“Sweet or unsweet?” One of the first things you notice upon moving to East Texas is that restaurants here serve not one, but two types of tea – sweet or unsweet. While the rest of the country has to make do with attempting to stir sugar into cold tea (where it will NOT dissolve, but rather settle into the bottom of your glass as a super sweet sludgy treat at the end of your glass), the South contains a vernacular region which might be labeled as the “Sweet Tea South”. Sugar is added to the boiling water before the tea even begins to steep, and the resulting beverage is a tooth-achingly sweet nectar favored throughout the region. For years before I moved to this mecca of sweet beverages, I had to rely upon artificial sweeteners or suffer through unsweetened tea. But now, I was free to enjoy actual sweet tea. Bliss. Of course, I could make sweet tea at home, but mine was never as sweet. Convinced of the dangers of high fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners, I was lulled into a sense of security drinking “natural” sugar. I was so completely convinced that “real” sugar was so much better for us (in moderation, of course) that I convinced my son to give up soft drinks in favor of sweet tea. It took only 3 years for me to realize my mistake.
Actually, it was my doctor that informed me that my health was declining rapidly. While I have been overweight most of my adult life, my “numbers” had always looked great. Normal to low blood pressure, cholesterol levels perfect, blood sugar perfect – model of health numbers. Three years of living in the “Sweet Tea South” had driven all of my numbers out of whack, and my sixteen year old son had high blood pressure. Obviously, other factors come into play. Surely, sugar cannot be the only culprit. But, six months later, my blood work after a total boycott of sweet tea (and nothing else – no other dietary changes, no increase in exercise…it’s a process) showed everything returning to normal levels. True, this is anecdotal evidence, but as I learn more about the food industry and the regulations which govern it, I am beginning to realize how little average consumers actually know – and how little we can believe of what we are told about the food we eat.
I have spent my entire adult life buying groceries – more decades than I really care to reveal, and I have seen many changes in the typical American grocery store. One of the more alarming changes was the increasing numbers of Hummers being driven by suburban moms. Surely, there are few places safer than a suburban grocery store – there is certainly no need for an urban assault vehicle. But, as I journeyed through my favorite store recently to conduct an analysis of its candy displays, I began to realize that our grocery stores are, indeed a battle ground. Immediately upon entering, we are assaulted by companies attempting to earn our shopping dollars through any means necessary. Product placement, packaging, coupons, banners, “give-aways”, convenience, and other forms of marketing all lead us to the products “they” want us to buy. “They” being the long line of corporations who stand to earn money off our purchases – the grocery chain, the marketing companies, the food conglomerates, and the industrial farmers. Each of these groups has spent millions of dollars convincing us that their “food” is what we should eat. In order to keep prices down, and keep us buying their products, they have engineered the food to hit the “bliss point” – the ideal ration of fat, sugar, and salt which makes their product irresistible. As a result, our stores are now full of food which, at best, is unhealthy for us – at worst it is quite literally killing us. Maybe the urban assault vehicles are not such a bad idea, after all.
Dollar General is not typically considered a “grocery store”. This chain of over 11,000 stores nationwide bills itself as a “small box discount retailer” (Dollar General) and according to the website, it is the largest chain of its type in the country. Dollar General functions as the modern equivalent of an old general store. Their goal is to “…make shopping for everyday needs simpler and hassle-free by offering a carefully edited assortment of the most popular brands at low everyday prices in small, convenient locations.” (Dollar General) With 14 locations in Texarkana (see map), Dollar General is most often the closest place to buy grocery items. In fact, in some parts of town, Dollar General (and its counterpart Family Dollar) is the only place accessible for nearby residents. As indicated on the population density map, the neighborhoods surrounding this particular Dollar General have the lowest population density within the city, which partially explains the lack of larger chain grocery stores. But, as indicated on the median income map (you may need to click on the different layers in the map to switch between them), this area also has the lowest average incomes within the city. Discount stores like this are particularly important in low income areas where residents have limited income to spend on food. As is illustrated in the image, this store displays numerous signs indicating that both of the most common food assistance programs’ cards are accepted at this store. In addition, there is only one bus line which services this area. While it is possible to reach one of the larger grocery stores via public transportation, this would require riding one line all the way downtown and changing to another bus. According to Google Maps, it would take a driver 6 minutes to reach the nearest Albertsons 3 miles away, but a commuter taking the bus would not arrive for another 54 minutes. It is not uncommon to see people walking from the surrounding neighborhoods in order to do their shopping at this particular Dollar General and other nearby locations. Additionally, there are many small towns nearby which do not have a larger grocery store, at all. As a result, for people without access to regular transportation or who live in surrounding rural areas, Dollar General often serves as their primary grocery store. Given its role as de facto grocery store, it is important to include stores like Dollar General in this analysis since the products it offers will most likely constitute the primary groceries purchased by nearby residents who are unable to reach the larger markets.
