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The Illusion of Choice

February 19, 2014

It wasn’t that long ago that our cabinets were filled with organic foods from Cascadian Farm. I ate their granola. The kids ate their cereal. And we kept a supply of their granola bars on hand for snacks.

Everything was good. For a while.

While I knew that Cascadian Farm was owned by General Mills, I didn’t really care as long as the quality and integrity of the product remained the same. Heck, maybe the success of an organic subsidiary might lead to more organic ingredients being used by the parent company. But instead, General Mills started funneling their profits into ballot busting measures aimed at preventing states from passing GMO labeling laws.

That’s when we said goodbye to Cascadian Farm and hello to Nature’s Path. Now our cabinets are filled with their cereal and granola bars, and everything is well with the world again.

Luckily, we live in America where consumers have what seems like an almost endless number of choices. In the latest issue of Consumer Reports, the editors ask if perhaps there are now too many products from which to choose.

I think they’ve fallen for the illusion.

By the numbers, Consumer Reports makes a compelling case. “Between 1975 and 2008 the number of products in the average supermarket swelled from an average of 8,948 to 47,000.”

Forty. Seven. Thousand. Let’s stop and think about that number for a second. If you paused to look at every unique product for just one second, it would take you over thirteen hours to make it through the store. It’s an astonishing feat of industrial production and mass distribution. God bless America.

The magazine does answer one of the burning questions I’ve always had about the products on supermarket shelves, though. “Almost three-quarters of all supermarket products languish on store shelves, selling less than one unit (a single package, can, or bottle) per week.”

It’s a rough business.

But as many products as there are on the store shelves, a lot of them are just slightly different versions of the same stuff. So there are twelve types of Thomas’ English Muffins, eleven different flavors of Cheerios, nine different shapes of frozen potatoes, and seventy-four varieties of Campbell’s condensed soup.

Line extensions like these help manufacturers get more shelf space which gives them a chance to sell more product (and hopefully take up more real estate than their competitors).

But Thomas is owned by Bimbo Bakeries which also owns Sara Lee, Arnold, Boboli, Entenmann’s, Freihofer’s, and many more. Cheerios is owned by General Mills which also owns Muir Glen and Lara Bar in addition to Cascadian Farm. You get the idea. All of this food comes from a small handful of corporations.

These international companies don’t make products, they make profits. And they make them by shifting to lesser quality ingredients, reducing packaging sizes and increasing price. Breyer’s is a prime example of this, confusing its customers with a dizzying array of products whose vanilla flavor now comes in Natural, French, Half the Fat, No Sugar Added, Extra Creamy, Homemade, Lactose Free and CarbSmart. Most of Breyer’s product line is no longer actually ice cream, yet the majority of consumers haven’t seemed to pick up on that unfortunate fact yet.

I don’t know how there could possibly be too many products on supermarket shelves these days when I still have to go to multiple markets to get everything on my list.

ShopRite is the only store that has a good selection of tahini, plus they stock one flavor of Nature’s Path granola bars that I just can’t find anywhere else. Nobody but the local health food store (and farmers market) has honey that I’m sure is actually honey. Wegmans has the full line of Tom’s of Maine toothpastes, including the one flavor that my kids can tolerate. Whole Foods is where I go when I want decent meat that has been humanely raised and slaughtered. Trader Joe’s has the market cornered on our favorite French style green beans, frozen wild blueberries, and organic whole wheat pasta, all of which are household staples.

And still, I can’t find Mrs. Fussy’s favorite brand of plastic wrap anywhere. Not at Target. Not at Walmart. Nowhere.

Yes, it sure does look like the modern American supermarket is filled with variety, but even in the tony town of Princeton, our fancy grocers are still lacking. I guess it’s a national epidemic. And it’s no wonder why families who have two working adults don’t have the time to eat well.

I would love to see a supermarket take this on directly and decide to stock a wider array of better stuff by first eliminating all the crap, and then deeply pruning their selection of the mediocre.

If I could cross a Wegmans with a Trader Joe’s with a little help from Whole Foods, I think we might have it.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Doug permalink
    February 19, 2014 11:55 am

    And that brand of plastic wrap would be … ?

  2. February 20, 2014 3:42 pm

    There’s an article in Slate by Ben Blatt called “Unacceptable Ingredients:
    How many of the groceries sold at Walmart would be banned by Whole Foods?” that you and your followers might like to read. It was interesting to see things like Bush’s beans and Sargento cheeses disappear from the shelves.
    http://www.slate.com/articles/life/culturebox/2014/02/whole_foods_and_walmart_how_many_groceries_sold_at_walmart_would_be_banned.html

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