#165 Fourteen Things You Never Knew About Grocery Store Produce
Adventures in Sustainable Living Podcast
14 Things You Never Knew About Grocery Store Produce
As you likely know by now I am a big fan of having a garden and producing as much of my own food as possible. It is the best way to be certain I am consuming fresh organic produce. Not to mention it saves me a considerable amount of money.
Despite the many advantages of having a garden only 1/3 of people on a global basis engage in any sort of gardening activity. Whatever the reason may be, that portion of our global population finds it more convenient to simply purchase what they need.
But as it turns out, there are some rather disturbing things about our fresh produce that most people just don’t know. If they did, they would likely have a garden.
So stay tuned to E165 14 Things You Never Knew About Grocery Story Produce.
Welcome back everyone to the Adventures in Sustainability podcast. This is your host Patrick and this is E165 Things You Never Knew About Your Produce.
But, let’s get a couple of things out of the way before we get started.
The sustainability question of the week:
What are the top five foods that we waste the most?
So, stay tuned until the end of the episode and I will give out the answer as well as some tips to reduce your waste of these top five things.
Now, the good news story of the week. Or at least the interesting story of the week
How many of you know about Dracula Frogs?
Yes that is right, there are frogs that have fangs. There are actually over 70 species of Dracula frogs. But just recently a new species was discovered quite by accident. It is smaller than the size of a quarter. This little guy is a stream-dwelling frog in Southeast Asia. It uses its fangs to battle with other frogs over territory and potential mates. But it also uses its fangs to hunt prey such as giant centipedes and even crabs.
These frogs were discovered on a steep, rugged island in Indonesia. It is a place of amazing diversity that tends to keep researchers guessing.
So, there you have it. There are still undiscovered wonders even in today’s world. And being a very outdoorsy person, discovering new things and new places always gets me excited. Even when I am scuba diving and see a fish I have never seen before I get really excited about it.
I would truly encourage everyone to just get outside and see if you can find something you have never seen before. It tends to get you excited and make you care about the natural world. After all, we tend to only take care of the things we care about.
That said, let’s get started with this week’s episode.
One of the first things I do when I go to the supermarket and head straight to the produce section. I am not sure if this is what everyone does but I think I do this because of the way my supermarket is set up. But it is also because quite often fresh produce is the only thing we need. But despite the rainbow of colors we notice when the produce section is well stocked, there are actually a lot of things most people do not know about supermarket produce. And that is the focus of this episode. And by the end, I am sure you will never look at produce the same.
Supermarket Produce is Older Than You Think
Since we eat a lot of fruits and vegetables, I often start craving them for snacks. Maybe this is why I go to the produce section first. But, what most people do not know is that the produce may not be as fresh as you think.
Let’s take for example apples. How is it that we see all these fresh apples in the supermarket in the Summer when apples are typically harvested in the Fall?
It is because as soon as apples are harvested, they are coated with chemicals and placed in long-term controlled storage. And that is where they sit until the next season. By regulating oxygen, carbon dioxide, temperature and humidity apples can stay in storage for up to a year. Farmers sometimes refer to this process as “putting them to sleep.” But what this means is that those so-called fresh apples you purchase could actually be 10 to 12 months old.
As it turns out, this is not at all unusual.
Lettuce is often washed in a solution of chlorine and preservatives and put in cold storage for a month. Bananas are also placed in storage where the ripening process is chemically controlled. I actually visited a supermarket warehouse once and saw the enormous vaults where bananas are stored and ripened. These vaults are several stories high and hundreds of feet long.
Tomatoes can also be stored for up to six weeks in a low oxygen, high nitrogen environment. So much for those fresh off the vine tomatoes advertised at the supermarket which of course is nothing but a market gimmick.
And much of the same sort of process takes place for carrots and potatoes as well as many other items. Bottom line, the “fresh” produce at the supermarket is not as fresh as you think.
Produce on the shelf is never really clean
In most developed countries we walk into a supermarket and have the expectation that everything is clean. The reality of it is that supermarkets are very dirty places. There are more germs on things in the supermarket than there are on the doorhandles of your home.
The point being, all the fresh produce lined up on the shelves looks really pretty and it sometimes produces a false sense of cleanliness. But more often than not, the opposite is actually true.
