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Why Are Whole Foods Typically More Expensive Than Processed?

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We’ve all been there: standing in aisle twelve with a loaf of Wonder Bread in one hand, and something labeled “whole grain” or “organic” in the other. Though the whole grain bread may be healthier, it’s also a dollar or two more expensive. Close perusal of the Wonder loaf’s list of ingredients reveals some 29 tongue-tying components, while the whole grain loaf has five or six, none over two syllables. So why are more heavily processed foods and those with more ingredients typically less expensive than whole foods?

ECON 101

The most obvious factor is rooted in the basic economics. Companies that have the capability to produce food on a mass scale can keep costs down by buying ingredients in huge amounts (think gross tonnage of flour, not pounds). Add to this a highly mechanized process of production, and even more is saved on not having to pay hourly workers. Perhaps the largest contributor, though, is federal subsidies. The government provides farmers with anywhere from ten to thirty billion dollars annually to support the production of our agricultural staples—wheat, corn, soybeans, cotton, livestock, etc. Since Uncle Sam is covering some of the production costs, manufacturers are able to keep their own costs in check, and consumers benefit price-wise (although, since farm subsidies are often just our rerouted American tax dollars, we’re not saving quite as much as we think). Organic farms rarely receive government subsidies, another reason the food they produce is typically pricier.

Furthermore, processed foods retain their quality exponentially longer than unprocessed, far and away their greatest virtue. Butylated hydroxyanisole, sodium benzoate, diglycerides, and a laundry list of other preservatives, fillers, and emulsifiers are added during processing both to extend shelf life and help the food retain its consistency. The added expense of these extra ingredients is more than offset by a given company’s ability to produce foods in mass quantities and then ship them all over the globe owing to their chemically aided stability.

WHAT’S LEFT BEHIND

The naturally occurring elements in all organic material are inherently volatile and will change or, in the case of food products, degrade over time. With whole grains like bulgur, oats, and quinoa, the three components of the grain—the bran, germ, and endosperm—are left intact. The bran and the germ retain essentially all of the grain’s nutritional value, but, as they also contain oils that are apt to spoil quickly, they’re stripped away during processing. So, even though whole grain flour uses about 25 percent less wheat than refined flour since it includes the entire grain, the refined wheat used to make white flour can be stored for lengthy periods of time without risk of spoilage, which allows companies to keep huge amounts on hand, eliminating the need to buy more every time it’s needed.

Organic farms and production methods also incur a number of added costs that are built into the price of the packaged product. To be certified organic, a farmer has to follow strict guidelines for growing that prohibit pesticides, chemical fertilizer, or irrigation that repurposes runoff water; basically, all the things that make growing and farming easier but, arguably, make for more unhealthy food. As more previously conventional farms attempt to turn organic to keep pace with trends, all of these rules have to be in place for at least three years before the farm can be certified, during which time many are unable to grow anything at all as old practices are replaced and the soil is given a chance to leach itself of any residual chemicals. Given the labor intensity of organic farming, the yield is often smaller than a factory farm, so the farmer is forced to charge more for his product. 

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Big Questions
What Is the Difference Between Generic and Name Brand Ibuprofen?
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What is the difference between generic ibuprofen vs. name brands?

Yali Friedman:

I just published a paper that answers this question: Are Generic Drugs Less Safe than their Branded Equivalents?

Here’s the tl;dr version:

Generic drugs are versions of drugs made by companies other than the company which originally developed the drug.

To gain FDA approval, a generic drug must:

  • Contain the same active ingredients as the innovator drug (inactive ingredients may vary)
  • Be identical in strength, dosage form, and route of administration
  • Have the same use indications
  • Be bioequivalent
  • Meet the same batch requirements for identity, strength, purity, and quality
  • Be manufactured under the same strict standards of FDA's good manufacturing practice regulations required for innovator products

I hope you found this answer useful. Feel free to reach out at www.thinkbiotech.com. For more on generic drugs, you can see our resources and whitepapers at Pharmaceutical strategic guidance and whitepapers

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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Big Questions
Do Cats Fart?
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Certain philosophical questions can invade even the most disciplined of minds. Do aliens exist? Can a soul ever be measured? Do cats fart?

While the latter may not have weighed heavily on some of history’s great brains, it’s certainly no less deserving of an answer. And in contrast to existential queries, there’s a pretty definitive response: Yes, they do. We just don’t really hear it.

According to veterinarians who have realized their job sometimes involves answering inane questions about animals passing gas, cats have all the biological hardware necessary for a fart: a gastrointestinal system and an anus. When excess air builds up as a result of gulping breaths or gut bacteria, a pungent cloud will be released from their rear ends. Smell a kitten’s butt sometime and you’ll walk away convinced that cats fart.

The discretion, or lack of audible farts, is probably due to the fact that cats don’t gulp their food like dogs do, leading to less air accumulating in their digestive tract.

So, yes, cats do fart. But they do it with the same grace and stealth they use to approach everything else. Think about that the next time you blame the dog.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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