Grocery Store Guru

All about the grocery industry, from a store level perspective.

Understanding Organic

Organics are one of the fastest growing grocery categories out there right now. More and more people are believing in the benefits of organics – according to statistics, young mothers are leading the way. For this article, I’m going to focus on organic produce because it is the lion’s share of the organics market. While organic meats are making some inroads, they don’t appear to have the popular appeal that the produce has.

But why are we buying organic to begin with? Stop and ask someone who’s buying the $10 worth of organic apples (that would be me, last sunday 🙂 ) why they buy organic and you’re pretty likely to get a vague response about unspecified health benefits, or even worse, something totally false like the fact that they don’t use pesticides in organic farming.

The Truth about a couple of very commonly held beliefs surrounding organic produce:

1. Organics are pesticide free.

Absolutely, 100% false. An organic certification does not guarantee you a pesticide free product. There are several pesticides that are allowed to be used on organic crops (Page 2 of this PDF file lists some of the pesticides approved for use in organic farming). The difference between organic and conventional is that an organic pesticide must be derived from a natural source, as opposed to a synthetic one. Before you start thinking that natural is safer, there are lots of toxic substances in nature (this list is a good place to start). The very nature of a pesticide/herbicide/fungicide tells you that it’s meant to harm or deter something… what difference does it make if the potential poison is natural or synthetic? Now, it is a minority of organic farmers that use these natural pesticides, and not all of them are toxic. But there isn’t currently a method to tell if the apple you are holding in your hand has been sprayed or not, or what it may have been sprayed with.

2. Organics are better for you.

The jury’s still out on this one. One highly cited study revealed that organic strawberries had higher amounts of antioxidants as well as ascorbic acid (vitamin C), but all other nutrients were comparable to conventionally grown strawberries. Stanford University in the States recently released a study with a conclusion that stated organics are no healthier than conventional produce, when it comes to the nutritional components of the actual fruit/veggie. That Stanford study seems to have exploded worldwide, and there are advocacy groups collecting signatures and making statements against the study. While the prominent figures on both sides of the argument sling mud at one another, one thing is clear – the actual science on the topic is not declaring a solid winner.

3. Organics are better for the environment.

I want to be very clear about this – organic farming practices ARE better for the environment. In particular, the soil conservation methods that are not only suggested but mandatory when it comes to organic certification are actually reversing soil erosion in many places. The land doesn’t get “tired” – a phenomenon in conventional farming where as nutrients in the soil are depleted, product yield goes down. Organic practices promote biodiversity, and the overall health and well being of the local environment (even the United Nations agrees).

BUT… there’s always a “but”.

I really wish that these environmental practices extended to the distribution of the organic products. Often times, due to off season demand in foreign markets, organic products are treated exactly the same way that conventional products are. Picked before they’re ripe so they can make a days-long truck or airplane or boat trip to their intended market.

If you’re choosing organic for environmental reasons, I will give you the same dilemma I face with Sweet Peppers: Is choosing a Veggie that is product of Israel really environmentally responsible, no matter how it was grown? How much of a carbon footprint is left by a salad that has accumulated more Air Miles than I have travelled in the last 10 years?


Drumroll, please!


Those are the facts, here’s my Opinion:


I buy organics every week, but certainly not all of the produce I buy is Organic. Firstly, I firmly believe in local produce. Not only does it taste better (even than the organics in many cases), but I believe in supporting local farmers. I would like to see an even more robust organics presence in Ontario (as you may wherever you live), and that’s not going to happen if the farmers are going under. As the demand changes, the farmers will change with it if they’re given the chance. We can already see it in Ontario where more and more acreage is going to organic growing every year (as well as organic pasturing for organic dairy cattle). Second, I have 5 kids and a limited grocery budget. While I can justify spending a little more, I’m not able to buy an organic product that costs 3 times more than the conventional product.

So what do I buy Organic? I start here, with The Dirty Dozen. I also favour organics with fruits and veggies where you consume the skin, since it is likely to have direct contact with synthetic pesticides in conventional growing. Anything that gets peeled is put on the back burner – no organic bananas, onions or garlic for me. Organic apples are my biggest organic expenditure, as my kids will eat 6-8lbs. of apples a week easily. And even here, when apple picking season arrives we tend to buy conventional apples from an orchard here in Brampton. I try as hard as I can to buy organic Celery, but it’s not easy to find and it’s almost always a product of the USA (I avoid american produce whenever I can). If the organic peppers are from Ontario, I’ll buy them too. Same thing for nectarines and peaches. If produce is not available locally because it’s out of season, we avoid the imported alternatives as much as we can.

