Grocery stores aren’t just for your eggs and bread anymore.
The sheer number of food items has grown tremendously in the past two decades, said Michael Ruhlman, author of the new book “Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America” (published by Abrams Press). Ruhlman, who has been writing about food and cooking for 20 years, decided to dive into the world of supermarkets, especially after his father — who loved grocery shopping — passed in 2008. He spent a lot of time at Heinen’s, a supermarket chain store in Cleveland, where he grew up, talking to employees and even bagging groceries.
Ruhlman took note of the many changes grocery stores have made to stay current, such as adding more packaged foods, and writes about how people shop these stores without giving much thought to it. There are 38,000 supermarkets in the U.S., and they bring in $650 billion a year, according to the Food Marketing Institute and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Companies of all backgrounds are trying to tap into the pure necessity of grocery shopping, too — Costco recently expanded into grocery deliveries in Florida and Amazon has Amazon Fresh.
Shoppers can learn a lot by walking down the aisles of their supermarkets — not only to see the wide variety of new products available, but the conditions of the store. “Just look at the quality of produce. That shows how much the store cares about the rest of the stuff there,” he says. And keep in mind that a perfectly round apple doesn’t mean it’s the best apple: Some stores are trying to re-brand “ugly” fruits and vegetables since Americans throw out $165 billion worth of food every year.)
Ruhlman spoke with MarketWatch about how grocery stores have changed:
MarketWatch: What was the greatest takeaway for you from writing this book?
Michael Ruhlman: We’ve never had more food or greater diversity — we’ve never had more harmful food, and never had everything in such abundance. There used to be, as late as the 1990s, 7,000 items in a grocery store, and now it’s 40,000 to 50,000.
MarketWatch: You say grocery stores have changed, but what about shoppers?
Ruhlman: A decade ago you couldn’t find gluten-free anything, and you couldn’t find anyone who would know what gluten was, let alone try to avoid it. I don’t know if people know what it is today, but they don’t want it.
Our tastes and desires are changing all of the time, and they are changing for the better. We are buying more produce and better meats and fishes. We are making better choices and reading labels, and things like that. But maybe reading nutritional labels and ingredients, we should remember they were put there to warn us what’s bad for us — they’re kind of the anti-nutritional labels.
MarketWatch: So how can shoppers be smarter consumers?
Ruhlman: They can choose whole foods. And if they can afford organic, they should buy it.
(Editor’s note: Some experts say organic food is more about marketing than good health, though 55% of Americans said they believed organic food was more nutritional. Studies have shown no scientific proof organic food is healthier, though they do come with fewer pesticides).
MarketWatch: I always see new products when I go food shopping — like sauces and marinades for the slow cooker, where you just add the meat, or single-serve options. It’s all about convenience. Do you think too much variety could be a bad thing?
Ruhlman: I do think it can be because it sends the wrong message. It says, “We’ll cook the food for you, we’ll make life easier for you and save you all of this time by making the sauces for you.” But I don’t think it saves us that much time and it certainly prevents us from reaping the advantages of cooking at home.
MarketWatch: What are the advantages of cooking at home?
Ruhlman: When we cook our own food and share with family and friends, our bodies are healthier, our friends are healthier, our community is healthier and our environment is healthier. It has been argued persuasively that cooking is what made us human in the first place — calories that grew our brains, made us healthy, spread genes, changed temperaments, forced communication, and all because we sat down and ate food. We gave up cooking in the 1950s and our health also began to slide into its current state of obesity and allergies and all kinds of bad stuff.