Going grocery shopping in the US has given me a new perspective on the perverse effects of a TRUE free market system that I never fully experienced in Europe.
I have been absolutely shocked by the quality of food. Here the logic applies of “you get what you pay, if you pay less, you get crap”.
While this seems the most logic assumption, it has never been like this for me in Belgium. Taking a trip to the supermarket as a broke student has always led me to come home with the cheapest products possible. They never tasted very different from the brands, which are on average 30% more expensive.
The reason you would pay less for what we would call the ‘house-brand’, is because there has not been an entire marketing machine behind the construction of the brand and the advertisement to sell it. Maybe they also did more research to develop a ‘perfect composition’, but on average, I didn’t really taste a difference. In Belgium I pay less for house brand cream cheese, house-brand Nutella, crisps, bread or tomato sauce, but in my humble opinion they taste the same, and some taste even better than fancy Lays, real Nutella, or Philadelphia cheese. With many superimposed health regulations, the cheaper brands aren’t allowed to use GMO’s, high fructose corn syrup, or stuff their food with cheap chemicals and shitty preservatives.
Not in the US.
While there are FDA governmental-regulations on health to not directly let your food cause cancer, I’ve learnt how government interference is frowned upon in the free market society of the US, and the general consensus is that the customer will decide what is best for him.
After my first trip to the supermarket, I was disgusted to find out that my regular way of shopping landed me with terrible overprocessed foods. I couldn’t believe my bread tasted of pure chemicals and yoga-mats, while my roommates and American friends could only roll their eyes and say ‘DUH’, what did you expect!
The cheap canned tomatoes were almost only peel and white core and no tomato, the cheap bag of frozen fish tasted like dirt, the slices of sandwich meat were impossible to identify what animal it came from and looked exactly the same after lying in the back of the fridge after 2 weeks …
And then there is also the problem of fruit and vegetables. There’s an entire isle for cereal, in all shapes, colours and chemical additives.
But there are only 4 packs of cherry tomato in the entire supermarket? And they’ve all gone bad? There’s no asparagus, sprouts, leek and other winter vegetables but there’s dried fruit glazed with candy? and 15 brands of processed garlic?
Contrasted to that is the “all-natural” organic, bio, vegan, glutenfree food movement, which sometimes feels like a cult where you don’t belong if you don’t try hard enough to be as healthy as possible. The cult comes with a price, and those who simply can’t afford weekly trips to Wholefoods (for the love of God how expensive can you make crackers???) look down on those who can afford, causing polarization of ‘hipsters’ vs … the poor? The more processed and chemical the food gets, the cheaper it is, which creates for the infamous divide of poor unhealthy people and rich healthy people.
My allowance as an intern living in New York is very limited (and if I have to waiter for tips at one more Bar Mitzva…) so I don’t want to needlessly spend money on organic fancy food. But I also don’t want to get sick from what I eat. I can tell the High Fructose Cornsyrup from my pop tart breakfast is starting to clog up my arteries already, and my body is CRAVING some vitamines.
I just need cheap healthy food, but apparently in America that is a Contradictio in Terminis. Which is really making me grateful for the situation I know in Europe…
In any case, I have a new incentive to explore my dodgy Brooklyn neighborhood a bit more to discover some stowaway bodega or local markets that sell some good fruit and veg. Else I’ll have to do the half hour detour to Trader Joe’s on my way home, which isn’t the worst priced, and maybe cough up some more cash for quality. Time to decide for myself what is best for me, instead of hoping that a higher authority with more expertise is looking out for me… in the Free Market zone, it’s each man and woman for themselves.