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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's the Difference Between Stuffing and Dressing?
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For carbohydrate consumers, nothing completes a Thanksgiving meal like stuffing—shovelfuls of bread, celery, mushrooms, and other ingredients that complement all of that turkey protein.

Some people don’t say “stuffing,” though. They say “dressing.” In these calamitous times, knowing how to properly refer to the giant glob of insulin-spiking bread seems necessary. So what's the difference?

Let’s dismiss one theory off the bat: Dressing and stuffing do not correlate with how the side dish is prepared. A turkey can be stuffed with dressing, and stuffing can be served in a casserole dish. Whether it’s ever seen the inside of a bird is irrelevant, and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong and should be met with suspicion, if not outright derision.

The terms are actually separated due to regional dialects. “Dressing” seems to be the favored descriptor for southern states like Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia, while “stuffing” is preferred by Maine, New York, and other northern areas. (Some parts of Pennsylvania call it "filling," which is a bit too on the nose, but to each their own.)

If “stuffing” stemmed from the common practice of filling a turkey with carbs, why the division? According to The Huffington Post, it may have been because Southerners considered the word “stuffing” impolite, so never embraced it.

While you should experience no material difference in asking for stuffing or dressing, when visiting relatives it might be helpful to keep to their regionally-preferred word to avoid confusion. Enjoy stuffing yourselves.

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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Big Questions
Why Do the Lions and Cowboys Always Play on Thanksgiving?
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Because it's tradition! But how did this tradition begin?

Every year since 1934, the Detroit Lions have taken the field for a Thanksgiving game, no matter how bad their record has been. It all goes back to when the Lions were still a fairly young franchise. The team started in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Spartans. Portsmouth, while surely a lovely town, wasn't quite big enough to support a pro team in the young NFL. Detroit radio station owner George A. Richards bought the Spartans and moved the team to Detroit in 1934.

Although Richards's new squad was a solid team, they were playing second fiddle in Detroit to the Hank Greenberg-led Tigers, who had gone 101-53 to win the 1934 American League Pennant. In the early weeks of the 1934 season, the biggest crowd the Lions could draw for a game was a relatively paltry 15,000. Desperate for a marketing trick to get Detroit excited about its fledgling football franchise, Richards hit on the idea of playing a game on Thanksgiving. Since Richards's WJR was one of the bigger radio stations in the country, he had considerable clout with his network and convinced NBC to broadcast a Thanksgiving game on 94 stations nationwide.

The move worked brilliantly. The undefeated Chicago Bears rolled into town as defending NFL champions, and since the Lions had only one loss, the winner of the first Thanksgiving game would take the NFL's Western Division. The Lions not only sold out their 26,000-seat stadium, they also had to turn fans away at the gate. Even though the juggernaut Bears won that game, the tradition took hold, and the Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving ever since.

This year, the Lions host the Minnesota Vikings.

HOW 'BOUT THEM COWBOYS?


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The Cowboys, too, jumped on the opportunity to play on Thanksgiving as an extra little bump for their popularity. When the chance to take the field on Thanksgiving arose in 1966, it might not have been a huge benefit for the Cowboys. Sure, the Lions had filled their stadium for their Thanksgiving games, but that was no assurance that Texans would warm to holiday football so quickly.

Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, though, was something of a marketing genius; among his other achievements was the creation of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Schramm saw the Thanksgiving Day game as a great way to get the team some national publicity even as it struggled under young head coach Tom Landry. Schramm signed the Cowboys up for the game even though the NFL was worried that the fans might just not show up—the league guaranteed the team a certain gate revenue in case nobody bought tickets. But the fans showed up in droves, and the team broke its attendance record as 80,259 crammed into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns 26-14 that day, and a second Thanksgiving pigskin tradition caught hold. Since 1966, the Cowboys have missed having Thanksgiving games only twice.

Dallas will take on the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday.

WHAT'S WITH THE NIGHT GAME?


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In 2006, because 6-plus hours of holiday football was not sufficient, the NFL added a third game to the Thanksgiving lineup. This game is not assigned to a specific franchise—this year, the Washington Redskins will welcome the New York Giants.

Re-running this 2008 article a few days before the games is our Thanksgiving tradition.

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