Upon entering the store, the shopper is immediately confronted with an assortment of “junk foods” – foods that are “very high in calories relative to nutrients”. (Albritton 344) On the left, clustered around the cash register are cases of candy and soft drinks. The perfect location for impulse buys just before or during check out. The candy, which consists of 3 rows over 4 feet long, can be found just under the register – the perfect height for any children accompanying the adult shopper. In fact, the entire bottom row is full of candy packaged with toys – making them doubly enticing so children will pester their adult companion for a purchase. The candy at this particular location is also packaged in “single serving” sizes – designed to serve as self-gratification or as a snack or meal substitute. Directly across from the cash register are the grocery aisles. Given the emphasis Dollar General places upon providing “everyday” products, it can only be assumed that regular shoppers require large amounts of chips, cookies and candy, since those are the objects which fill the first three aisles. The candy here, which has an aisle to itself, consists of bulk packages of “sharing” candy – either large numbers of individually wrapped “fun size” servings, or “king size” packages of unwrapped hard or hard shelled candies. The term “fun size” is intended to create an image of the fun the consumer will have eating and sharing these tiny portions – great sizes for very young kids, too. The “king size” portions offer up images of wealth and excess – having extra goods to show your generosity or indulge your larger appetites. The other major candy location (although there are many others) can be found along the seasonal aisle, where the standard summer s’mores display provides a convenient location for all of your s’mores needs, including a wide array of marshmallows (different flavors and sizes) and your standard Pennsylvania-produced chocolate bars. Finally, candy of all types can be found hanging along the end caps of several of the grocery and non-grocery aisles, alike. Clearly, candy and chocolate are considered “everyday” objects that should be made as conveniently accessible as possible throughout the shopping experience.
Beyond the candy, cookies, and chips, however, there are “regular” food items like cereal, milk, beans, rice and even canned vegetables. A careful perusal of these items reveals some alarming trends, however. First, the milk section contains as much chocolate milk as it does regular milk, and the presence of chocolate in milk is almost always accompanied by an increase in sugar. While milk contains its own natural sugars, most chocolate milk contains added sugar – either in the form of natural sugar or high fructose corn syrup. One particular brand of chocolate milk billed itself “Protein Plus”. The product does have 25 grams of protein, which it states is 12% more than regular milk; the product also contains 37g of sugar – more than three times that found in regular milk. Apparently, the “plus” means “plus sugar”. Of the cereals available for purchase, none had any appreciable fiber (over 2 grams per serving by this particular mother’s standard – and that is LOW) and all had fairly high levels of sugar and calories, making them marginally junk food by Albritton’s standard – though the artificially enhanced nutrients pacify most people’s sensibilities when it comes to breakfast cereal. More troubling, however, was the presence of chocolate and sugar in other foods – even foods that are generally considered healthy. Cereal bars packaged as snacks and meal replacements have as much sugar as the candy bars one aisle over. Of the cereal bars at this particular location, over 15 (about half) had some form of chocolate. The ones with chocolate tend to have even higher amounts of sugar than the others. Nuts and dried fruits, once the hallmark foods of healthy eaters, are now covered in chocolate or yogurt (another “health food”) which really means they are now covered in sugar. The presence of chocolate in these snack foods is intended to show that chocolate is a good “…source of concentrated energy…” (Robertson 19) The final, and perhaps most troubling issue, however, is the amount of real estate that is allotted to sugar and sugar-added foods versus non-sugared foods. The amount of shelf space allotted to a product indicates a great deal about what products the store wants to promote and how much money companies have paid to have their products placed in ideal locations. All total, the sugared products in the store occupy well over half of the total shelf space dedicated to shelf stable foods. In the freezer section, about half of the space is given to frozen desserts. And half of the refrigerated section is juice and chocolate