I distinctly remember when I spent an extended amount of time in a small village in the Amazon basin. Since I like to cook, farmers market day was one of the highlights of my week. I would go to the market early and wait for the truck to arrive. When it did, it was quite obvious that the produce had just been picked or pulled out of the ground because most of it had lots of dirt still on it. When you took it home the first thing you did was wash it extremely well. And this is exactly what we should all be doing despite living in a developed country.
Just because produce is bagged, even if it says it was pre-washed, that does not mean it is actually clean. It may have been washed at some point but that does not mean it is ready to eat when you take it home.
What most people don’t know is that there are not a lot of protocols, checks and balances for processing and sanitizing certain types of produce before it is placed on the shelf at the supermarket. It may have actually come straight from the field. This is especially true for most berries.
This of course does not account for how produce is actually handled while in the store. And I know this because I worked in a supermarket for years when I was much younger. More often than not, if something is spilled onto the floor, it is picked up and placed back in the container. This is yet another reason to wash everything before you eat it.
What appears to be fresh may actually be the oldest produce they have.
If you have ever worked in any sort of food industry, you are probably familial with the phrase “first in first out.” What this means is that produce is rotated regularly. The oldest produce is rotated to the front because that is the oldest produce they have. If you want the freshest you can get, pick from the back of the shelf.
The same is true for pre-package fruits and vegetables. Those with the newest expiration dates are placed on the back of the shelf. So if you want the freshest possible, meaning the produce that was most recently placed on the shelf, you may have to dig a little.
Your fellow shoppers can be pretty gross
Have you ever thought about how many people have touched that apple before you picked it up and took it home? The answer is a lot. People often rummage through piles of produce looking for the best looking one to buy. I even do this.
This is why I find it so entertaining when people going into the supermarket will take the time to sanitize the handle of the shopping cart and their own hands before shopping. Then they go into the market and touch everything that everyone else has touched. Nothing is actually being accomplished.
The point being, it is inevitable that numerous people that you do not know have handled the produce that you are buying. And it is unlikely they cleaned their hands before doing so. Yet another reasons to wash your produce when you get home.
Old Produce Might End up in the Salad and Soup Bar
For the most part old fruits and vegetables are thrown out. But, this is not always the case. Once fruits, vegetables and leafy greens pass their point of peak freshness, many consumers will not buy them. This does not mean they are bad or even harmful. But these are often placed in the salad bar where consumers will buy them and have no idea they are just passed their “use-by” date.
Health Policies Are Not Strictly Enforced
The USDA and the FDA have some fairly strict rules that govern most of the food supply chain in the country. These guidelines are designed to keep food fresh, free from contamination, and safe to consume. But once food actually gets to its intended destination, that being the supermarket, those rules are less stringent. Not only that, those rules are nearly impossible to enforce.
Just because there are rules it does not mean they are followed.
Organic Produce Might Not Stay That Way
If you are paying a premium price for organic produce you may be disappointed to know it may have been organic in the beginning but it may no longer be that way at the time of purchase.
Unless you do your shopping with a “certified organic grocer” your local supermarket may not be taking all the needed precautions to be sure the produces stays organic.
First of all, once produce is at the local grocer in order for it to be considered organic, it cannot be mixed with produce that is not organic and possibly coated with pesticides.
Secondly, supermarkets must take precautions that cleaning and pest control protocols do not leave resides or contamination on the produce.
Once again, you must remember that rules are not always strictly enforced. If your local grocer does not have strict protocols, what you are buying may not be organic.
Organic does not mean pesticide free
Most people have the misconception that organic produce is free from pesticides. But the truth is that organic produce is still grown with pesticides but the pesticides used are considered to be “organic.” They are typically derived from plant sources and are minimally processed.
In addition, organic produce is typically grown with organic fertilizers such as animal waste products, bone meal, and various animal by-products.
Pesticides may be used after harvesting
Furthermore, pesticides are often applied after harvesting. Non-organic citrus fruits, especially oranges, are often sprayed with pesticides after they are harvested in order to maintain freshness. They are often coated with a wax or resin after harvest for the same reason. The next time you purchase a bag of oranges, but sure to read the label and determine how they were processed after harvesting.
