Near the end of Michael Pollan's really excellent book, "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto," he provides a list of suggestions for eating well. Among them is the plea to, "shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle." Pollan is of course referencing the tendency of supermarkets to place the bulk of the processed foods in the center of the store.
Unfortunately, few seem to be listening. NPR recently ran a series comparing consumer trends between 1982 and 2012. In terms of where we spend our grocery money, the study breaks out food products into the following categories:
1. meats, 2. fruits and vegetables, 3. grains and baked goods, 4. dairy products, 5. processed foods and sweets, 6. beverages, 7. other foods.
Take a guess where we spend the bulk of our money in 2012? Yep, on processed foods and sweets. In fact, we spend 22.9% of our grocery budget on junk foods. In comparison, in 1983 we were spending only 11.6% of our food budget on junk foods.
In 1982 we actually spent the largest share of our food budget on meats. Today meats have dropped to number two. This does not mean we have reduced the amount of meat we consume. That figure continues to climb. What has happened between 1982 and 2012 is that the cost of meat has plummeted. In fact, the three food items to have dropped the most in price over this period are pork, chicken, and butter.
Overall we eat more, but we spend less money eating. In 1982 just over 12% of our total spending was spend on food. Today, we spend just under 9% of our budget on food. Thanks to an ample supply of highly subsidized and incredibly cheap industrial food products, we have managed to find a way to eat cheaper.
An economic breakthrough? I think not. Health care spending to combat obesity, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and cancer have all skyrocketed over that same time period and guess what...they are highly correlated! What we save in food costs we spend in health care costs many times over. It isn't an economic breakthrough, its an economic disaster!
So, why not do just what Pollan suggested. Kick the habit. If you need to shop at the supermarket, shop the periphery. My favorite grocery shopping mantra is, "if it needs a label, you don't need it."
Vincent M. Smith - PhD