Are You Buying Old Food at the Grocery Store?

This is a guest blog post by Eric Burkett. It originally appeared on Delish.com

Care for a glass of year-old orange juice? How about some pre-washed, bagged spinach picked almost two weeks ago? A five-month-old apple? Month-old meat? If, like most folks, you buy your produce and food at grocery stores, that’s probably what you’re getting.

Choice, an Australian consumer-interest organization, recently published the results of a study revealing that many of the foods Australians purchase are hardly fresh even though legally what’s being sold can be described as such. “Technological advances mean the lamb chops that look so succulent could have been butchered four months ago, and those shiny red apples might have been in storage for more than a year,” according to the group. The thing is – and you knew this was coming – it really isn’t that different here in the U.S., either.

If you’ve ever bought an apple and brought it home only to discover it was kinda mealy, technically, you didn’t buy a bad apple, you bought an old apple. Using refrigeration and a chemical called 1-methylcyclopropene, apples can be picked before they’re ripe and then stored for months on end before they see the light of your supermarket produce aisle. Is 1-methylcyclopropene safe? Yes. Is your apple fresh? If you’re buying American-grown, hard winter apples such as Granny Smith in – say – July, you’re eating an Applesapple that was picked several months before. Is that really fresh? And what about that old morning standby, orange juice?

That refreshing glass of sunshine made from juice concentrate has more than just its flavor and bright color going for it: it’s potentially a year old, too. Last year, Canadian author Allissa Hamilton revealed one of the lesser known secrets of the orange juice biz when she published Squeezed: What You Don’t Know about Orange Juice.

“In the process of pasteurizing, [orange] juice is heated and stripped of oxygen, a process called deaeration, so it doesn’t oxidize,” Hamilton told Boston.com last year. “Then it’s put in huge storage tanks where it can be kept for upwards of a year.”

What’s being stored doesn’t really taste like orange juice anymore, Hamilton explained, so when it’s time to drain the tank and package the juice, flavor specialists are hired to reconstruct the flavor using “flavor packs” derived from orange essence and oils.

“Flavor companies break down the essence and oils into individual chemicals and recombine them,” she added. Feeling smug because you never buy your juice in concentrate form? The fluid stuff isn’t much better, as it happens.

And what about those lovely, pink steaks you purchased for the weekend? Meat packed in carbon monoxide and then wrapped tightly in plastic a week later looks just as good as a similar piece that just hit the shelves. Carbon monoxide – even though the Food and Drug Administration generally regards it as safe – wasn’t such a big hit with consumers when news media got wind of the practice in 2007 and now meat producers are on constant lookout for the next big thing that will keep meat looking fresh even when it isn’t. Ideally, the sell-by date should be a good clue and it generally is, but meat-producers aren’t legally required to post a sell-by on their products.

In truth, much of this happens because so much of our food is produced far from where we live. On average, according to many estimates, our dinner travels about 1,500 miles from its source – a factory farm in the Midwest perhaps? – to your dinner table in the burbs of Cleveland. By the time it finally shows up on the grocery shelves, it’s several days old all ready, assuming it’s not produce that’s been held for several months on top of that.

Choice, and American groups like San Francisco’s Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture, recommend doing as much of your shopping as possible from farmers’ markets and smaller, local businesses like butcher shops and produce stores where the emphasis is on fresh, locally produced food.

Unless, of course, you prefer aged orange juice. After all, it works for wine, right?

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  • http://foodtrainers.blogspot.com Lauren Slayton

    This is so upsetting. Can you tell me Christmas cookies and egg nog are “old” too? That might help.

    • think

      97% Of the nutrients special to certain fries asks veggies are gone before the leave cold storage. After 3/4 months in…

  • Bill M

    I see the benefits of eating fresh foods and my family enjoys them when they are truely available. However, in the winter this would severly limit our food options to freshly slaughtered meat, fish caught pulled from the ice and the red berries still on the tree in the back yard. In a pinch we could eat the cat. So, I am OK with food not really being fresh as long as it means I can eat vegatables when it is below zero as it is right now.

    This is not to say that we shouldn’t care where our food comes from. Thinking about the sources of food and how it is processes is a real life changer.

  • http://www.thetableofpromise.blogspot.com The Table of Promise

    OMG, this is so disgusting. I also think this is a big concern for middle America where populations per square mile are smaller, thus the turn over in the grocery stores is smaller. In New York I find that alot of my food is fresher and lasts longer than my parents (in Memphis) say their is.

    This article is fuel for the Farmer’s Market and CSA crowds. Here’s to fresh food!

  • Brooke

    I love my Farmers’ markets and CSA. But I have to agree with Bill M – there is a good reason why for centuries we, as humans, have continually found ways to preserve food – because the seasons change and fresh food isn’t available all the time. I don’t know about the other CSAers out there, but mine surely isn’t active in mid-December!

    Also, ever bought apples at a market in April? I have – they’re from the previous year! But still yummy. And just about all the meat I see at the market is frozen. Why? Because the animal was slaughtered weeks ago – not the previous day. Yes, there are exceptions to this, but my point is that just because you shop at a Farmers’ Market and buying local doesn’t mean you’re buying foods that is “younger” than at the grocery store. Particularly in the winter.