Precut Produce May Not Be As Good As You Think
You know I think everyone of us goes into the supermarket at times when we are in a hurry and all we want to do is grab something that is prepared or partially prepared. It is quick, easy, and convenient. When you have a busy day ahead it is so easy to purchase something precut so that you don’t have to take the time to do it yourself. I feel this way sometimes as well. On a regular basis I spend time in the morning before work chopping fruits and vegetables or making a huge bowl of salad. It does take some time.
But, consider this. You pay three times as much for prepared items as opposed to purchasing whole fruits and vegetables. These precut items also have an extremely short shelf life. It has been exposed to additional light and heat which or course reduces its nutrient content. It also no longer has its protective outer layer, the skin, rind, or peel. Consequently, it is more prone to bacterial contamination. But it also has a greater carbon footprint because it is now packaged in plastic.
Think of it this way, that precut produce that is so convenient cost three times as much, spoils faster, has reduced nutrient content, increases your potential exposure to food borne illnesses, and is much less eco friendly. At the end of the day you have to ask yourself if it is truly worth it.
There may be bugs and spiders in your grapes and bananas.
Typically fruits are sprayed with pesticides after harvesting to prevent any unwanted hitchhikers. This is especially true when things are shipped from an international location. But regardless of their place of origin fruits are vegetables are typically covered when they are shipped. However they are still exposed to bugs, flies, spiders, frogs, rodents, as well as numerous other things. And I would occasionally finds these things in the grapes and bananas when I worked in the produce department as a teenager. Typically these spiders and bugs are of no concern whatsoever other than giving you a bit of a surprise.
As a teenager working in the produce department it just so happens that my boss was deathly afraid of spiders. I of course could not help but to build up his fear by telling him that banana spiders could jump up to six feet. Then I took the opportunity to provide myself with a little entertainment by placing plastic spiders in the bananas.
I never knew that humans could actually walk on air until he opened a box of bananas and saw a huge spider sitting right on top. Once he realized it was fake there was a considerable amount of name calling because I could not contain my laughter. I could never convince him that the ones we did find were completely harmless.
The Constant Misting of Produce May Be Costing You More Money
Most supermarket will mist their produce to prevent dehydration. I used to have to do this by hand when I worked in produce as a teenager. This days, supermarkets have automatic misters. What most people do not know is that all that waters adds more weight to the product you are buying. This practice may actually be costing you up to 25% more for your produce. When you pick it up, give it a good shakes to get rid of the excess water.
Supermarkets mark up their produce a lot
Let’s face it fruits and vegetables are perishable. There is going to be a certain amount of waste before it even makes it to the shelves to be sold. Consequently, most grocers are going to mark up produce anywhere from 50% to 75% to make up for their losses.
It you want to make an effort to reduce your costs, then participate in a co-op or go to the farmers market. Besides, those who work hard to grow our food are going to make more money if we patronize their market.
A Final Note on Pesticides
There is no doubt that the use of pesticides has resulted in an enormous increase in worldwide food production. The use of pesticides helps control nuisance damage, decrease plant diseases, and reduce losses. In the US alone 4.5 billion pounds of pesticides are used each year with 75% of that used in agriculture and 25% of that used in our homes.
What has been found is that nearly 75% of non-organic produce sold in the US contains residues of potentially harmful pesticides. Furthermore, there have been numerous peer-reviewed scientific studies that show an alarming link between the exposure to pesticides and human health problems. Certainly the prevalence and widespread use of these chemicals have dramatically increased our exposure especially through the food we eat.
The Environmental Working Group analyzed the last data from the USDA and the FDA and published a 2023 Shoppers Guide to Pesticides in Produce. I have provided a link to their webpage in the resources section of the transcript. The following information is directly accredited to that shoppers guide.
The EWG has what they call the Dirty Dozen, which is the fruits and vegetables that were the most contaminated with pesticides.
They are as follows:
Bell and hot peppers
This shoppers guide provides a lot of good information and I would encourage you to visit their webpage. But I also want to give you some highlights to be aware of.
Some highlights to be aware of:
- More than 90 percent of samples of strawberries, apples, cherries, spinach, nectarines and grapes tested positive for residues of two or more pesticides.
- A total of 210 pesticides were found on the Dirty Dozen items.
- Of those, over 50 different pesticides were detected on every type of crop on the list, except cherries.
