There are many theories, myths, and misconceptions about how and why grocers operate. Some things are true. Yes, items near the registers are meant for impulse buys. Yes, the type of music affects how people shop. Yes, delicious smells of rotisserie chickens and freshly baked breads help to fill that basket. (In my grocery days, we used smells to cover things as well. When we cleaned the grease trap, we'd simmer a pot of aromatics on the stovetop to cover the sulfurous odor.)
However, not all myths are true. Here are a few ideas to clear the (hopefully deliciously scented) air between you and your grocer.
MYTH: Grocery stores spray produce with water to make it heavier.
Our fruits and vegetables contain a lot of water. They practically are water. Lettuce is 96 percent water. Green cabbage? 93. Broccoli? 91. The higher the water content, the more likely the vegetables are stored in a case with misters, designed to keep your greens hydrated and last longer.
Still suspicious of extra water weight? Shake it off, shake, shake it off.
MYTH: Milk’s in the back of the store to get you to buy stuff you don’t need.
This one is highly contentious. Even the geniuses at Planet Money haven’t determined a definitive answer. I lean toward logistics to answer this question. Cold things need to stay cold, and positioning the dairy and frozen departments closer to where the product is received makes a lot of sense.
You might notice that many grocers are adding a second, more convenient front-of-store end cap for basics, solidifying a desire to please over a nefarious scheme to manipulate you into buying that kale-flavored popcorn in aisle six.
MYTH: National brands are better than store brands.
Chances are, they’re the same thing, with different labeling. The co-packing industry is huge. From sauces to salsas to dairy products, manufacturers are happily slapping grocers’ labels on the outside for a little additional revenue stream. Trader Joe’s builds their entire business around this. Take a look at the label and make the decision yourself, but if you see the phrase “manufactured for,” know that it tastes exactly like the more expensive product next to it.
MYTH: If it’s not fresh, it’s not as good.
Don’t underestimate the power of the freezer. Not only does the freezer allow you to eat local produce year-round (in good years, a local farmer will sell buckets of blueberries to grocers here in Ohio), but it also presents food without preservatives. Lastly, the grocer’s freezer can carry perishables that wouldn’t get a lot of play in a traditional fresh case. (Think: crab legs, rabbit, ostrich.)
MYTH: Local is always better.
Local is lovely, especially in the perimeter departments. But even local manufacturers can use shortcuts that diminish the quality of a product. If you have rigorous standards for what you eat, hold them high no matter the zip code. Read labels and ask questions and remember that high fructose corn syrup or guar gum don’t magically disappear if they’re in products made nearby.
Did I miss any rumors you've heard about grocery store practices? Toss them my way in the comments and if I can, I'll address them in future posts.