As seems to be the case so often, I’m in the middle of the road. I do support the increase of organic products in our stores, but even more than that I support the education of the consumer. I look forward to the day when I can approach someone picking up an organic cabbage and ask them why they’re buying it – and get an answer based on the truth.


September 14, 2012 Posted by | Products | 2 Comments

Let the (cross border) buyer beware

*From the (sort of) Editor:

Usually, I don’t edit my posts at all. I let the words flow out, and post it right away – seems to me that it keeps it sounding like a conversation, and my honest opinion comes across better that way.

I wrote the following post at 4am one day. After reading it again, it really has an almost angry tone. I promise you, nothing about this topic makes me angry. I believe everyone has the right to choose what they eat and where they buy it. It just amazes me that the people that make these choices day in and day out have no idea what the consequences of their decisions are.

Enjoy the read!


We have a lot in common with our neighbours to the south. Similar cultures, language, sports… But we’re certainly not the same. That goes for our consumer products as well – those cute baby walkers that let little tykes get from place to place sitting in the middle of a platform with many wheels? They’ve been illegal here in Canada for years, but you can still get them to the south. And you can search the net for some hilarious articles about Canadians trying to take Kinder eggs to the states, not realizing that they’re illegal down there.

We count on our government to help keep us safe, and they do this by creating legislation – usually in response to an incident. Since our experiences and priorities are different, so are the pieces of legislation that come about in each of our countries.

We usually have a decent grasp of what the standards are where we live, because we experience them every day. When we visit somewhere else, most of us don’t have a switch we can flip to look at life with someone else’s logic. Why do people try to take Kinder eggs across the border? Because the thought that they would be illegal likely didn’t enter their minds. In fact, add the cuban cigars that I buy at Fortinos to the list. That makes 2 things that I can get at my local grocery store that are illegal in the States. I wonder how many other things I could find if I tried?

It does happen the other way around, as well. In the 90’s, there was a candy company in Concord Ontario that produced a gum that they couldn’t sell in Canada. There was too much food coloring in it, and Health Canada didn’t consider it safe. Did they stop making it? Nope… As you’ve probably guessed, they shipped every piece they produced to the States, where the rules weren’t quite as strict.

How many Canadians visiting the States do you think brought this popular, kid focused product home with them? How many parents gave to their child a food product that Health Canada banned for consumption?

We expect that our government protects our food supply, but how can they do that if we work around them?

This is not a cry to ban cross border shopping. But it is hopefully a wakeup call to some people that do shop over the border. Some products may not be available here in Canada for a good reason.  Know what the differences are in the regulations are for the types of products you’re likely to buy. It’s painfully obvious to me that most people don’t know, and I can prove it with one product.

That product is Bob’s Red Mill rolled oats. At least a couple of times a month, I get asked where to find the gluten free oats – they can only find the wheat free ones at the store. After I politely explain that you can’t get any oats labeled gluten free in Canada, I get told that can’t be true – they have some sitting in front of them on the pantry shelf!

No product with oats in it can be labeled as gluten free in Canada. In the U.S. there is no such rule. As a result, the exact same product is labeled gluten free in the States, and wheat free here.

The scary part is, the people that ask me this question are almost all suffering from Celiac disease, or some form of gluten intolerance. Gluten free can mean vastly different things – until the States get around to passing some food labeling legislation, there could be as much as ten times the amount gluten in a product labeled gluten free in the States as a product labeled gluten free in Canada.

*WARNING* Food need spoiler alert! Below I will tell you something that you may not want to hear, but affects the way I shop when I go to the grocery store!

When I buy fresh produce, I always try to buy local…. It just tastes better. But aside from that, my biggest rule is to avoid U.S. produce whenever I can. Many major produce recalls I had to deal with were products of the States.

Two of them stick in my head…. Flesh eating bacteria in Californian Strawberries, and Botulism on baby carrots and in carrot juice both from California as well.

Recently, there was an outbreak of Listeria in the States and it was traced back to melons from a farm in Colorado. The kicker? The farm had had a safety audit DAYS before the outbreak and received a 96% ”superior” score even though the melons weren’t going through an anti microbial wash (a farily standard process in a factory farm). Thirty people died.

August 29, 2012 Posted by | Products, Viewpoint | 2 Comments

I want Bakery products that aren’t frozen!

As more and more bakery products move to a thaw and serve format, many customers want products that they consider “fresh”.

My first reaction is always “Why?”