milk. Clearly, sugar is considered a major “everyday” need. Unfortunately, beans, rice, and vegetables are not considered as important, and are therefore not given as much space. It is possible to find vegetables – canned and full of salt, but at least no sugar, across from the cake mix, but only part of three shelves is given to vegetables and the selection is extremely limited. There are a few bags of frozen mixed vegetables in the freezer area, but otherwise, there are no other products containing vegetables in the store. Beans and rice are the other major non-sugar food items, and they are given quite a bit of space, but other forms of protein or complex carbohydrates are difficult to find. Finally, while the canned vegetables do get prime real estate at eye level in the center of the aisle, the packaging on all of the non-sugared foods is fairly plain and there are no “fun-size” or “king-size” cans of green beans. As already stated, as a discount general store, Dollar General has never marketed itself as a primary grocery store, but for many people it is their main option when purchasing food. If this is the case, then it is certain that their diets have little in the way of variety, unless it is in the myriad of ways in which sugar crosses their plates.
Store #2: Albertsons, Texarkana, TX
Two days after my visit to Dollar General, I pulled into my primary grocery store – the Albertsons closest to my house. There are three Albertsons in Texarkana – two in Texas and one in Arkansas. According to the Albertsons website, there are over 600 stores in this Idaho-based chain. Albertsons claims to be a “modern grocery store” (Albertsons) with a long history of providing services “…customers (haven’t) seen in a grocery store before…” (Albertsons). One major innovation that the company introduced in its early days was the in-store from scratch bakery. Albertsons’ dedication to its in-store bakery concept is strongly reinforced by the premium location it occupies in this store – customers quite literally trip over the “grab and go” cake slices located mere steps inside the door and all customer traffic is directed immediately into the baked goods area. There is a case of pre-seasoned fresh meat to slap on the grill for dinner tonight, the cake slices for dessert, and a mere step away you can pick up peanut butter, jelly and bread for lunch tomorrow. You can even pick up a bouquet of flowers for the table, all without ever leaving sight of the express checkout lane. Oh wait, those aren’t flowers! The bouquets artfully arranged in vases by the door are actually composed of candy bars! These seem to be a new item and since Mother’s Day was in less than a week, I could only assume that Albertsons felt your mom wanted a bouquet of candy bars – perhaps they’ll last longer than the cut flowers. Venturing into the store, I was certain that the state of affairs in a “real” grocery store was not nearly as bad as the state of things at the general store. But, despite my beliefs that I am a careful, observant and educated shopper, it quickly became clear to me that things here might even be worse.
To be fair, fresh produce, milk, meat, and cheese do get quite a bit of optimum real estate in this grocery store. True, customers have to walk through the artfully displayed baked goods in order to reach the broccoli, but the broccoli is there. The selection is limited to standard produce items, but there are a lot of them and there is even a quite decent organic section. Best of all are the pre-cut “convenience” vegetable packs which, while much more expensive than their counterparts, make preparing fresh vegetables much easier and saving valuable food prep time – something busy working parents highly desire. Sadly, these very items are located merely inches from the cheesecake freezer and right alongside the smoothies. Smoothies are one of the major “health” food trends right now. They have replaced candy bars and snack bars as the predominant meal replacement. However, I immediately spotted another chocolate flavored “protein plus” shake. At first glance, this one looked a bit better than its Dollar General counterpart – 30 grams of protein (versus 25 grams) and only 26 grams of sugar (versus 37 grams), but THIS 15 ounce bottle stated that it held two servings – not one, which brings the sugar content up to a whopping 52 grams of sugar. Yes, the protein clocked in at 60 grams for the bottle, and yes, this sugar is “naturally occurring” versus added, but that much sugar from any source seems alarmingly high for one meal. The presence of this drink in the produce section (as opposed to perhaps being located with the juices, which is what it really is) might indicate to some consumers that this beverage is a healthy meal replacement, which it might be for some people.
