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There’s a little funny business going on in the produce section of my local supermarket. There, nestled next to the apples, are cartons of caramel sauce. Tucked in by the strawberries are tubs of chocolate glaze. There’s neon-orange cheese sauce alongside the fresh chili peppers, and a huge display of tortilla chips next to the avocados. It looks as if a turf war is going on with packaged foods competing for space in the produce section—an area that used to be reserved only for healthy, fresh fruits and vegetables.
It’s understandable that packaged food manufacturers would want to worm their way into the produce department. For one thing, most retailers place their fresh fruits and veggies close to the entrance, so it’s the first thing shoppers see when they come in. Shoppers also say that the quality of fresh produce is one of the key factors in deciding which market to go to, and an attractive produce display plays up the freshness angle. And to most people fresh suggests healthy.
Of course, fresh fruits and vegetables are good for you. And they deserve to wear their “health halo” proudly. Then there are some foods that wear the halo even though they probably shouldn’t—foods that sound healthier than they are, like granola bars (mostly refined flour and sugar) or certain yogurts (the brightly colored sugary stuff in a tube). But here we’ve got foods that don’t even sound healthy—like caramel sauce, processed cheese and chips—that end up wearing the halo simply because they sit next to foods that do. It’s sort of a “health halo by association.”
It seems to be having an effect on shoppers. Stores are finding that consumers think that anything found in the produce section is fresher and of higher quality, even if it’s packaged, which is why many food companies want to claim some space there. As it is, most markets will keep refrigerated salad dressings next to the lettuce, and you’ll sometimes find vegetarian meat products and tofu in the produce section, too. This seems reasonably logical—the dressings have to stay chilled, and the meatless meats and tofu are vegetable-based. But when you see a tub of caramel sauce sitting next to a display of fresh apples, well, that’s just an impulse buy waiting to happen.
When it comes down to it, that’s exactly what the grocers want you to do. Impulse buying has a big impact on their bottom line (and the extra calories you consume as a result can have a big impact on you, too). It’s no accident that the dairy case is usually at the back of the store. We run out of milk or eggs more often than almost any other food, so chances are good that we’ll pick up something else as we run in and make our way to the rear. And who hasn’t fallen victim to an impulse candy purchase at the checkout?
Savvy supermarket shoppers know most of the ground rules for healthy grocery shopping: shop along the perimeter where the fresh foods tend to be, don’t shop when you’re hungry, and make a list and stick to it, so you’ll curb your impulse buying. Now that we’ve got items popping up in the produce section that don’t really belong there, it looks like we need to add another rule to the list: don’t assume that everything you see in the produce section is healthy for you. Or, for that matter, that it’s even a fruit or a vegetable at all.