If you take something frozen home, you control the “best before” date. You can thaw the items one at a time, to make the package last as long as possible and ensuring you don’t throw away moldy baked goods. If you get home and realize you already had a package of whatever it was you bought, you can keep it in the freezer so the whole package doesn’t spoil. Heck, even if you thaw the whole thing right away, you are getting the longest possible time between thaw and spoil – there’s no time lost to sitting on the bakery department shelves, waiting to be bought.

Still, there are customers out there that want the “fresh” product. Sometimes it’s for convenience, and I get that. But for many people, there’s some idea in their heads that fresh bread is better, or a higher quality product.

I hate to tell this to those people – most stores are doing exactly what you would do with your frozen baguette. I can’t even think of a conventional grocery store that’s making their own baguettes from scratch anymore. The baguettes come in either par-baked (so the store can put the frozen baguette in the store’s oven, to finish them off) or fully baked (so the store can let the frozen baguette thaw and sell it as fresh). Both the stores and the companies that make the bread know that some people want fresh product, so they don’t advertise the fact, either. Because there’s no food safety danger when re-freezing bread (or even thawing it and re-freezing it several times), there’s no packaging standard that demands labeling for previously frozen bakery products.

A short and really incomplete list of store brand products I haven’t seen baked in a conventional grocery store for at least 10 years, not including bread:

  • tea biscuits
  • scones
  • cookies
  • muffins
  • brownies
  • danishes

These days, the only place you’re guaranteed to get a fresh bakery product is an actual bakery.

My advice – don’t let a “fresh vs. frozen” debate sway your buying decision… leave that to the final product. The technology required to properly freeze food has been around for a while, and there’s not really a difference between properly frozen food and fresh.

February 19, 2012 Posted by | Products | Leave a comment

Store Brand Products and Why I Buy Them

Store brand products (also known as Private Label) is the ultimate trade off between consumer and retailer. The consumer gets a product that’s usually comparable to the national brand for less money, and the retailer makes more profit.

Wait. More profit?

When you look at pretty much any section in the grocery aisles, the profit margin is ALWAYS highest on the store brand products that you see – even though it’s likely the cheapest thing on the shelf. That’s why the grocery retailers push their own brands so hard. They’re usually heavily featured in the inside pages of the flyer (after all of the loss leaders). You can be guaranteed that when you visit the store, you will find off-shelf displays of  private label products. Next time you’re in whichever store you choose to shop at, count how many store brand products are on the end-cap displays at the ends of the aisles. You’ll be amazed.

Believe it or not, the fact that the retailer makes more money on the stuff is one really big reason that I am willing to try the store brand version of pretty much anything. The retailer has a vested interest in getting you to switch to their store brand, and they look after the quality of their store brand products. Most now come with a 100% satisfaction guarantee to back it up, too.

Still, many customers question the quality of the store brand. If it’s a decent product, why is it so cheap?

The answer lies in the cost to bring a product to the market. Companies spend millions of dollars an advertising, just to get you to pick up their products. Someone has to sell this product to the grocery chains, or to distributors. Package designs are heavily researched and test marketed… the list goes on and on. These costs are factored in to the price you pay at the register for any national brand product.

Private label products eliminate almost all of the marketing costs associated with a product. These cost savings are then passed on to the consumer through a reduced retail.

Pop is a great example of branding and marketing. In most markets in north america, Coca Cola is the number one pop brand. Pepsi is usually in second place – although in some markets during the ’90’s, Pepsi was number three! So who is the huge company that is number three in north america, and was number two in a few markets during the ’90’s ?

Cott Beverages. Ever hear of them? Probably not… you’d have to search pretty hard to find any pop bottle with their company name on it. But Cott produces most of the store brand pop in the market, and it’s all a heck of a lot cheaper than Coke or Pepsi. Makes a big difference when you aren’t spending the millions of dollars on commercials and the like.

That also ties into another reason that I like to give store brand products a chance. There’s lots of smaller food manufacturers out there that aren’t interested in spending all of those marketing dollars. They would rather put their time, effort and dollars into making high quality, great tasting foods. Many of these companies go the private label route, selling their products to retailers rather than to the general public.

A great example of this is Belmont Meat Products. They make some of the best hamburgers I’ve ever tasted… but you won’t be able to find them without help! It’s not that they’re not readily available, they’re just not usually labeled with the name Belmont. But if you’ve eaten a few different varieties of hamburger that M&M Meat Shops has to offer, chances are you’ve had a burger made by Belmont.

I hope I’ve convinced some of you to try the store brand… it’s terrific when you find a product you really like and costs you significantly less. And if you don’t like it, you have a 100% satisfaction guarantee to fall back on. Either way, you have nothing to lose.

October 20, 2011 Posted by | Products | 1 Comment