Are supermarkets ruining society or are they a convenient and efficient way of providing food for everyone?
Are supermarkets any good for health?
Let's first establish what benefits a healthy shopping trip could involve.
- Buying foods that are as fresh as possible.
- Buying foods containing plenty of vitamins and minerals.
- Buying foods without additives.
- Buying natural unprocessed foods.
- Walking to the shops and getting some exercise.
- Chatting to shopkeepers. Getting some social interaction and learning about the foods you're buying.
Unfortunately, due to the business model of modern day supermarkets, you will be lucky to get any of the above benefits.
Supermarket produce is mostly packaged. Take a walk through your local one and count how many aisles are devoted to non-packaged goods. There is normally just the fruit and vegetable section at the entrance to the store, and then some less than convincing imitations of normal "high street" shops, such as in-store bakeries, fishmongers, butchers and delicatessens. Now most packaged food is by definition not fresh as it is produced in a factory many days, weeks or months before sale. Vitamins and minerals are often removed by processing, or missing in the ingredients. Sometimes they are added back in as fortification, which is an improvement, but it seems stupid to first remove the naturally occuring vitamins and minerals and then add some of them back later.
You'll be very lucky to find these in supermarkets. Supermarkets ship their foods in from monstrous sized depots all around the country. This allows them to import goods from all round the world, store it cheaply in a few places and then transport it to stores round the country at a later date. Due to the number of miles the food has travelled, often in container ships, the food is normally weeks or even months old by the time it reaches the supermarket shelves. These methods keep the prices down, but the downside is a heap of additives and treatments designed to keep the food as fresh looking as possible. Unfortunately the food normally loses its taste. The answer to this, that the supermarkets use, is to swamp their foods in sugar and salt in order to disguise its lack of flavour. In the case of fruit and vegetables this isn't possible, and as anyone who has tasted fresh produce from an allotment will know, supermarket food is in a league of tastelessness all of its own.
Another aspect of food that is missing in supermarkets is seasonality. While some may prefer to have access to the same foods year round, it seems to me to be preferable to enjoy different foods as they come into season. For one they'll be fresher, secondly you immediately get a variety and finally you will be able to enjoy them without entailing all those millions of food miles that the Kenyan green beans and South African apples clock up.
The car is king.
Supermarkets encourage people to take their cars, do a weekly shop and drag all their bags back home in one big weekly chore. By doing this they miss out on walking to the shops regularly and getting exercise 3-4 times per week say. The cars that get used clog our roads and the spaces they park in are taken out of local use. Recreation grounds, school playing fields and leisure centres are all alternatives that could have used those large spaces round the country devoted to car parks. Factor in the pollution of both the cars and the huge lorries that supply these supermarkets and you get a sense of the environmental damage entailed by living with a large supermarket.
Service is lacking.
The quality of interation with shopkeepers who own their own shops, is another thing missing from the supermarket sweep. I find my greengrocer and butcher quite prepared to let me know what the best foods they have in are, to get me choice items from out the back and chat about their business and life in general. This interaction is in my view intrinsically more satisfying and life affirming than the trudge round the supermarket. Unfortunately for the workers at the local supermarkets, head office insists on certain standards that don't allow the same sort of inteaction between staff and customers.
Do supermarkets provide choice?
Packaged foods using the same ingredients.
There may appear to be a large choice in supermarkets, but it doesn't really bear up to close scrutiny. most packaged meals look different, but their ingredients come from the same factories and consist of exactly the same constituents. For instance a ready meal of cod and parsley pie may contain the same white sauce that is used in another supermarkets moussaka topping, a tomato goo topping a pizza could be the same as that in a tomato and basil pasta meal.
Fresh foods only use a limited range.
Did you know that there are about 2000 traditional British apple varieties? How many of these have you seen in the supermarket? You'd be lucky to see more than 4 or 5. The supermarkets can't afford to deal with small suppliers as the unit costs are large when a small amount of goods are transported to their major depots? This then limits them to a small range produced by major contract suppliers in various countries around the globe. The orchard 100 feet from the supermarket is the last likely candidate to supply it. Its produce will go to the local vegetable markets and greengrocers.
But I haven't got enough time to change where I shop!
There are a host of excuses one can use, but ultimately what we do in life boils down to the choices we make. Some of these choices are of course very hard, and it is a personal choice how far we are prepared to go to keep local shops and traders going. I will be writing another article soon that will look at the alternatives to supemarkets and how easy they are to use.
Shopped - Joanna Blythman - ISBN 0-00-715804-1