Beware The Middle

by John Shields


The Grocery Store & Processed Foods Revisited


"Beware the middle.” that was the recommendation in my June ‘08 Our Common Table column. The “middle,” referred to the middle of our grocery stores and supermarkets. My thought process: the powers that be in the grocery business had devised a plan to situate most of the highly over processed food primarily in the mid section of their establishments. In my somewhat over simplistic observations I felt the “perimeter” of the supermarkets, which surrounds those devious, nutritional dens of iniquity a.k.a., the middle, host relatively—perhaps even healthy, products. Well, actually really just the produce section. But I implied that the other perimeter sections hosted rather benign foods i.e. dairy, seafood, meat, and bakery. Part of my rationale was at least there are choices: organic or non, fair trade vs. not-so-fair, or locally produced vs. industrial farms.

Not long after the June ‘08 article was published I received an e-mail from an extraordinarily articulate and insightful fellow, a “real” food devotee. Basically Keith (that’s his name) felt I had generalized and reinforced a stereotypical concept which he referred to as the “dieter’s wives tale”—essentially that all the middle food is bad and the perimeter is good.

And boy was he right! So I spent the next year really re-looking at the offerings of the perimeter and taking a new inventory of the middle. All the while Keith’s e-mail sat looking over my shoulder, sort of a little electronic conscience.

Walking into the dairy sections I totally let go of the “well at least there’s a choice between organic or non.” Come on John get real. Keith’s e-mail reminded me that the once healthy aspects of yogurt were now negated with the infusion of corn syrup, coloring and stabilizers. And let’s not forget the “bakery” department with its not-so-homemade white breads, cakes and pies. My e-mail correspondent was quite correct in his assessment of the perimeter.

With loins girded I headed back into the cavernous aisles of the “middle.” To be fair to myself I looked back to the original article and re-read my initial reflection on the middle aisles. Here’s what I wrote:

“Food experts and dieticians alike advise us to stay out of the middle of the supermarket where products that are highly processed by huge industrial “food” makers fill the shelves. They are seductive little jars, bags, cans, and plastic containers all cheerfully decorated and telling us just how delicious, easy and often, how healthy they are.

But given the facts most of these products are simply vehicles to transport salt, sugar, high fructose corn syrup, saturated fat, and trans fat, containing virtually little to any natural nutritional value. However the purchase of these items has far reaching ramifications. Beyond the economic havoc they play in our local communities let’s consider the physiological results of our regularly eating this type of food. Our country and culture is in the midst of an epidemic of diabetes, obesity and heart disease–just to name a few of the ailments.”

On second look, I can’t say the sentiment or and tone was entirely wrong. What was misleading is the part about every professional in the world telling us to stay out of “the middle.” Truth be told, these nasty little food creatures described above can–and–do exist in every grocery store department. But the flip side of that coin is, truly healthy, nutritious products can be found as well. As Keith points out, “perhaps as consumers we need to keep our attention on the food products themselves and not where they are located.”

As highly processed unhealthy foods slowly continue their assault, making a conquest of the entire supermarket, our only self-defense is vigilance in making sensible, healthy purchases. I mostly rely on local farmers markets for good “real” food. But even in the grocery store “real” nutritious food can be found. There are thousands of responsible companies producing good wholesome food—some in an unadulterated state and some minimally processed.

The End? Well not so fast. While re-evaluating my views on mega grocers some new and startling (at least to me) observations and “get a clue” moments emerged. So dear readers stay tuned and keep your eyes open for the next issue of Baltimore Eats where in Our Common Table I’ll present: In Defense of Processed Food. Oh no, has he gone over to the Dark Side?


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