Supersized fruit and vege

My thumb flicked the phone screen to scroll the shopping list. Hmm. We already had almost all of the vegetables and fruit that we needed at home so the only produce item we needed today was some more fruit, to ensure we wouldn’t run out before our next shop. The corners of my mouth screwed up in a frown as I thought. It was hardly worth driving to the green grocers just for some fruit, we might as well get it from the supermarket while we were picking up the rest of the groceries.

The chill of the fruit and vege section of the local Pak n Save sent a small shiver through me as I asked my preschooler what fruit he wanted. Always happy to provide an opinion, he looked around and delightedly exclaimed, “Pears!” I gave him a small bag and instructions to put five pears in it, and watched him skip off happily to complete his task.

A minute later, he handed me back a bag of pears bigger than my head. It was so bulging that he staggered a little as he walked with it. He even made exaggerated straining noises as if he was an old man with a bad back on a rainy day. My eyebrows shot up. “Is that five pears?” I asked suspiciously, peeking into the bag.

Yes. Yes, it was. It’s just that the supermarket pears were so hideously giant, five of them must have been the equivalent of at least 10 from the green grocers. My eyes snapped over to the pears to confirm that my son hadn’t purposely selected the big ones. No, they were all uniformly massive. I let my gaze flick over the apples next door, then the oranges, the lemons… I slowly spun on the spot in a 360, as if I was the protagonist in the middle of a dramatic movie scene, taking in how ridiculously large and perfect the fruit and vegetables were.

It’s something that I already knew, but because I try to shop at a local green grocers for my produce these days, I’ve gotten into the habit of walking straight through the produce section of the supermarket without looking around. Well, now I was looking around. And the seeming unnaturalness of the supermarket produce was striking me anew with horror.

Before we delve into it, let me lay it out nice and clear that vegetables and fruit are great and the benefits of eating them far exceed where you buy them from. ‘Kay? We’re good? Alright, so what on earth is happening that makes supermarket pears twice the size of the ones at the green grocers?

I’m not an expert on commercial growing but from what I can figure, there are a few factors involved. The first is the ridiculous duopoly of supermarkets that we have in New Zealand. Not saying this is unique to New Zealand, but the fact we only have two supermarket chains really exacerbates things. It means that the supermarkets have enormous buying power and can pretty much dictate to the growers exactly what kind of produce they want (and how much they’ll pay for it). And the supermarkets want attractive produce because it sells well. It would seem that the average consumer has the misperception that perfect-looking produce means better produce. And because of refrigeration, produce can be preserved for quite a long time and over long distances, so supermarkets have the ability to be very selective with their standards. I’ve even heard rumours that blemished crops have been left unharvested because growers can’t afford to harvest crops they will be unable to sell.

There must be a bit of a snowball effect, too, because consumers have now grown so used to perfect fruit and vege, it’s what they expect and demand. Kids who get their fruit and vege from the supermarket think that fruit and vege is meant to be clean, large and uniform. Give them a small, dirty carrot and they’ll hand it right back, wanting the big clean one instead, even though ‘ugly produce’ actually tastes just fine.

But the thing that weighs on my mind is not just sadness at the rejection of ugly vegetables and fruit, or even injustice at the supermarket duopoly that exerts such control over farmers, but mainly horror at what must happen to vegetables and fruit in order for them to look so perfect.

Nutritional content of vegetables and fruit has likely declined as commercial agriculture has focused on breeding faster-growing crops with greater yield and more pest-resistance. They’re still nutritious, no doubt about that, but probably not as nutritious as the same thing grown 100 years ago. It seems that the plant’s ability to uptake nutrients hasn’t kept pace with how fast they now grow. Declining soil quality may also play a part.

I also don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to figure out there must be some serious spraying going on. I don’t know a lot about it, but a client with inside-knowledge once told me that in order to grow the perfect onion for the supermarket, it had to be sprayed 37 times. A while ago in India there was a bit of a scandal that farmers were using the hormone oxytocin to make vegetables grow bigger. And because of demand for out-of-season buying, it’s been reported that apples can be up to a year old when you purchase them.

It’s unsurprising then that homegrown stuff usually tastes a helluva lot better than out-of-season commercially-grown stuff. Last year a colleague gave me some homegrown strawberries and they were the most mouth-wateringly sweet and delicious strawberries I’ve ever had. So good that I actually planted my own strawberry plants this year and I’ve got my fingers crossed they survive my newbie gardening skills. A trip to a farm last Christmas gave my son a taste for fresh sweet peas that just cannot be satisfied with the supermarket stuff. And the feijoas off our tree are at least 30 times better than the ones you can buy at the supermarket.

All of this ran through my mind in the few seconds it took for me to finished my movie-style pirouette in the middle of the fruit and vegetable section of Pak n Save. I blinked and managed to get myself together enough to put the bag of pears in the trolley and keep shopping. But I made a mental note to myself that, for me, it probably actually is worth the drive to the local green grocers. The bottom line is that supermarket stock is bred and treated to look good and last a long time, not for nutrition. Fruit and vegetables are powerhouses of nutrition no matter where you get them from but I feel like I’m getting just a wee bit more nutrition, saving my money, and supporting local growers when I head on down to Veges Direct. And bonus: the pears from the local place actually fit in my son’s lunchbox, unlike those giant things we bought yesterday.

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