Supermarkets: The Illusion of Overchoice

In the last few years, there’s been lots of articles about over-choice. Actually, the whole idea of a jaded, stressed out consumer barely managing to keep up with a ‘fast paced’ society has become a cliché.

However, I’ve long thought this whole issue to be a false dilemma.
The abundance of choice in our times is mostly an illusion.

At a supermarket 80% of the merchandise is made of the same 4 or 5 ingredients. They’re just used in different proportions and made palatable with different artificial flavorings and food colorings.
Among produce, most is picked unripe and low in quality. Most types come in only one variety model T style.

Our idea of overwhelming choice is merely our reaction to another clever sleight of hand in the distracting magic show that is our society.

In some ways grocery stores offer considerably less choice than our much economically poorer ancestors. They might not have been able to buy out of season/tropical fruit shipped in from around the world, but they would have had access to local fruits right off the tree. Plus they would have had access to multiple varietals of each type of fruit before everything was reduced to the single most profitable commercial strain. Even without refrigeration, they had plenty of their own preservation methods to choose from: salt, smoking, drying, alcohol, honey, vinegar, fermentation, hops and other anti-bacterial herbs, various fats and oils… They had lots of choices.

In our present society, being able to eat any kind of food right at the source is a rarity and a privilege!

Many of the very best food items must be eaten at or close to the source. Bacteria tend to love nutrient rich food just as much as humans do.

Oysters, in particular have to be kept alive almost until the moment they are eaten. Their taste and flavor starts to go perceptibly downhill almost from the instant of their death. Really, anything from the sea just isn’t the same if it isn’t absolutely fresh.
I’ve seen Koreans and Japanese turn their nose up at any kind of seafood that’s been dead for more than a few hours. They come from traditional maritime cultures and they know better.

Presently, most rich and poor alike have no choice but to pay faceless corporations to produce, handle, process, package, ship, and sell them their food. Not one of these middlemen has any reason to have the consumer’s best interests at heart. They are thus prone to taking profitable shortcuts that degrade the entire food supply. Even without worrying about being stabbed in the back by impersonal food suppliers, fresh food only degrades from the moment it is ready to eat. The further one is from the source, the lower the quality of the food available for purchase.

Any culture around that’s stayed in the same place for millennia has hundreds of local plants and animals that are regularly used in their cuisine. Truly, their diet is far more varied than that of a modern urban dweller getting all their food from a supermarket.. Plus, they know exactly how to use every single food in their diet.
Koreans for example, use baby shrimp from a particular time of year to flavor their kimchi.(6th month, June, I believe). Local food eaters all over the world, not only have access to food at the source, they have both the ability and knowledge to eat that food at its peak of desirability.

The aisles of a supermarket are filled with an impressive array of thousands upon thousands of different brands.
Yet how much choice do we have if we have access only to brand name products, no matter how many there might be?
Does it make any difference how many brands of macaroni and cheese there are if the only difference between them is the advertising on the package?

Much of the illusion of choice and abundance we perceive arises because we confuse products with commodities.
Products are an item marketed under a brand name.
The commodity is the base item/ingredients no matter whose label is slapped onto it.

A grocery store reduced to generic commodities would offer surprisingly few options.
The illusion would be shattered, the shelves clearly full of dreary uniform rations subjected to massive amounts of flash heating, freeze drying, and preservatives. Most all of it would contain(or be entirely made of) isolated wheat, corn, rapeseed, cotton seed, and soy byproducts. Without the glamour and the labels, there wouldn’t be much to distinguish the breakfast cereals from the dog food. Such a selection would seem more fitting for a distant military outpost than an actual civilization.

One response to “Supermarkets: The Illusion of Overchoice

  1. Thank you for disenchanting supermarkets for us. Beer department of a large liquor store may have hundreds if not thousands of different beers, but I think that people age getting tired of overabundance and some stores are rolling the selection back.

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