Photo: Hollis Bennett
Spend two hours in a big supermarket, not shopping, just studying the food and customers, trying to take every bit of it in, trying to receive fresh clues about an everyday activity. Ninety minutes in, you may find yourself having an out-of-body experience, as if wandering the aisles with Timothy Leary's ghost. Such is the hallucinatory effect when you open your mind to all the brands, claims, data, memes, and pop culture icons that crowd shelves and packages, hooting and hollering for attention. There are as many as 40,000 products in a supermarket, just one of which, if you stop to study it, is a cereal that offers nine health-related bits of information on the front of the box and 134 bits of information about nutrition and ingredients overall.
Now that you're in the cereal aisle, walk its length. There are 28 paces of product, five shelves high: a staggering number of variations on the single theme of something crunchy to pour milk over. Of 137 cereal products, about 93 look to be sugary. But there are also sugar-free cereals, low-added-sugar products, "natural" products, and products containing urgent amounts of fiber. Blockbuster brands dominate, but here and there, poking up like weeds, are strange species like Alf's Natural Nutrition Red Wheat Cereal, from Beloit, Wisconsin, which contains precisely one ingredient: wheat.
Keep walking and watching—all aisles. If you regularly listen to critics of the American food supply (prince among them Michael Pollan), then you may sink into a funk: Sugar, fat, and salt, the three sirens of the American diet, still seem front-loaded in so many products. A "light" 3-ounce snack pack intended for one child contains 77 ingredients, 17 grams of fat, 7 grams of saturated fat, 1 gram of trans fat, and 620 milligrams of sodium. Mark Bittman, crusading New York Times columnist and cookbook author, would say that a lot of this food is not even "real," inasmuch as he finds it not "recognizable by appearance or flavor as what it was when it started." Little cans of propellent-powered cheese spread insist that they are, however, "made of real cheese!"
But if you push beyond the familiar critique, you can see that the supermarket is a dynamic place, in flux, scrambling to keep up with changes beyond its walls. Greek yogurt's takeover of the cultured-milk aisle is stunning: If yogurt were euros, Greece could have told Germany to take a long walk off a short pier, in lederhosen. If you seek soy, coconut, or rice milk, or gluten-free products, they're here. If you want organic foods, they're here, too, in increasing numbers, along with quinoa and other whole grains. In the meat aisle there are hefty packs of as-real-as-it-gets fresh tripe and fresh tongue—immigrant shoppers are being listened to. Over in condiments, there's Sriracha, the new ketchup of the global pantry.
Even the archcritics of Big Food, such as New York University's Marion Nestle, who is busy revising Food Politics, her scathing critique published 10 years ago, are amazed by the changes. "If you look at the difference between the kind of food that's available in supermarkets now and 20 years ago, you can't even compare them. There's so much more available. The quality of the food, the widespread availability of fruits and vegetables is an enormous change. ... The 24/7 availability of fresh fruit is astonishing!"
You are not wandering this supermarket, of course; I am, and it's a Walmart in Birmingham, Alabama, hometown of this magazine. Meaning its selection, though vast, is actually less diverse than that found only three miles away at a Publix supermarket, where you can also get cipollini onions, yucca root, Southern scuppernong grapes, avocado oil, brown basmati rice, ground buffalo, and Plugrá butter. And Walmart's selection of organic foods—though growing—cannot begin to compare to that found farther down the road at Whole Foods, which, by the way, is the supermarket company with the largest public valuation of any in the country.
Supermarkets are in flux because our food culture is bubbling and fermenting like mad. Despite the fulminating about the fatty, sugary excesses of so many products, and despite the haunting tragedy of the obesity epidemic, all this change means that this is the best time to be eating—and eating healthy—in America in the past 25 years. Which, it turns out, is the same as saying it's the best time to be eating in America ever.