One thing I want to make clear at the outset: I love American supermarkets! I especially love the fancier kind, with large seafood and fresh meat and cheese sections, local vegetables and 200 varieties of grains and nuts that you bag yourself, big containers of oils and vinegars that you fill on your own bottles, or bottles they provide for you, proper bakeries and all that. But even the standard variety supermarket with its more pedestrian character is a place of joy, as they pretty much all have appealing displays, spacious locales and enormous variety, at least compared to what I was used to where I grew up.
Vegetable section at local Harris Teeter
There is food from all over the world: whether you want your Wasa knekkebrød (crackerbread) or Malta soda or Marmite or fish sauce, you can pretty much find it anywhere. And don’t get me started on the fun and deliciousness of Trader Joe’s. Just don’t. And the best part is that everything is pretty much affordable, even on a relatively average income (but probably not on a very low one) – again, especially compared to where I come from. It makes it all the more joyful to shop, there’s just no getting around that.
(Here are some statistics, for those who are so inclined that they like some figures: The average American family household spends roughly $3900 a year on “food at home”, or about 5.6 percent of their disposable income. The average Norwegian family spends NOK 50 000 on groceries yearly, which equals about $6250 with today’s high dollar rate (or about $9000 just over a year ago), or about 11 per cent of their disposable income. Additionally, one must consider what one buys: In Norway some types of food are very heavily taxed and therefore disproportionally expensive, and therefore people don’t buy those goods (i.e. imported cured meat and cheeses, oils, confectionary etc.). Or they don’t buy much of it. I know I didn’t. People tend to focus a lot on cost when planning what to eat.)
From the vinegar selection at Harris Teeter
In 2014, the average number of items carried in an American supermarket was 42,216 (source: Food Marketing Institute). In Norway, the trend for a long time was to cut the number of items down to a minimum, to help reduce cost, which brought about Rema 1000, which had 1000 different items on offer. Now the trend has turned some, and currently Norwegian “discount” supermarkets carry an average of 4000 items, while a fancy one can have as much as 20,000. That is a lot of food, plus some non-food items, and some that I am not quite sure what to call.
So, in the land of Pop Tarts (enriched flour (wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, vitamin b1 [thiamin mononitrate], vitamin b2 [riboflavin], folic acid), corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, soybean and palm oil (with tbhq for freshness), sugar, cracker meal, contains two percent or less of wheat starch, salt, dried blueberries, dried grapes, dried apples, leavening (baking soda, sodium acid pyrophosphate, monocalcium phosphate), citric acid, milled corn, gelatin, soybean oil, modified corn starch, modified wheat starch, soy lecithin, xanthan gum, caramel color, red 40, vitamin a palmitate, niacinamide, reduced iron, natural and artificial flavor, blue 2, blue 1, vitamin b6 (pyridoxine hydrochloride), color added, turmeric extract, vitamin b2 (riboflavin), vitamin b1 (thiamin hydrochloride)) and Cool Whip (water, hydrogenated vegetable oil (coconut & palm kernel oils), high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, skim milk, contains less than 2% of light cream, sodium caseinate, natural and artificial flavor, xanthan and guar gums, polysorbate 60, sorbitan monostearate, sodium polyphosphate, beta carotene (color)); Easy cheese in an aerosol can (milk, water, whey protein concentrate, canola oil, milk protein concentrate, sodium citrate, sodium phosphate, calcium phosphate, lactic acid, sorbic acid, sodium alginate, apocarotenal, annatto, cheese culture, and enzymes) and Twinkies (enriched bleached wheat flour [flour, reduced iron, B vitamins (niacin, thiamine mononitrate (B1), riboflavin (B2), folic acid)], corn syrup, sugar, high fructose corn syrup, water, partially hydrogenated vegetable and/or animal shortening (soybean, cottonseed and/or canola oil, beef fat), whole eggs, dextrose. Contains 2% or less of: modified corn starch, glucose, leavenings (sodium acid pyrophosphate, baking soda, monocalcium phosphate), sweet dairy whey, soy protein isolate, calcium and sodium caseinate, salt, mono and diglycerides, polysorbate 60, soy lecithin, soy flour, cornstarch, cellulose gum, sodium stearoyl lactylate, natural and artificial flavors, sorbic acid (to retain freshness), yellow 5, red 40), you can be led to believe that anything refined by man, designed to please a certain type of palate and fill the stomach, can be bought and consumed.
