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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 Does Asparagus Make Your Pee Smell Funny?
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The asparagus has a long and storied history. It was mentioned in the myths and the scholarly writings of ancient Greece, and its cultivation was the subject of a detailed lesson in Cato the Elder's treatise, On Agriculture. But it wasn't until the turn of the 18th century that discussion of the link between asparagus and odorous urine emerged. In 1731, John Arbuthnot, physician to Queen Anne, noted in a book about food that asparagus "affects the urine with a foetid smell ... and therefore have been suspected by some physicians as not friendly to the kidneys." Benjamin Franklin also noticed that eating asparagus "shall give our urine a disagreeable odor."

Since then, there has been debate over what is responsible for the stinky pee phenomenon. Polish chemist and doctor Marceli Nencki identified a compound called methanethiol as the cause in 1891, after a study that involved four men eating about three and a half pounds of asparagus apiece. In 1975, Robert H. White, a chemist at the University of California at San Diego, used gas chromatography to pin down several compounds known as S-methyl thioesters as the culprits. Other researchers have blamed various "sulfur-containing compounds" and, simply, "metabolites."

More recently, a study demonstrated that asparagusic acid taken orally by subjects known to produce stinky asparagus pee produced odorous urine, which contained the same volatile compounds found in their asparagus-induced odorous urine. Other subjects, who normally didn't experience asparagus-induced odorous urine, likewise were spared stinky pee after taking asparagusic acid.

The researchers concluded that asparagusic acid and its derivatives are the precursors of urinary odor (compared, in different scientific papers, to the smell of "rotten cabbage," "boiling cabbage" and "vegetable soup"). The various compounds that contribute to the distinct smell—and were sometimes blamed as the sole cause in the past—are metabolized from asparagusic acid.

Exactly how these compounds are produced as we digest asparagus remains unclear, so let's turn to an equally compelling, but more answerable question:

WHY DOESN'T ASPARAGUS MAKE YOUR PEE SMELL FUNNY?

Remember when I said that some people don't produce stinky asparagus pee? Several studies have shown that only some of us experience stinky pee (ranging from 20 to 40 percent of the subjects taking part in the study, depending on which paper you read), while the majority have never had the pleasure.

For a while, the world was divided into those whose pee stank after eating asparagus and those whose didn't. Then in 1980, a study complicated matters: Subjects whose pee stank sniffed the urine of subjects whose pee didn't. Guess what? The pee stank. It turns out we're not only divided by the ability to produce odorous asparagus pee, but the ability to smell it.

An anosmia—an inability to perceive a smell—keeps certain people from smelling the compounds that make up even the most offensive asparagus pee, and like the stinky pee non-producers, they're in the majority.

Producing and perceiving asparagus pee don't go hand-in-hand, either. The 1980 study found that some people who don't produce stinky pee could detect the rotten cabbage smell in another person's urine. On the flip side, some stink producers aren't able to pick up the scent in their own urine or the urine of others.

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
What Legal Authority Does Judge Judy Have?
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While Judith Sheindlin was a real, live judge—New York City Mayor Ed Koch appointed her to family court in 1982 and then made her Manhattan's supervising family court judge in 1986—she's not acting as one on her show. Neither are any of the other daytime TV judges (whether they passed the bar and served as actual judges or not).

TV court shows don't take place in real courtrooms and they don't feature real trials, though they are usually real cases—the producers often contact parties who have pending litigation in small claims court and offer them the opportunity to appear on TV instead. What you're seeing on these TV court shows is really just arbitration playing dress-up in small claims court's clothes.

Arbitration is a legal method for resolving disputes outside the court. The disputing parties present their cases to a neutral, third-party arbitrator or arbitrators who hear the case, examine the evidence, and make a (usually binding) decision. Like a court-based case, arbitration is adversarial, but generally less formal in its rules and procedures.

The power that Judge Judy and the rest of the TV arbitrators have over the disputing parties is granted by a contract, specific to their case, that they sign before appearing on the show. These contracts make the arbitrators' decision final and binding, prevent the disputing parties from negotiating the terms of the arbitration, and allow the "judges" wide discretion on procedural and evidentiary rules during the arbitration.

TV judges make their decision on the case and either decide for the plaintiff, in which case the show's producers award them a judgment fee, or with the defendant, in which case the producers award both parties with an appearance fee. This system seems to skew things in favor of the defendants and gives them an incentive to take their case from court to TV. If they have a weak case, appearing on the show absolves them of any financial liability; if they have a strong case, they stand to earn an appearance fee along with their victory.

If one party or the other doesn't like the arbitrator's decision, it can really only be successfully appealed if it addresses a matter outside the scope of the contract. In 2000, Judge Judy had one of her decisions overturned for that reason by the Family Court of Kings County. In the case B.M. v. D.L., the parties appeared in front of Sheindlin to solve a personal property dispute. Sheindlin ruled on that dispute, but also made a decision on the parties' child custody and visitation rights. One of the parties appealed in court, and the family court overturned the custody and visitation part of the decision because they weren't covered by the agreement to arbitrate.

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

This post originally appeared in 2012.

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