But they also have their Clean Fifteen, which are those fruits and vegetables with the least amount of pesticides.
Their Shopper’s Guide really is very interesting so be sure to check out the link I have provided because the above information comes directly from their webpage.
All I can say is that if you are not concerned by now, you should be. That said, there are ways to reduce your exposure.
-Eat organic fruits and vegetables. This step alone will reduce the amount of pesticides in your body. Clinical trials have shown that switching to organic fruits and vegetables dramatically reduces the amount of pesticides shown to be eliminated in human urine. Studies have also shown that produce purchased at a farmers market or locally grown almost always contains fewer pesticides. If you are on a tight budget then purchase organic for the items you consume most frequently and stick to the Clean Fifteen for the rest.
-Wash your fruits and vegetables throughly before eating them.
-Know which fruits and vegetables contain the highest level of pesticide residues. Earth Easy has a great web page called Pesticides and Produce. Check out the link I have provided to their webpage. Again it is very informative
-Grow your own; A backyard garden of 400 square feet can provide much of the food needed for a family of four
-Use non-toxic or natural pest control for your yard and garden
-Take your shoes off at the door. This will eliminate
60% of the chemicals in your house.
Well folks, I have to be perfectly honest about something. When I first started researching material for this episode, I did not expect to learn as much as I have in the process. Certainly I will take what I have learned and use it as a good reason to change some of the things I am doing.
But what is important to realize is the basic logistics of providing an entire country with food and the supply chain that is associated with that process. Produce is one of the most perishable things we consume. Because of that we have to accept that certain things need to be done in order to preserve that produce and eliminate waste.
Regardless of that, there are numerous we can do as consumers to protect ourselves and be more sustainable in the process. Growing your own is always the best way to go. Farmers markets are the next best option. Purchasing from a certified organic grocer for the items you consume more frequently will help to limit your expenses.
Some of my best memories growing up in the southern US was the working farms in our family. Nothing was a better than walking outside and picking a fresh apple or gathering fresh walnuts, blackberries and picking vegetables out of the garden.
Finding organic sustainable sources of produce and canning your own may be extra effort but the benefits far out weight the extra effort. This is especially true when it comes to saving our planet and living a healthy life in the process. As is usually the case, sustainable habits are healthy habits.
I certainly hope you will take the time to download the transcript for this episode to have that available for quick reference. Certainly after doing all the research I did for this episode I am not sure I will ever look at my produce the same again.
Furthermore, this information provides me with even further encouragement to keep doing what I am doing. I will continue to improve my efforts to eat only organic, buy local, grow my own and live sustainably.
Sustainability question of the week
So, let’s start wrapping things up by answering the sustainability question of the week.
What are the top five foods we waste the most?
Lettuce, bananas, milk, apples, and bread
- Lettuce: We waste over 65,000 tons of lettuce every year. You can prevent this by purchasing smaller amounts, store it in your crisper, or in a ziplock bag.
2) Bananas: We waste 5 billion bananas every year. The best way to prevent waste is to purchase bananas in various stages of ripeness. This way you can eat them as they ripen. But it the get too ripe, make banana bread
3) Milk: We waste 45 million gallons of milk every year. The best way to prevent this is to purchase in smaller quantities, store milk in the coldest portion of your refrigerator, or freeze the excess.
4) Apples: We waste 1.3 million apples every year. To give apples a longer shelf life, story them in a cool place out of direct sunlight. Apples will keep for weeks in the refrigerator. If you have extra, cook with them or dehydrate them and they will keep for months.
5) Bread: We waste 240 million slices of bread every year. To minimize waste, freeze any excess bread that you have. If it is already stale, make home made croutons. Better yet, make your own bread as needed.
Now this top five list does vary a bit depending on what source you reference. But it is a good way to evaluate your own waste set a goal for zero food waste which is one of the easiest most sustainable things we can do right away.
So I guess in a manner of speaking, that is some good food for thought. No pun intended.
Okay, final note. A quote from Confucius:
Faced with what is right, to leave it undone shows a lack of courage.
Certainly all the things we need to address in our ever changing world is going to take some courage. But, it truly is the right thing to do.
So until next week folks, show a little courage and take at least one step toward sustainability. Because this is how we will build a better future.