  • http://www.awakenedwellness.com Rachel Assuncao

    I think this is such a difficult thing to sort out for ourselves. I buy all of our meat from a local butcher, who freezes everything as soon as it’s been carved into consumable portions. For me that’s as fresh as it gets, since I’m not going to the farm daily to buy whatever was butchered that morning. I buy eggs from the farm that were collected that morning, or maybe the day before…and then that dozen can take up to 2-3 weeks to be consumed in our house. Any different if it sits in the grocery store? Well, from an ‘I know where my food comes from’ perspective, yes…but from the freshness standpoint, not really.

    In the growing season, I get most of our veggies from the CSA and the rest from local farm stands. Fruit is a little more challenging, but I still opt for the ‘grown in Ontario’ variety. At this time of year, I appreciate the ability to go to the grocery store and buy tomatoes, lettuce and other ‘out of season’ produce. I’m grateful that I’m not living off canned, frozen or otherwise preserved foods between October and June. And if I needed a cold storage room, I’d be out of luck since most homes don’t have those anymore. For me, it comes down to making the best fresh choice possible on any given day.

  • Mari

    I really feel like grocery stores should be accountable for some of this. Then maybe they’ll pass it up the chain. I mean it really sucks, but am I cheap for wanting to take back my almost $2 apple, or my shallots that are not even edible? Just curious what you guys think. I’m talking Whole Foods here, not Food Lion, but still. A honeycrisp should never be mealy the day I get it from the store.

    And then there’s avocados, even if I am good at picking them…when they’re totally brown before even being soft…but that’s kind of a crap shoot right? Though a very expensive one.

    Sorry, been thinking about this one recently.

  • http://www.facebook.com/oncallnurse Kristina

    Behind my mind I’ve been stifling this question and here I am faced with the inevitable truth that my suspicions were right and there’s nothing much I can do unless I’d hunt food myself. Wow. I am speechless.

    How on earth are we to improve this? sigh

    great great information here!

  • chris

    If you want to eat vegetables and fruits in winter, then you have to eat stored fruits.

  • http://theorganicgreencow.blogspot.com Smokey Bull

    “Fresh” has become a relative term for food products within the national distribution system. While I only have limited knowledge of crops and produce, I can speak on the meat side of things.

    Rachels’ response (above) is, tactically speaking, a good way to approach your purchases. However, keep in mind that “the butcher” is buying from within the “system” and purchases either a half-carcass or “boxed cuts” from which to make the cuts of beef his/her customers request. I won’t bog you down with the process, but suffice it to say that the beef from the neighborhood meat shop is not less than 6 months old when you buy it…AND, …ask A LOT of questions of the “farmer” at the farmers market. It is not uncommon to find “boxed” vegetables, fruits, and other produce, that was purchased wholesale from a large organic (or worse, conventional!) operation and shipped to the current location…and offered as locally grown. These shysters are few and far between, but they do exist, especially at the large metropolitan farmers markets.

  • PrairieFarmer

    As a small market farmer, I would point out that we are forgetting the amazing ability to not only preserve the bounty of the harvest through canning, dehydrating and pickling which, when done well, preserves the best of the harvest (not just the leftovers). Not only that we can grow varieties that IMPROVE with storage and to expand our horizons on what items eat. Winter squash for example. There are many varieties that are really not “in their prime” flavor wise UNTIL they have been stored for three or four months. Varieties of keeper cabbage and carrots that improve in root cellar storage. Beets are at their sweetest AFTER they have gone through a cold period and are surprisingly hardy even outside in all but the worst conditions. Commercially, however, the varieties famed for these qualities are rarely available in the markets because they are mostly heirloom varieties not usually productive and vigorous enough to make it on the cutthroat fields of large-scale field crops. In the winter I eat veggies I preserved during the summer, potatoes, winter squash, garlic and onions stored for the winter, Jerusalem artichokes, parsnips, carrots and beets that can survive underground outside (or in a root cellar) and the occasional kale or collard leaves that survive until we get a hard freeze. Tomatoes,cucumbers, fresh berries? Why would I buy old, insipid, flavorless versions of some of my favorite summertime veggies. I would rather wait.
    And btw…to the person who mentioned eggs in their house for 2 or 3 weeks…That is NOT the same as grocery store eggs that can often be MULTIPLE MONTHS OLD before they even reach the grocery store! Ick!

  • http://None Dorothy M Ragland

    My neighbor left for a trip and told me to help myself to anything left in the refrigerator, but I’m hesitant to use the Yoplait originals she left because all of the sell-by dates are early December. I’m sure they have been refrigerated since she purchased them because I purchased mine at the same time. Is it safe for me to use them?

  • http://www.bodyrenewal.org Natasha Zeligs

    Solution! Buy at your local Farmer’s Markets, fresh and local.

  • Diane

    I too love the fresh local produce that’s in season – key words ‘in season’
    My work-around solution for winter months is good old fashioned home preserving – aka canning. here it is the end of January and my family enjoys spagetti sauce, salsa, mixed vegetables, corn, applesauce, meat sauce, grape juice, peas, to name a few. All fresh and preserved for winter use. Let’s think about bringing back this dying art to keep our families healthy all year round.

  • Diane

    One more tip – many vendors at Farmers Markets are warehouse buyers, not local growers. Produce is trucked in from who knows where (I’ve seen boxes from China!) and sold as ‘fresh’. Don’t be duped.

  • Princessvelociraptor

    If you have any doubts whether this is true or not, my uncle was an engineer that fixed the refrigerators that held the food. It had to always be at 0 degrees at at times. The food was normally stored for 6 months at a time.