The next aisle over from produce is the cereal aisle. I have long avoided going down this aisle, especially when my son was with me, because I know that most breakfast cereals are major sugar delivery systems, as described above. What I didn’t expect was that there were over twenty different cereals, including “healthy” granola products, which include chocolate. Invariably, the chocolate versions of the cereals contained even more sugar than the non-chocolate versions. The oats and grains may be whole grain and organic, maybe the sugar and chocolate are too, but the cereals which claimed to be healthier still had fairly low levels of fiber and fairly high levels of sugar. Still, I had expected as much. What really proved shocking, however, was the dairy case.
Much like the dairy case at Dollar General, there were several varieties of chocolate milk, chocolate almond milk, chocolate soy milk, etc. in the dairy case next to the regular milk, and all had higher amounts of sugar than their regular counterparts. But I was unprepared for chocolate yogurt. Chocolate. Yogurt. On the one hand – nirvana, chocolate flavored health food – yogurt is GOOD for you! Yay! Elation lasts mere seconds – as long as it takes to turn the package around and read the back. Nestled up right next to the puddings labeled “temptations” and “indulgent”, these yogurts are obviously intended to sway consumers to the healthier option. Healthier? The chocolate “indulgent” pudding had 18 grams of sugar per serving. The yogurt? Well, the “healthier” yogurt (with the candy coated chocolate sprinkles – you know the ones that say M? – there are other candies, too…some with nougat, some with cookies) has 30 grams – almost as much as a 16 ounce soft drink and over twice what is found in that pudding. Considering that the calcium levels are the same and that neither have any other appreciable nutrients (unless you count the live cultures in the yogurt…) you are probably better off handing your kid the pudding pack than you are handing them the yogurt. The other yogurts are not much better – having little more than sugar filled jam to stir in to them before eating.
At this point in my shopping expedition, I have given up the idea of purchasing any actual food entirely. Instead, I began to map out the store – the WHOLE store. I made a sugar map – this was the point at which I abandoned simply looking for chocolate and chocolate displays and began searching for any kind of added sugar. As I made my way through the store, it began to dawn on me just how much candy and chocolate have invaded our grocery stores. That candy bar bouquet was just the beginning. I quite literally could not find a single aisle – NOT ONE AISLE that did not have some form of sugar added food. Canned fruits and vegetables – the fruit is canned in sugar syrup. Ketchup – yep, there is sugar in every bottle. Mayo – ditto. Low fat mayo – more. Soft drinks get the same amount of shelf space as ALL canned fruits and vegetables – not including the extra space for promotional products, which usually includes a display of soft drinks. Spice aisle – chocolate chips. Non-food aisle – there is candy on every end cap of the non-food aisle section. Health and beauty – cough drops. And if you somehow manage to get all the way through the store without picking up any sugar….candy at every register – there is even a basket of s’mores bars sitting ON the shelf where you sign your receipt. The only section of the store which seemed a bit light on sugar – the frozen dessert section….most of the shelves were literally empty since Blue Bell was recalled a few weeks ago. Oh, and the produce section? Surely, the smoothie doesn’t count because its natural sugar. There is a seasonal display of salt water taffy right across from the bananas and yogurt covered pretzels literally IN the banana display. This is the exact moment when I decided those urban assault vehicle driving moms had it right. They DID need to prepare for battle before entering the grocery store. Heaven help you if you bring the kids inside with you.