Okay, I’ll repeat that paragraph without the ingredient lists:
So, in the land of Pop Tarts and Cool Whip, Easy cheese and Twinkies, you can be led to believe that anything refined by man, designed to please a certain type of palate and fill the stomach, can be bought and consumed.
Legal “food” in the US
And many do. Additionally, there are a lot of US products that you can’t find in Europe, because of ingredients like Coloring agents blue 1 and 2, yellow 5 and 6; Olestra, BVO, brominated flour, azodicarbonamide, BHA and BHT, synthetic hormones, arsenic and diphenylamine, that are all so questionable (or outright proven dangerous) that they are banned in most places. Here, you find them in milk and poultry, baby food and apple juice, cereal and pasta; hardly the kind of food products you’d normally suspect when trying to eat properly.
So, I wonder, what does the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) do? And their state equivalents? What do they focus on? Because they do like to regulate – that we know.
There has been a meme going around the Internet comparing assault weapons to French cheeses. The joke is, of course, that the cheeses are banned but the semi-automatic rifles are not. I don’t think a bout of listeria is an attractive thing, but compared to being shot by a maniac, I’ll take the unpasteurized cheese any day. (Yes, this is a flippant argument, but it is an all too obvious one too, right?) Actually, you can buy unpasteurized cheese in this country if it has been aged more than 60 days, and many states now allow for the sale of raw milk directly from farmer to consumer, so this ban is not absolute.
(And, as an aside: I do wonder what happened to butter production in this country. They make butter, at least they call it butter, but it doesn’t really look like butter, as it is much too pale. And kind of waxy. And it tastes only of milk. And if you are to cook with it and throw it in a frying pan to melt, what you get is not a lovely yellow ghee-like oily substance, but something grey-white that looks and smells like boiling milk. It is very odd. But thankfully both Irish and French butter is widely available, so this substance can be avoided. Even if it allowed by the FDA.)
A food I really do miss from my home country, is fresh Atlantic shrimp, which in Norway the fishermen boil in seawater on their way in to shore after they got their catch. The shrimp is fabulous, fresh and salty, really tasting like the ocean. Apparently they have a similar type of shrimp in Maine, and also in northern Oregon, Washington and Alaska, but the fishermen are not allowed to boil the catch in sea water if they are going to sell it. The FDA must think the sea water dangerous, although, when you really think about it (and not all that hard either), the shrimp has lived in the sea water all its life. Why the water is more dangerous when it is boiled than when it is not, I don’t know. But the regulations call for processing the shrimp in potable water. I would challenge anybody to give a good explanation for that one.
Shrimp boiled in seawater, bought from a boat in Oslo harbor. Illegal in the US.
Another thing you don’t find in markets here, is game. That is, unless it is farmed. (And then it isn’t really wild game anymore, is it? In Norway, the term for game is vilt, which literally means wild. Just saying’.) So if you want grouse or deer or anything remotely like that, you have to shoot it yourself, or know someone who can shoot it for you. That is, if you want the wild version.
And then, in my new home state: They ban the sale of wild mushrooms in markets, to protect consumers from the possible consumption of a misidentified ‘shroom. SC has one of the strictest mushroom laws in the country, but loosened it up ever so slightly a few years ago, when they allowed licensed foragers to sell wild mushrooms to restaurants. If you want to cook them yourself, though, you have to hunt them yourself. This was a HUGE blow, as there are few thing I look more forward to than the chanterelles of early autumn. Or the morels of spring. And dried (which you can buy) just doesn’t cut it. So you can buy your regular button mushrooms and portobellos and what I still think of as chestnut mushrooms (which they call them in England; in the US they are just baby bellas), and farmed shiitake. But that’s pretty much it.
Chanterelles at the market in Oslo. Illegal in South Carolina.
So, what’s to learn from this? It seems the main lesson is that Nature must be viewed with suspicion. Unless nature has been processed in a factory, it can’t be trusted, and innocent people needs to be shielded from it. (I am not even mentioning the money, i.e. the food lobby and the political game.) Why the FDA would think the American people would be safer eating Twinkies and Cool Whip instead of grouse and chanterelles is still kind of a mystery, though. At least it something worth pondering.
There are many available sources for information on the banned food substances. Here is one article with some more info: