consider as well. But for sure it seems like a good idea to maintain links with producers for the freshness aspect and (sometimes, at least) less risk of nasty bits in the food. As for soy beans, I’ve seen fields of what I was told were soy beans just north of Winnipeg – which is about as Canadian climate as anyone could want! I still think I’ll pass on ersatz peanut butter. Near or far, some things are Just Wrong.

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