I digress. I am here for the chocolate. Even though there is already sugar or candy on ever aisle, there is still a dedicated candy aisle – for those shoppers who just need a little bit more. Here is where shoppers will find the bulk bags for sharing. This is also where the more discriminating shopper will find the “finer” chocolates. These chocolates are priced to indicate higher quality – and packaged for that, as well. No bright colors or “fun” fonts, these packages have decadent chocolate swirl backgrounds with sophisticated fonts – and they are mostly dark chocolates. As Robertson stated, “market research consistently claimed that dark chocolate was more popular amongst the higher social classes” (Robertson 29), apparently, this is still held to be true as the price of these bars clearly indicates they are meant for people who are willing to drop $3 a bar when there is a display of 10 for $10 around the corner. The bars of these finer chocolates are a bit larger, and the foil wrapping allows them to be rewrapped, indicating that these bars are meant to be savored over several occasions (or at least 2 as indicated by the serving size) or shared with your refined friends. For those who feel guilty about even this level of indulgence, the sugar free, low fat and low calorie chocolates brought to you by companies that want you to watch your weight or believe that cows can be skinny are nearby. The gifting boxes are nearby, as well. The entire end of the aisle is comprised of the gift giving boxes – indicated by the bow printed directly on the box. Of course, there are tiny single-serving size boxes if you want to give yourself a gift. You deserve it for making it this far through the store without buying anything with sugar…oh wait….
Store #3: Granary Street Health Foods, 3425 New Boston Road, Texarkana, TX
Exhausted, overwhelmed, frustrated, and just plain angry at the world, I pull into my favorite health food store. Well, it’s my favorite because it’s the only one in town. This little corner of Texas is just beginning to think that organic is pretty neat…baby steps. I am a frequent customer here because despite its higher prices (which they proudly tell you are lower than they would be if the store were located in Arkansas due to taxes and such), the meat and eggs are produced by local farmers and are grass fed and humanely raised by my neighbors – who I’d much rather support than some corporate farmer who has never seen dirt. At least, that is the belief about corporate farmers – I happen to have several relatives who work on “corporate farms”, so I know the reality is a bit more varied than is sometimes presented. All the same, I’d rather pay my neighbors and it’s healthier to eat less meat, right? Even in this self-proclaimed health food store, however, sugar is front and center. The first aisle you see as you enter the store is the candy aisle, and just past it is the baking/sugar aisle. But this sugar is just plain, natural sugar – no high fructose corn syrup or artificial sweeteners here. Sugar is “…generally recognized as safe…” according to the FDA. (Couzens) Or is it? More to the point – WHAT is it? Reading labels in this store should not be a lesson in chemistry – that is what you expect in a regular grocery store. And yet, it very quickly becomes apparent that there are more words for sugar than we may recognize. The gluten-free, nut-free, agave-free, sugar-free, granola has 18 grams of sugar – from the dates. Again, it’s not “added sugar”, its naturally occurring, but it is hard to know if this really makes a difference. The all natural cereal bars? The first ingredient in the decadent s’mores flavored ones is tapioca syrup and 10 grams of a 34 gram bar is sugar from that syrup – almost 1/3 of the total composition of the bar. Some bars state outright that they are sweetened with cane sugar or even organic cane sugar because consumers believe that if it’s organic it’s better for them. But others have brown rice syrup, more tapioca syrup or even evaporated cane juice. Isn’t that just sugar? The peanut butter aisle is even worse. Or should I say nut butter aisle, as peanuts are scarce here. While peanut allergies are a serious concern, their absence in a health food store would seem to indicate an overall “unhealthiness” which is largely undeserved. Of the numerous versions of nut butters on the shelf – several have chocolate or chocolate versions, and all of the chocolate versions have sugar. The organic chocolate hazelnut butter has 11 grams of sugar per serving and the first ingredient is cane sugar. The not-peanut peanut butter with chocolate had two different syrups listed on the ingredients list and that evaporated cane juice showed up in the dark chocolate almond spread. While most peanut butters do contain sugar, the chocolate versions tended to have higher amounts per serving – perhaps to compensate for chocolate’s bitter taste.
As for the candy aisle, consumers fare a little better here – there are no bulk packages which might encourage or enable binge eating. The chocolate bars here are roughly the same size and same price point (in the $3 per bar range) as the “high end” bars at the regular grocery store, so they do not seem unreasonably priced in comparison. And these bars all come with assurances that the bars are making the world a better place. The labels of these bars all proudly bear the markings of various certifications – USDA Organic, Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance, all marks which have been created to give consumers peace of mind about the products they buy. The belief is that these products will be better for the environment (organic does not allow for artificial pesticides or insecticides), healthier (ditto), and better for farmers in developing countries (no mention of family farmers in the US, though). But these labels do not mean that these chocolates are better for you in terms of the amount of sugar they contain. True, many of these are dark chocolates, so that does indicate lower levels of sugar. And, if you are truly concerned with the state of endangered animals, the chocolate with their picture on the package may make you feel better about buying a dark chocolate bar that is still 30% sugar. Here, however, the shopper has a few more alternatives for lower sugar chocolates. One bar is sweetened with stevia. It has a phenomenal amount of fiber at 12 grams and only 1 gram of sugar, and it is pretty good. The 40% cacao milk chocolate bar has a flavor much more reminiscent of dark chocolate. The other option is a bar sweetened with coconut crystals. It is labeled as low glycemic, but with 27 grams of sugar in a 64 gram serving it is 42% sugar.
As I worked on my sugar map for the health food store, it became clear that sugar does occupy a bit less real estate here than in the other two stores, but only just slightly less. The sugar here is “all natural”, but there is little evidence to indicate that natural sugar is any better than other sugars. Some current research implicated high fructose corn syrup as the primary culprit in our nation’s declining health since “…the six-fold increase in cases of diabetes since 1985 exactly parallels the global increase in high fructose corn syrup (HCFS) consumption.” (Albritton 344) But, “…a growing body of research suggests that sugar (as well as) its nearly chemically identical cousin, HFCS, may very well cause diseases that kill hundreds of thousands of Americans every year…” (Couzens), suggesting that “all-natural” sugar is just as guilty. As for added sugar versus naturally occurring, most reports on healthy amounts of sugar discuss added sugar only. But, the health information on the packaging only labels total sugar, so it is virtually impossible to tell how much is added versus how much is natural – if that even matters. Albritton and Couzens’ reports both indicate that the studies we rely upon to tell us what is healthy and what isn’t cannot be relied upon due to the huge influence the sugar lobby has over research, funding, and marketing strategies. Add to that deception with the apparently highly addictive properties of sugar as reported by both authors, and the American consumer has little hope of navigating our way towards a more healthy diet – regardless of where she shops.
Many years ago, I heard that the best way to shop for healthy food was to stick to the perimeter of the store, since most grocery stores tend to keep the fresh and minimally processed foods like produce, meat, and dairy along the outer walls of the store. I am not so sure this is true anymore. Perhaps the people who specialize in store layouts got wind of this plan, which explains the presence of chocolate covered pretzels and the salt water taffy in my bananas.. Even sticking to the exterior of the store, the average consumer is still lambasted with sugar added foods at every turn. Conflicting reports about the vices or virtues of sugar, fats, and salts make it difficult for consumers to make educated decisions and ingredient labels which read like a list of chemistry experiments confuse and misguide even the savviest shoppers. With all of this, the worst blow was realizing that nothing we’ve read or learned can really be trusted. So, how do we decide, and what do we eat? I don’t really know, but somehow, I think I have yet to be lied to by the broccoli lobby…
All diagrams and photos by blog author; photos taken between April 28 and May 7, 2015
Albertsons. Traditions and History. 2015. 11 May 2015. <http://www.albertsons.com/our-company/traditions-history/>.
Albritton, Robert. “Between Obesity and Hunger: The Capitalist Food Industry.” Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik, editors. Food and Culture: A Reader. New York: Taylor & Francis, 2013. 342-352.
Couzens, Gary Taubes and Cristin Kearns. “Big Sugar’s Sweet Little Lies.” November/December 2012. Mother Jones. 11 May 2015. <http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2012/10/sugar-industry-lies-campaign>.
Dollar General. About Dollar General. 2015. 10 May 2015. <http://www2.dollargeneral.com/About-Us/pages/Index.aspx>.
Robertson, Emma. Chocolate, women and empire. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009.