If you’re here, you almost certainly know I’m a fan of Michael Ruhlman’s work, whether it’s his narrative non-fiction books like The Making of a Chef or his indispensable cookbooks like Ruhlman’s Twenty, Ratio, or Egg. He’s also become a potent voice in the drive to get American consumers, who know more about food than ever before but seem to cook it less for themselves, to reconnect with the sources of their food for the good of our health and our planet. He brings those concerns to his non-fiction work for the first time in his newest book, Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America, a work that simultaneously a paean to the American grocery store and a lament over the importance that processed foods play in our diet (and, perhaps, many of our first-world health problems).
Ruhlman does this by revisiting a regional grocery chain from his youth, Heinen’s, which has survived as an independent business when national chains have been snapped up by multinationals. Heinen’s is still run by the grandchildren of its founder, but they take a progressive view of the business and have shown agility larger chains haven’t by being quick to offer organic produce, prepared foods, and craft beers to consumers. The overarching structure of Grocery begins with a brief history of the grocery store – I remember A&P, but had no idea it was once the biggest company in the world – an then takes us department by department, explaining not just what’s in them but how the food (or not-food) gets to the store and how the markets profit off them.
Heinen’s early forays into non-traditional areas for grocers mirrors the industry’s movement as a whole, sometimes foreshadowing changes (like prepared foods, which accounts for between 4 and 8 percent of sales for each Heinen’s store) elsewhere, sometimes lagging, as with organics. Ruhlman specifically cites the changes wrought by Whole Foods, which, depending on your point of view, either found unserved demand for organic items and higher-quality ingredients or created that demand by offering the goods and marketing themselves well; and Wal-mart, which became the country’s main food retailer the day they sold their first box of Cheerios. The industry-wide shifts have allowed medium-sized chains to add value by offering specialty products, like the Lava Lakes lamb Heinen’s offers (with Ruhlman enduring an interesting adventure on the sheep farm to tell us about it) or some artisanal cheeses from makers who could never service a large national account.
Ruhlman’s always at his best when he’s writing first-person accounts, and that’s true even here, as he spends days with various Heinen’s executives and suppliers, as well as going shopping with one of his personal doctors, Dr. Sukol, who has very strong opinions on what is and is not food. That particular chapter is one of several that points out just how much sugar is in processed foods – more on that phrase in a moment – and how eating these “not food” products, in Dr. Sukol’s eyes, may be compromising our health. She says something that has become a sort of mantra for Ruhlman – that food is not “healthy;” we are “healthy,” and food can be nutritious or it can be harmful to our health (or, I’d add, sometimes both). Some of her opinions are based in sound science and others on working hypotheses (e.g., that glyphosate residues harm our intestinal microbiomes, because that chemical targets the shikimate pathway found in microbial metabolism but not in humans). She buys organic to avoid glyphosate and antibiotics, but doesn’t believe GM foods are harmful in and of themselves. She also says something is not food if you look at the ingredients and couldn’t buy them all individually in a grocery store; by that definition, to pick one example, almond milk is not food, even though the unsweetened version is nutritious and is a godsend to people who can’t drink milk.
Heinen’s also employs a full-time doctor to oversee its “wellness” section, and in my view this is where the author could have cast a more skeptical eye, because this “Dr. Todd” sells a lot of bullshit. He’s light on the science, throwing appeals to nature at Ruhlman in between advocacy of useless supplements like turmeric (the tricky chemistry of which means it does nothing useful in the body despite positive results in the test tube). Heinen’s, like all grocery stores – including Whole Foods – makes millions off selling bottled panaceas, nearly all of which do nothing and get by the consumer with vague promises of “promoting” health but no scientific evidence that they do anything at all. Ruhlman does indeed mention their uselessness and his own skepticism of a supplement-based diet, but I would probably have been thrown out of Heinen’s for pointing out all of the woo that Dr. Todd was spinning.
I enjoy when Ruhlman lets a little snark penetrate his thoughtful tone, like when he was behind a shopper at the grocery store who was buying fat-free “half and half,” a product that, ontologically speaking, cannot exist. It’s okay to disdain such abominable food choices – but Ruhlman emphasizes that corporate marketing has contributed to consumer confusion over what’s good for us and even what certain products might contain. (The entire discussion reminded me of bread vendors who made high-fiber breads by adding wood pulp, which almost certainly wasn’t what consumers thought they were consuming.) And the media have contributed to this by jumping on single studies that appear to identify single culprits for all our food-related health woes, first fat, then cholesterol (poor eggs), then salt, and now – although this one may have some legs – sugar, which appears in products under a variety of pseudonyms, including evaporated cane juice, dextrose, maltodextrin, brown rice syrup, or tapioca syrup. They’re all sugar, and by separating them out in the ingredients, manufacturers can avoid telling you that the #1 component of a product is sugar.
Grocery tends to stick to the very common and widely accepted distinction of processed foods, what Ruhlman describes as being in the center of the store, and the other foods, like meat, dairy, and produce, that are found around the store’s perimeter. (If you’ve heard the advice to shop the edges of the grocery store, those are the departments where you’ll spend your cash.) And I may be overly pedantic on this, but almost everything we eat is processed somehow. Take yogurt: First, it’s processed by bacteria, fermenting milk into yogurt. And second, it’s further processed by man, at least to put it in plastic, but often to add sweeteners, fruits, sometimes gels or gums, and other ingredients. (True Greek yogurt is strained of whey and lacks additional thickeners, but many brands sell “Greek” yogurt that is thickened with pectin or other agents.) The meat you buy at the butcher counter is processed too – a process Ruhlman details, explaining how more of the butchering is done at central locations today rather than in-store as it was a few decades ago. Very little of what we eat is truly “unprocessed.” And there are processed foods in the middle of the store that are quite nutritious – oats, nuts, seeds, whole grains, alternative milks (if unsweetened), maybe even dark chocolate. So don’t tell people to avoid “processed foods,” but tell them, as this book encourages, to read the labels and try to understand what you’re buying.
If everyone in America read Grocery, it would cause a cataclysmic shift in our food system. There would still be a market for Oreos and Frosted Flakes, for fast food and donuts and bad coffee, but the book points out how consumer demand can reshape the food production chain, and how retailers can reshape neighborhoods in turn by bringing better food choices to “food deserts,” underserved populations without easy access to quality food. It’s a potent call to action, as well-written as you’d expect from the author of Soul of a Chef, that should change your approach to feeding yourself and your family.