Shopping the Perimeter

January 29, 2013 in Foodland, Foodland Chronicles, General, Health, Shelf Life by Joyce Bunderson

I was drawn to an article called Shopping the Perimeter by A. Elizabeth Sloan, published January 2013 Vol. 67, No. 1; in IFT (Institute of Food Technologists) Food Technology.  Dr. Elizabeth Sloan is the president of a consumer trends company in southern California; they follow trends in foods, beverages, dietary supplements, food service, commodities and ingredient industries. If you want to see some of the gigantic companies that Sloan’s company does research and marketing for, they are listed on their ‘about us’ page. O.K., they’re big and powerful.

Why was I drawn to read this article? Frankly, it’s pretty simple. There’s a common myth that you should get your groceries from the perimeter of the market, if you want to eat healthily. I’ve always considered that nonsense. Where do you find the spices? Right smack in the middle of the market. Spices and herbs are what make vegetables taste wonderful. When you make homemade marinara, can you imagine not having the herbs? Of course not! Where do you find brown rice? Same thing – in the middle. How about canned tomatoes, tomato sauce, whole grain pasta, yeast, and whole grain flour? Yes, there are many healthy food items hiding in the middle of the store. So I’ve always felt that the location in the market was not the main criteria for me to buy an item or not.

Now, having shared my argument against her title, I’ll share why I chose to write about the consumer trends. She says; “there is no doubt that the future of food is in fresh.” And she says that the consumers whose choices create the trends are drawn to the perishables like produce, seafood, dairy, and refrigerated meals. I don’t know what is included in ‘refrigerated meals,’ so I don’t know if I agree with her about ‘refrigerated meals’ being fresh. Some frozen meals are quite nutritionally challenged. But indeed, many frozen foods seem to be in the ‘fresh’ category. To that end, I celebrate consumers using more fresh foods.

There are some things about the trends that make me very happy. One trend is that the percentage of food preparers that say dinner is made primarily of fresh, not processed foods, is up by 7% over the past two years. The reason this makes me happy, is that the food preparer is making their dinner from something much closer to nature than when an item is highly processed. For example, if you make your own soup, (see Budget Friendly Homemade Soup; or Mmm Mmm Good – the Salt of the Earth) you are in control of how much salt, meat, pasta and vegetables are in it; if you make your own casserole, you are skipping lots of processed ingredients and know there are real, traditional tomatoes, and vegetables – not an analog for them. (Tomato Flavor Instead of Tomato, Hmmm? or Clarifying the Muddy World of Processed Foods.

Grocery retailers rank the emphasis on perishables as the most frequently used and most successful retailer strategy – it’s the most effective at driving sales and traffic. People want fresh.

An interesting finding in the statistics is that those shoppers who spend the most on fresh foods are spending the least on fresh beef and pork. The researchers/marketers are surprised about that – I’m not! Many of us, who are eating more fresh produce are eating less red meat and/or eating it less frequently. It is a recognition of research that shows the health benefits of eating meats sparingly. We can enjoy the good tastes of meat without it being the centerpiece of our meals. It has had its turn being the centerpiece; let it begin to play the healthier role of accent, flavor, and texture amid a predominantly plant-based meal.

Another statistic that they’ve discovered is a rising trend in at-home eating; and it’s driving the perishables sales. The typical week consists of five evening meals prepared at home, one away from home and one involving takeout, ordering in, or a drive through purchase. This spells less food eaten in restaurants and fast food establishments. I believe that this may help trim waistlines and improve peoples’ nutritional status.

In a Mintel study reported by Sloan, they found that 83% of consumers like to experiment with new recipes – enthusiasm for cooking is at an all-time high. People are trying to replicate restaurant meals; meals from travel; and from cooking or food blogs. This gives me so much hope because I believe, if people make recipes altered to fit their needs, it makes it so much more likely that they will keep cooking and keep controlling and altering their ingredients with the health knowledge that they gain. This moves the consumer away from the cheap, impoverished, salty ingredients that so often constitute the bulk of processed foods.

In another set of statistics, one of the factors was that 81% cooked more meals from scratch and only 15% purchased more ready-to-eat meals from the supermarket. For 60% of those questioned, the reason for eating more fresh foods is a health strategy. Hip, hip, hooray!

One of the sadder statistics is that 27% said that they’d eat more vegetables if they knew how to prepare them. The thought that this may be a factor was why I began posting some recipes a few years ago. The food processors are not waiting, they are already positioned and are taking advantage of this fact – they’re marketing their kits with sauce included. I hope consumers will be a little more daring and continue to experiment with their own cooking.

Since 59% of adults are eating a salad as a meal at least once a week, the marketers are focusing on upscale salad mixes and dressings. But of course, salads are easy as can be without the help of the food processors. Be creative; add any of the following to your greens and before you know it; you’ve created a gourmet salad. Cheese, olives, nuts, snow peas, apple slices, avocados, tortilla strips, beans, and berries and hummus or guacamole or even homemade dressing; and you can do it without help, with your own fresh ingredients. (See A “How To” for Salads).

Not only is “shop the perimeter” a poor rule to follow, you also can’t say that frozen, canned, or dried cannot be healthy choices. I want to share that frozen whole food (think fish, vegetables, etc.) is a healthy option. Also, canned foods can be an economical and healthy choice (think tomatoes, fruit and some vegetables). And one of the oldest ways of preserving food is drying. It’s certainly a healthy option to include dried foods (think about figs, dates, raisins, sun-dried tomatoes and fish).

I think where food processing goes amuck is when they start getting creative with a long list of tricky chemical-sounding ingredients – often things that we’ve never heard of. They do this to increase shelf life, replace fresh ingredients that spoil, add preservatives to slow down spoilage, and simply to enable the food processor to replace more expensive whole, natural ingredients with cheaper ones that last a long time. They also add chemicals to tune up the appearance with dyes, or to adjust the texture. They seek artificial, lower-cost alternatives to natural foods, and do food hedonics research to find ways to formulate the un-natural concoctions so that people will like them; ideally (for marketing) their formulations will lead to food cravings of the carefully concocted products.

There’re many, many more enlightening findings in Sloan’s article, covering eggs, cheeses, meats and she’s listed the citations of when and who did the studies. But today, I just wanted to share my pleasure in the forward and upward movement in the use of fresh ingredients and increases in home cooking.

May your home cooking be both healthier and yummier.