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Thursday, March 11, 2021

Being More Mindful When Grocery Shopping

Back to the discussion on principled buying . . .

With food, in addition to avoiding specific countries or companies for ideological reasons, I also want to take food safety seriously. Some countries have very weak safety guidelines concerning pesticides, fertilizers, water and soil contamination, and chemical preservatives like formaldehyde and sulphur dioxide used to make "old" produce appear to be fresh. In addition, some countries have different standards for "organic" than North America and the EU, meaning that a product may be labeled "organic" but not meet the guidelines that you've come to expect. 

Most of us are tuned in to where our fresh produce comes from, but do we really know where our packaged and frozen foods are coming from? I did a quick inventory of my own pantry, fridge and freezers and found:
  • orange juice concentrate from Central America
  • apple juice concentrate from China
  • coffee from Mexico
  • hazelnut spread (my daughter's) from Mexico
  • other hazelnut spread (also daughter's) from Germany
  • honey from Canada and Argentina
  • cocoa powder from Holland and Germany
  • shredded coconut from the Philippines
  • mixed nuts from Argentina, Mexico, Vietnam, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Bolivia, Peru, Columbia
  • canned pineapple from Thailand and Indonesia
  • boxed pasta - "made with imported ingredients"
  • canned tuna from Thailand
  • unflavored gelatin from Brazil
  • yeast from Mexico
  • frozen Asian stir fry vegetable blend from China, Mexico
  • frozen chicken breast fillets from Mexico
  • frozen broccoli from Mexico
  • frozen blueberries from Canada
No indication but most likely not USA-produced:
  • black tea
  • chocolate chips
It's not that all of the above countries are in question. I completely trust the safety of the honey and blueberries from Canada and the cocoa powder  and hazelnut spread from Germany and Holland. I was just very surprised by some items. The peanuts in the can of mixed nuts came not just from the US ( as most of us would imagine) but also from Argentina and Mexico. And who would have thought that my big bag of yeast was produced in Mexico?

A lot of products don't indicate on the packaging where the contents are produced. Some brands are better than others at this. Many of Walmart and WinCo's house-brand items are produced outside of the US. But there are also a lot of their house-brands that are stamped USA. Here's a contrast -- my canned mixed nuts were from 9 different countries in addition to the US, while my bag of Great Value pecan halves were USA-only. 

Some highly recognizable name-brand foods that you would think are American products are actually from other countries. For example Dole canned pineapple. Dole canned pineapple chunks, slices, and crushed are products of the Philippines and Thailand. Dole canned pineapple juice and Dole jarred pineapple chunks are products of the Philippines. If you want Hawaiian Dole pineapple you have to buy fresh pineapple that is labeled product of Hawaii. 

USA-produced is not always most expensive. Sometimes the bargain version of a food is the USA-produced one, such as the Dollar Tree frozen blueberries that I bought. DT's frozen blueberries are stamped "product of USA" while the more expensive frozen blueberries from Walmart are stamped "product of Canada."

A complicated case is found with apple juice. Most of the frozen apple juice concentrate available in the USA is now made in China. The store-brands of frozen apple juice concentrate (AJC) from both winCo and Walmart are stamped with "Product of China." Old Orchard's website indicates that they source their apple juice concentrate globally (including from China) for bottling in the USA.  Bottles of Mott's apple juice are stamped indicating that the product is made with apple juice concentrate from China and Turkey. There are two bright spots in apple juice production in the US, Tree Top and Martinelli's. The apples used in Tree Top apple juice are 100% grown in the USA. Tree Top supplies most of the American-grown and processed apple juice concentrate in the US. Martinelli's is another "made in the USA" apple juice, using 100% USA apples. Not concentrated, Martinelli's is bottled in large glass bottles or individual-size bottles and rather pricey. Apple juice particularly concerns me, because I use commercial apple juice as a base for some of my vegetable juices and my family really enjoys apple juice. I question the safety of China-produced apple juice. There was a study a while back concerning high arsenic levels in China-produced AJC compared to USA-produced AJC. Going forward, I'll be more likely to spend extra on USA apple juice and try to save money in the food budget elsewhere.

Although my family doesn't eat a lot of frozen fish, I have read that those products could be a concern, and I'm mentioning it because I know a lot of folks do buy frozen fish. Frozen tilapia and cod from China is often farm-raised. I have read a few articles that raise concerns about the farm-raised tilapia from China. The fish are raised in crowded and sometimes polluted water, possibly using more chemicals than are healthy. I don't want to tell you what to believe, so I recommend you search for more info on this, if it is a concern to you.

It isn't always just a matter of finding a USA-version for X,Y, or Z. There are some foods that I can't find as USA-produced, such as cocoa powder, canned tuna fish, or fresh bananas (not on my list, but something we consume a lot of). And there are some foods for which I could find a US substitute, but those would be very expensive, such as Hawaiian coffee and shredded coconut or South Carolina black tea. Due to their cost, those products would be more along the lines of specialty food items, in my opinion, and not basic groceries.

My personal plan is to choose one item that most offends me (based on country of origin) and try to work a better choice into our budget. When I've found ways to make that work, I'll add the next item. And, so on, until I feel satisfied with the sourcing of all of my family's food. 

In the end analysis, if my budget were constrained and I had to choose between buying my food from a non-preferred country vs not buying enough food, buying enough food, even from a "bad" country, wins hands-down. It's like my thinking concerning buying organic produce vs buying "regular" produce. If buying "regular" produce means I buy and eat more fruits and vegetables than if I were to buy organic produce due to budget constraints, I think it's a better choice to buy the "regular" produce. The additional nutrients of more produce would hopefully outweigh any negative effects from residual pesticides and fertilizers.

Fortunately, there are some workarounds that remain frugal options for many of us. Growing a vegetable garden, going to local u-pick farms and orchards, buying from local farm stands, and eating in-season produce are all ways to ensure your produce is grown in the country(ies) of your choosing while not spending more for those items. And as you can see from my list of non-USA foods in my own kitchen, there were only about 2 dozen different foods that were produced outside the US. And of those, there are only about a half-dozen that I feel I should look into finding alternates. That's not too overwhelming.

(It's true what they say, writing something out helps clarify one's own mind about a topic.)


  1. I've very much enjoyed your series on shopping by principle. It has been very informative and helpful!

  2. That was interesting reading. I go through phases when I read all of the labels to find country of origin for our food and try to target the countries I feel have better health standards. And then my focus changes to something else, and I am then focused on nutrition and ease of prep. It all depends on how many things are competing for my attention.

    I think there are some foods that will be hard to find sourced in the US because we just don't have the climate to produce them in large qualities such as bananas, pineapple, and coffee. As an aside, one time when we were living in New Orleans and had an unusually warm winter, our banana tree actually produced bananas. That was something I had never seen and it was very exciting.

    1. Hi Live and Learn,
      that was one of my conclusions, some foods just not available as US-produced, or in such small quantities as to be seen as specialty foods. That's cook you had bananas in NO.

  3. Hi Lili. My comments don't seem to be posting, though it may be that you haven't approved them yet. Just hoping my last post didn't totally disappear. Thought I'd try a quick post just to check. Thanks.

    1. Hi Lynn,
      It's a glitch with Blogger this week. Someone else emailed me saying their comments aren't showing up. I checked both the Spam and Awaiting folders and nothing from you. I'm sorry about that.

  4. Hmmm. Well, I will try to recreate my last post since it does seem to have disappeared.

    I have enjoyed your comments on this topic as well. One would certainly think that some apple juice would come from WA. I wonder if most of the kinds of apples from WA are eaten out of hand, whereas other varieties are used for juice? But surely there are "juice" type apples somewhere in Washington state!

    You correctly pointed out that sometimes it is complicated. Here in the Outer Banks of NC, commercial fishing has been a way of life for generations. I have a friend whose family owned a large, multinational fishing company. As more people are eating seafood, it has created pressures on fish stocks. One of their best sellers were scallops. However, due to concerns for over fishing, limits were placed on scallops in our area and on the East Coast. My friend's family negotiated with Argentina-with conservation efforts included-contracts to scallop fish there. So it is an American crew, on an American boat with an American company fishing in Argentina (hence the multinational company). Not sure how their product is marked. Until I relocated here, I had no idea of all of the intricacies and pressures for fishing.

    Also, we have tuna here, but it is not the albacore tuna that is canned. (Tune into "Wicked Tuna Outer Banks" on Sunday nights on Nat Geo if you want to learn a bit about it and see where I live :) Our tuna is yellow fin and blue fin. Yellow fin is not INexpensive, but it is more affordable. Blue fin is limited, is used for sushi, is flown often immediately to Asia and is VERY expensive. Some of the fisherman have gotten up to $47/lb on the dock! I am very fortunate to have available for purchase fresh, hours old seafood. Along with the beaches, it's a wonderful perk of living here!

    1. Hi Lynn,
      thanks for reposting. Sorry about the issues with commenting.
      So, I reached out to Tree Top earlier in the week and they replied yesterday afternoon. All of Tree Top apple juice is made with USA apples and processed/bottled in the USA. So, I have a brand that isn't too expensive that meets my criteria.

      That's interesting about the US-Argentina arrangement for some fishing. I wonder, too, if the product says US, Argentina or both. And I don't think I'll be buying fresh tuna at $47/lb for sandwiches or casserole! LOL

      Thanks for sharing your information, Lynn.

  5. You sure are full of good information!

    First thing is that I'm grateful for what dad grows for us. Second, I can't spend too much time analyzing all the items I need at a grocery store (thanks, Lili for doing that for us!). Third, I prefer Aldi over any other grocery store and it is a German store with German products for the most part. Fourth, there are some things that we must have that comes from less desirable areas but we still need them so it's a catch-22.

    I rarely clothes shop and when I do it is places like goodwill. I was just mentioning that my jeans are wearing thin but the idea of shopping for jeans just doesn't sound good so I'll mend them if I have to. Since working from home, I haven't even swapped out last summer's clothes for winter clothes. Just jeans and a top or sweater (whatever the weather is). As for food, we don't eat fish but I have heard some fish is "dirty".

    I do shop from etsy and I really like what I have gotten though it is a lot more expensive. Someday, I will take the time to read labels better but right now, life is moving at full throttle.

    1. Hi Alice,
      I completely understand not wanting to shop for jeans. I wish women's jeans were as easy to buy as men's, by measurements. I haven't worn anything not casual in over a year. It's jeans or leggings every single day, and always sneakers. I've been wondering if our church services will be more casual when we can finally gather together again.

      I would love to see an Aldi some day. I've imagined it to be something like Trader Joe's, but maybe less gourmet items or organic? I don't know. Trader Joe's is the big alternative grocery chain in the west US. I really like their practices, not putting their label on foods from countries that Americans are wary of, etc.

      Thanks for your comment, Alice.


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