Less Money on Groceries, but Greater Share of It on Processed Food

June 19, 2012 in Foodland Chronicles, Nutrition by Joyce Bunderson

Once in a while I stumble upon some really clear graphics that clarify thoughts about otherwise hard to observe trends. Finding a study based upon the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the graphics published by National Public Radio (NPR) on June 8, 2012 was one of those times. Of course the title got my attention quickly: Americans Spending Less Money on Groceries, but Greater Share of It on Processed Food.

One of the things that I like about the NPR graphics is that they’ve calculated the 1982 dollars into 2012 dollars. As you know, sometimes we’re given comparative statistics using dollars that are uncorrected for inflation which are really difficult for us to know what the numbers mean in today’s dollars - it certainly helps us to see what’s going on when the numbers are corrected.

First, NPR starts with a simple graph showing that Americans now spend a smaller percentage of their total budget on groceries; the percentage has dropped by about 4 percentage points. That’s certainly helpful in the light of the present fairly long recession – that is, getting a little more for your food dollar. Many people from around the world would like to eat as economically as we do; what a blessing our bounteous foods are to us. This seems like very good news; but let’s look closely at what we see. Some is good news and maybe some news is questionable.

The next NPR graph displays six different categories of foods. This graph just jumps out in front of your face. In 1982 the rank order was meats (31.3%); Fruits & Vegetables (14.5%); Grains & Baked Goods (13.2%); Dairy Products (13.2%); Processed Foods & Sweets (11.6%); Beverages (11.0%). It shows that the processed foods category has jumped all the way from 5th place in 1982 to first place today. The meat and vegetables categories have dropped, but the processed foods category makes a big flash of gold streak to the top of the graphic.


NPR cited a Stanford economist, Walter Falcon, who explained the lower prices of many foods, especially meat, saying; “We’ve seen major restructuring in poultry, pork and beef industries that has allowed efficiencies and brought down the cost.” Look at the graph. I’m not convinced that the lower prices of meat are necessarily a positive. My worry is about the ‘efficiencies’ that Mr. Falcon speaks; maybe they are not necessarily healthy. Remember when chickens were raised in barns and had space to run around a bit. You may not have been lucky enough to visit a farm in the early 1950s; yes, I know that many of you were not even alive in the 50s. I remember visiting my Kansas, great uncle and aunt’s farm. There were hundreds of chickens in a large building – the chickens could run around. My sister and I could chase them and pick them up. The point is, that I’m not feeling fully comfortable with the pictures of ‘crammed in’ chickens in coups, in which the chickens can barely move. Even if some of the facts are not 100% correct, in Food Inc. and the plethora of documentaries, books and blogs, spawned by the very real problem of large food near-monopolies. Certainly many of us have seen with our very own eyes, the changes that have developed over the decades. Maybe some of the changes are not necessary; nor are they without environmental, food safety and nutritional impact.

That very same great uncle, and a couple of other great uncles had farms. They all had cattle and pigs. These animals moved around in pastures. They were not raised in confined feedlots knee deep in ‘muck.’ They ate hay and greens growing in the pastures. They were not forced to eat government-subsidized corn the way most feedlot animals are now.  The point is, that I’m not convinced that cost-cutting efficiency is always kept in balance with other important values. I don’t eat lots of meat, but I’d just as soon have the animal grazing in a field than crammed in an inhuman cattle pen and shot full of antibiotics to ward off the sicknesses such conditions breed.

In addition to the issue of how the cattle are raised, I also have serious concerns about this comparatively inexpensive beef, pork and chicken. I believe that the fact that meat products are comparatively inexpensive is part of what’s driving the high consumption of animal products. The fact is, this lower cost is propped up in part by government subsides to the crops fed to the animals, and to the animal ranchers in a variety of ways. It also likely leads to some of the escalation in heart disease, diabetes, cancer and so on; which of course is why I write frequently about the Mediterranean lifestyle, which emphasizes plant-based foods and very small amounts of meat.

The last chart in the NPR piece gives the percentage drop in price for various commodities in the 30 years from 1982 to 2012. Note that flour and bread have gone up. First, flour has only gone up 0.2%; in my mind that is essentially stable over the 30 years they considered. Bread took a jump of 12.2%; I wonder if this includes an average of all varieties of bread purchased. The point that I want to make is that the amount of artisan breads; fancy whole and multi- grain breads seems to have increased markedly over those years. That would certainly affect the average price of bread. The average loaf for 2012 is $1.43. Frankly, I think it’s not easy to find a nice loaf of bread for $1.43. I wonder if we were just comparing the main bread consumption in 1982 with today’s big bread purchases, if bread would be fairly stable too.

A couple of other outliers are grapefruit and peppers. Peppers took a big jump. This is only a guess. My guess is that the demand has out paced the production of peppers. The number of recipes for roasted, marinated and sautéed peppers, and as stir-fry essentials, has dramatically risen over the past few decades. I’m certainly not against this; I’ve actually contributed to this – we use lots of bell peppers, of all colors. They may not be as inexpensive as they used to be; but they are certainly a nutritional bargain. The red, yellow and golden ones are even more expensive, because they stay on the plant longer and are more fragile to ship. I also believe that the colorful/non green peppers have risen dramatically in use over the past few decades. Note: I recently filled a huge bag with great big green bells for 25 cents each – what a bargain! Dr. Grandpa, Vic was in ‘stuffed – pepper heaven.’

So all in all, the food prices have gone down in 2012 dollars.

The USDA and some researchers continue to debate the cost of a nutrient rich diet. Much of the problem is mixed with the rapid rise of processed food consumption. Cheap, government subsidized ingredients, associated with higher risk of chronic disease certainly may not be ‘cheaper’ in the long run. Dr Grandpa has written on this bigger picture.  It is not just the cost at the checkout counter; it is the cost of taxes for the government subsidies, the cost of government and private health care insurance, and the cost of drugs. Unquestionably the cost of health care is not cheap. Let’s keep our focus on the lasting effects of too many extra calories, cheap though they may be, and as irresistibly packaged and temptingly offered in ‘more for your money’ larger size servings.

Good News!

I admit it, I haven’t eaten at Taco Bell for about 10 years; I had no plans of trying it again, especially after their 2011‘fake beef’ fiasco. But it seems to me that some of the fast food chain establishments are getting the message of fewer cheap additives and more real food from the public. I think the message is: “We want real food – we don’t want mystery meat, and we do want more plant-based foods in menu offerings. And if we could be so bold as to request, we’d like something that tastes nicely seasoned. We’ve had it with ever more fat (whether crispy or creamy), sugar (whether out-front or disguised), and salt, extra salt to whack our taste buds and make the lack of the subtle goodness of real food tastes less noticeable.

I recently found some articles about Taco Bell’s new Cantina Bell menu. Some of the pictures and descriptions of the food knocked my socks off. Let’s face it, when did you last read the word ‘herbs’ in a Taco Bell menu item? To top it off, they’re introducing their new menu with a “like it or your money back” deal. I’m so shocked, now I am in a stupor. Can it be the same Taco Bell? Herb and citrus-marinated white meat chicken and fire-roasted corn salsa, designed by a Venezuelan top chef. Just to see if it were some sort of hoax, I called the local Taco Bell. They assured me that the new menu was coming to our town’s Taco Bell in a few weeks. Before I leave Taco Bell subject, I want to mention that black beans, we’re talking whole black beans (not fat soaked refried mush) cooked with onion, garlic, cumin, and chili powder. Rice (I wish it were whole brown rice, but maybe another day) seasoned with cilantro, onion, garlic and parsley. Hey, it sounds like real food. We’ll have to discover on another day if it turns out to truly be ‘real food.’ But it seems as though someone is really trying to make improvements. I’ve got to congratulate this huge company, for making this nice effort. Be careful, Taco Bell is not banning cheese; 300 calorie tortillas; sour cream, and so on.

After the nice chicken breast salad at Taco Bell, you may decide that a cool summer treat of frozen yogurt is what would make the day perfect. There are premium frozen yogurt shops popping up across the nation. If you read this blog frequently, you know that I think non fat Greek yogurt is an absolutely wonderful (nutritious, low-calorie, high protein) food – it solves so many culinary challenges for me, replacing sour cream, whipped cream, some cheese, and on and on – I use it in many ways. So you’re headed to the new frozen yogurt shop to get your low calorie snack; and I’m right behind you. If you plan a little before walking into the shop, you may be a little happier the next time you hop on the scale. The yogurt (hopefully, nonfat or low fat); sometimes not even sweetened with sugar but with zero-calorie natural sweeteners, can be a significant calorie savings over ice cream. But – (beware this big ‘but’; pun intended) – be careful when you walk by the toppings. Some of these shops have more than 50 options for toppings. Those options can really pile on the calories, not to mention the added price. I would still like to say that I’m grateful for the yogurt shops. It seems to me that they are listening to the consumer outcry for more healthful foods, including fast foods.

The good news is that this may be a glimmer of hope for a new beginning. Many of the fast food and chain restaurants are listening to consumers. The NPR graphics show us that the public embraces processed foods. Processing per se is not evil.  It can make foods available more places, with longer shelf lives, and taste appeal.  The question is: What is processed out and what additives are put in their place and: Does the cost savings go to fatten profits for the processors, or to more convenience and quality for the users. So maybe our hope is in changing the food processors, in the same manner that several fast food chains are beginning to change. When the demand drops off for junk foods and overly processed nutrient-poor substitutions for real food, then the food processors may awaken to the idea of making foods that are closer to nature – possibly even more plant-based foods.