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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
Why Is Soda Measured in Liters?
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Never a nation to fall in line, America is one of the few countries to resist the metric system. We stubbornly measure distance in miles and weight in pounds. So what’s with those two-liter bottles of soda?

First, a clarification: Soda is far from the only substance we measure in metric units. Heck, it’s not even the only beverage. Wine, liquor, and bottled water are sold by the milliliter. The healthcare field is all about metric units, too, from cholesterol levels to prescription, over-the-counter, and supplement dosages. We run 5-kilometer races, ride on 215-millimeter tires, and use 8-millimeter cameras, or at least we used to.

In most other things, we determinedly cling to our imperial measurements. Attempts to convince Americans to join the rest of the metric-measuring world have been met with great resistance.

Ken Butcher of the National Institute of Science and Technology has been working with the government’s tiny Metric Program for years. Speaking to Mental Floss back in 2013, Butcher explained that we’re so entrenched in our way of doing things that switching measurement systems now would be both chaotic and expensive.

"If we were going to start a new country all with the metric system, it would be easy," he said. "But when you have to go in and change almost everything that touches people’s everyday life and their physical and mental experience, their education, and then you take that away from them—it can be scary."

Here and there, though, when it’s convenient, we have been willing to budge. The soda bottle is a good example. Until 1970, all soft drinks in the U.S. were sold in fluid ounces and gallons, mostly in glass bottles. Then the plastic polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottle came along, and soft drink makers decided it was time for a product redesign.

The redesign process coincided with two key factors: a short-lived wave of government interest in going metric, and the burgeoning environmental movement.

The folks at PepsiCo decided to meld all three into its exciting new vessel: a lightweight, cheap, recyclable, metric bottle, with built-in fins so it could stand up on supermarket shelves. Two liters: the soda size of the future.

The two-liter bottle took off. The rest of the soft drink world had no choice but to get on board. And voila: liters of cola for all.

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
Where Is the Hottest Place on Earth?
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The summer of 2017 will go down as an endurance test of sorts for the people of Phoenix, Arizona. The National Weather Service issued an extreme heat warning, and planes were grounded as a result of temperatures exceeding 120 degrees. (Heat affects air density, which in turn affects a plane’s lift.)

Despite those dire measures, Phoenix is not the hottest place on Earth. And it’s not even close.

That dubious honor was bestowed on the Lut Desert in Iran in 2005, when land temperatures were recorded at a staggering 159.3 degrees Fahrenheit. The remote area was off the grid—literally—for many years until satellites began to measure temperatures in areas that were either not well trafficked on foot or not measured with the proper instruments. Lut also measured record temperatures in 2004, 2006, 2007, and 2009.

Before satellites registered Lut as a contender, one of the hottest areas on Earth was thought to be El Azizia, Libya, where a 1922 measurement of 136 degrees stood as a record for decades. (Winds blowing from the nearby Sahara Desert contributed to the oppressive heat.)

While the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) acknowledged this reading as the hottest on record for years, they later declared that instrumentation problems and other concerns led to new doubts about the accuracy.

Naturally, declaring the hottest place on Earth might be about more than just a single isolated reading. If it’s consistency we’re after, then the appropriately-named Death Valley in California, where temperatures are consistently 90 degrees or above for roughly half the year and at least 100 degrees for 140 days annually, has to be a contender. A blistering temperature of 134 degrees was recorded there in 1913.

Both Death Valley and Libya were measured using air temperature readings, while Lut was taken from a land reading, making all three pretty valid contenders. These are not urban areas, and paving the hottest place on Earth with sidewalks would be a very, very bad idea. Temperatures as low as 95 degrees can cause blacktop and pavement to reach skin-scorching temperatures of 141 degrees.

There are always additional factors to consider beyond a temperature number, however. In 2015, Bandar Mahshahr in Iran recorded temperatures of 115 degrees but a heat index—what it feels like outside when accounting for significant humidity—of an astounding 163 degrees. That thought might be one of the few things able to cool Phoenix residents off.

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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