When you visit the supermarket, you’re in a comfortable place. That’s by design. Grocery stores carefully control the experience by mapping out their aisles, playing serene music, and even pumping in scented air. The goal, plain and simple, is to keep you shopping. We can’t blame them—every company has its secrets—but some of them are pretty surprising. Read on to learn more about bananas engineered to be a specific shade of yellow, “meat glue,” and all the other wily ways supermarkets and food manufacturers bend reality.
1. When it comes to shopping carts, bigger is better (for supermarkets).
Have you ever realized that you always fill up your shopping cart? Well, supermarkets have taken note. The Consumerist reports that shopping cart sizes have grown dramatically over the past few decades, and for good reason: When carts doubled in size, consumers purchased 40 percent more, according to marketing consultant Martin Lindstrom. “No problem,” you’re saying to yourself, “I’ll just grab a basket instead of a cart.” Not so fast. Some researchers hypothesize that you’ll be more impulsive if you use a basket. Why? They suggest that since you’ll be flexing your arm muscles, you’ll feel healthier and you’ll be more likely to buy unhealthy items as a result. (In other words, humans are really innovative at justifying their own pleasure-seeking behaviors.) However, Luk Warlop, professor of the Department of Marketing at BI Norwegian Business School, isn’t convinced. “Compare a shopping cart with a much smaller shopping basket,” Warlop tells HealthyWay. “Suppose you go into the store for only a few things that would fit in the basket (but it would be quite full). If the basket is filling up while you tour the store, you might use it as a signal that you have bought enough. That signal is absent (or comes after many more purchases) when you use the shopping cart.” So, can a cart make someone spend more, or are baskets the true threat? “Both might be true for different subgroups of customers,” Warlop says.
2. They might change expiration dates.
What’s more…it’s not really a big deal, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). To all of the expiration date–obsessed shoppers out there: Don’t be lulled into a false state of comfort by the label, friends. The powers that be are powerless to stop stores from selling food past its “best by” date, and some supermarkets simply change the listed dates. (Before you start chucking all your recent buys, you should know that, in many cases, that’s completely safe, since those original “best by” dates weren’t so accurate to begin with. Kind of makes you wonder who’s steering that ship, though.) As the FDA writes on its website: “With the exception of infant formula, the laws that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) administers do not preclude the sale of food that is past the expiration date indicated on the label. FDA does not require food firms to place ‘expired by’, ‘use by’ or ‘best before’ dates on food products. This information is entirely at the discretion of the manufacturer.” However, the store does need to remove a food item if it’s potentially dangerous, so spoiled products shouldn’t make their way in your cart. If they do, you can always get a refund. Alternatively, you can simply avoid many of these products by checking for overlapping labels. And, of course, always rely on your senses: if something smells or tastes foul, don’t risk it.
3. The butchers might glue meat together.
Many supermarkets use a substance called transglutaminase to bind pieces of meat together, essentially creating large steaks with smaller chunks of beef. The substance is sometimes called “meat glue,” which, in addition to being a great band name, is a fairly unappetizing combination of words. Naturally, some consumers were outraged to learn that their $5 sirloins were Frankenmeats, but in many parts of the country, supermarkets aren’t legally obligated to label their glued meat products. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to identify glued meat, as it looks just like normal meat with marbling. You might not even taste the difference. In fact, you might have had eaten pounds of the stuff, and until labeling laws change, you can expect to eat quite a bit more. As unsettling as the notion of cobbled-together ribeye sounds, food and agriculture correspondent for Mother Jones, Tom Philpott, pointed out that perhaps there are meat industry happenings more concerning than an enzyme that’s naturally found in blood being used to bind proteins together. Like, for example, livestock being fed…themselves? “Every year, dairy and beef cows are fed around 2 billion pounds of chicken litter—chicken [poop] dead chickens, and leftover feeds, which contains cow protein,” Philpott wrote. “Cows being fed chicken [poop] is deeply gross; cows eating cow protein is downright scary.” We have to agree.
4. Even the yellow of your banana was engineered to pull you in.
As National Geographic noted, supermarkets pay big money to study the psychology of shoppers. High-end supermarkets know how to carefully frame their fruits and vegetables in the perfect amount of light to attract interest; they understand that when customers walk through the produce section first, they’re more likely to make impulse purchases later. That’s why every supermarket guides you through the fresh produce before dropping you off at the cookie aisle. Essentially, supermarkets are planned to persuade you to make those impulse purchases. A classic example is the banana. At some point, marketing analyses revealed that customers preferred bananas of the 12-0752 shade (the numerals correspond to the Pantone color scale) over the brighter 13-0858. Banana farmers responded quickly, growing their crops under conditions that would produce the 12-0752. There was no taste difference, of course, but soon every supermarket was overflowing with the 12-0752.
5. The entire layout of a grocery store is designed to make you spend more money
Even if you know what you need before you go to the store, and even if you only go down one aisle, you are still going to walk past a plethora of tempting items that you can’t help but add to your basket. As our video below details, grocery stores tailor their layouts specifically to ensure you buy more than you intended—and it works.
6. Once you make it to the cookie aisle, all bets are off.
So, let’s say that supermarket psychologists succeed in delivering you to the Isle of Delicious Temptations—because, honestly, once you find yourself there, isn’t it kind of like everything else disappears except you and those temptations?—you’re on your own, my guy, like Jesus in the desert. The flesh is weak. Food manufacturers know this, and that’s why they’ve invested so much in creating the sultriest foods imaginable: We’re talking scientifically-engineered-to-get-you-hooked combos of luscious fat, salt, and sugar. The ideal levels of certain essential tasty features in a product maximize consumer cravings, and this is known in the food industry as the “bliss point.” These hyper-palatable items keep us coming back for more. “Regardless of the terminology we use to describe the effects of these stimuli on our brains, the point is that food—and especially food that is layered and loaded with sugar, fat, and salt—holds great sway over us,” wrote Dr. David A. Kessler in his book The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite. “This is simply how we are wired to respond.”
7. About that water that sprays on the “fresh” produce…
Well, in some cases. Some greens do require frequent misting. However, many fruits and vegetables don’t require additional hydration when they get to the store. So…why waste the water? Well, the water gives the produce a nice shine. The misting also helps to build the case that the food is fresh, even when it’s not. Many produce items are stored in climate-controlled rooms, where the oxygen is sucked out to stop the spoiling process, produce industry blogger Lori Taylor told HuffPost. Some fruits are six months old by the time they hit the shelves (they taste fine, though). Back to the mist: That’s just normal water, not special disinfectant water. By the time you choose your fruits and vegetables, a bunch of other people have walked by the same display—and some of them probably picked up your apples and oranges before deciding on a different purchase. That means that produce is pretty filthy, so you should always wash it before eating.
8. Fish are often mislabeled.
You can’t sell chicken and call it pork, but you can certainly sell certain types of seafood as other types of seafood. Oceana, an ocean conservation advocacy group, released a report with an analysis of 25,000 seafood samples purchased from various locations worldwide. The report showed an average “seafood fraud” rate of 30 percent. More disturbingly, 58 percent of those fraudulent samples were from fish species that could potentially cause health risks for people with certain allergies. The advocacy group is hoping to prompt the United States government to exercise tighter control over seafood sales, because right now it’s something of a free for all. In the European Union, strong regulations have dramatically reduced fish fraud over the past several years. “Some grocers provide traceable fish, and if people ask, hopefully managers will learn people want to know where their seafood comes from,” said Kimberly Warner, report author and senior scientist at Oceana.
9. Supermarkets can fail inspections without getting shut down—and that’s gross.
Like restaurants, grocers face regular health inspections. They can lose points for operating unclean stores, especially if inspectors find mice, insects, or other pests contaminating the stock. You might reasonably assume that a failed inspection means a total shutdown for the offending grocer. Here’s what happens if a supermarket fails an inspection: pretty much nothing. Fox 29 found one grocery store in Florida that had failed three separate inspections but remained open. CBS 42 in Atlanta found a butcher that failed its inspection but remained open (the store was eventually re-tested and received a passing grade). Why? Well, inspectors are more concerned with restaurants, and in many jurisdictions, they simply don’t have the power to shut down massive grocery stores. You can typically find the inspection reports for your local supermarket, but depending on where you live, this might be a difficult process. So choose your supermarket wisely. And, once you’re inside, remember that there is a way to beat the system: Make a list. A 2015 study found that people who make shopping lists are much more likely to make healthy choices, because they’re thinking through their purchases at home—without the temptation of supermarket staging, end caps, flexed arm muscles, and all of that other stuff.