Grocery Stores Have Changed Dramatically — Here’s How That Affects You

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Unless you shop exclusively at farmer's markets or order takeout multiple times a week, your daily food consumption mostly comes from one place: your local grocery store. And while you might think you have complete autonomy over everything that passes through your lips, what’s available at the grocery store influences your meal planning, your packed lunches, and the snacks that you keep on hand.

Today, grocery stores do feature fresh, colorful fruits and vegetables and other staples of a well-rounded diet, such as organic dairy and meat. However, they’re also jampacked with processed foods, calorie-laden sugar bombs, and confusing nutrition labels that leave you wondering whether a package of gluten-free crackers is actually healthy. But how have grocery stores changed over the years from the ways our ancestors sourced food in the past, and how has that impacted our dietary habits and chronic illnesses today? Here, learn more about the modern grocery store and what price you might be paying in exchange for convenience and low costs.

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Locally sourced food takes a back shelf to mass production.

In the past, grocery stores may have mostly featured local vendors (think: mom-and-pop farmers who lived and worked in the community). You knew exactly where the spinach you were buying came from, who farmed it, and what farming methods they used. Not only did this proximity help you get the freshest produce possible, but it also fostered a connection between you and your food, and a deeper sense of how each member of your community supported one another.

Today, however, most products in your local grocery store come from one of ten major U.S. corporations: Kraft, Coca-Cola, Nestle, P&G, Johnson & Johnson, Unilever, Pepsico, General Mills Inc, Kellogg's, and Mars. This type of consolidation began in the 1980s with mergers and acquisitions that paved the way for large corporations to take over the food industry.

With this concentration of power, many brands gain valuable shelf space in grocery stores (especially if they’re niche products, such as gluten-free brands), and they can also be produced at cheaper costs. However, the corporations controlling these food brands have the power to determine what ingredients are used and what recipes are followed, meaning they can make cuts and changes with less transparency. The result: fewer choices at the shelf, unless you’re willing to spend more and/or go to multiple grocery stores for your shopping.

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Major food companies spend millions on lobbying.

According to a 2021 review, 30 major food and beverage businesses (such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Kraft) spend an average of nearly $40 million a year on lobbying. And the issues they’re fighting for aren’t always transparent to consumers, although they likely encompass agriculture, transportation, the environment, federal budget/appropriations and labor/antitrust issues.

While what's happening in D.C. may seem very far away from your local grocery store, the monetary sway these companies have can affect everything from the marketing terms companies can and cannot use on their packaging to what nutrition labels are required to include to what tax breaks organic farmers might be eligible for. Remember, at the end of the day, the major food corporations are big businesses looking to maximize profit — and the money they spend lobbying is a means to that end.

Most junk food that’s consumed comes from grocery stores.

When it comes to the consumption of “junk” food, fast food isn’t the main villain anymore. Instead, research has shown that in 2017–2018, grocery stores provided the largest proportion of junk food (72.7% for children, 77.1% for adults) in the American diet. Not only are grocery store shelves stocked with thousands of brands of packaged foods, but these foods are also priced and marketed for mass appeal, whether that’s a stressed mother of four looking to save some money or a college student grocery shopping on their own for the first time without a deep understanding of basic nutrition. By infiltrating your local grocery stores, these food corporations have made packaged and processed food seem like the normal majority of an American diet, instead of the locally-grown produce and organically farmed dairy and meat that was common 80 or so years ago.

How to find alternative food sources and lower your reliance on the grocery store

While it may not be practical to avoid the grocery store altogether, there are steps you can take to reduce your reliance on big-box food corporations. Try incorporating these habits into your regular meal-planning and grocery-shopping routine, and see if you notice a difference in your nutrition, your energy levels, and your symptom management of any chronic illnesses.

Prioritize shopping local. Many grocery stores have signage or an entire section devoted to locally grown food products. Make a point to shop from that section first and get as much from your list using that locally-grown food. You can also search for farmers' markets in your area and make a weekly trip part of your shopping routine. Get to know the stand purveyors and build relationships with them; you might learn a thing or two about their farming practices (and if you have children, bring them with you for a fun, educational field trip!). You’ll also get a better sense of what’s in-season at farmer’s markets, which is helpful because seasonal produce is more likely to be fresher with higher nutritional content.

Start your own garden. Dedicate a little corner of your backyard to a homegrown garden. Research what produce grows best in your area and what times of year you’ll need to prepare, plant, and harvest. If you don’t have the space or a backyard, look for a community garden in your area or consider starting your own. You might be surprised by the sense of pride you feel when you harvest tomatoes for the first time!

Try to eat like your great-grandparents. At Wild Health, we recommend this simple trick when grocery shopping and eating: Shop as if your great-grandmother was helping you. Only reach for foods she would have recognized, and cook recipes she might have had in her recipe book. This technique will help you avoid packaged foods, junk foods, and overly processed foods that might have long-term negative effects on your health.