Inconvenient truth on convenient food

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convenient food

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'It is clear that women do the grocery shopping.' Photo: Matthew Jordaan

Johannesburg - Food prices are rocketing alarmingly, with many supermarket till slip shocks to come. Could it be that your till total is being unnecessarily bloated by food products which promise convenience?

Supermarket aisles are crammed with items which appeal to time-poor consumers with their “quick and easy” allure, but, come with a premium price.

In short, the closest a foodstuff is to its natural state, the cheaper it is, and the more processed, the more expensive.

So a whole chicken sold in minimal packaging – a plastic bag – is a lot cheaper than one which has been butterflied and marinated and sold in thick plastic with a cardboard sleeve.

A whole butternut is far cheaper than one peeled, cut up and presented for sale on a polystyrene tray with clingwrap over it. And be prepared to pay a whack for any “mini” convenience packs which scream “perfect for lunchboxes!”.

Apart from the environmental impact of all the excess packaging, the price of minis is usually pretty maxi.

Is buying a big pack of peanuts or biscuits and then popping a few of them into a small “lunchbox perfect” plastic container really that inconvenient?

Then there’s hot chocolate.

Buying a pre-mixed hot chocolate product works out a lot more expensive than adding warmed milk to a teaspoon of cocoa and a bit of sugar.

And you can be sure that anything with the words “instant”, “quick” or “easy” on the packaging will cost more than the regular version.

When it comes to breakfast, we consumers are particularly keen to spend vast amounts on products which require the least amount of effort on our part.

Years of conditioning by breakfast food manufacturers have socialised us into believing that breakfast is an expensive, highly processed, often chocolatey concoction that comes in a box, which one pours into a bowl before adding milk.

I see there’s now an “Instant” version of the Jungle Oats I’ve been cooking for breakfast most of my life.

The “just add boiling water” box is selling for R21.79 at my local Pick n Pay, versus R22.99 for the regular box, which requires three minutes cooking on a stove. But the Instant box is just 750g, whereas the original, while normally 1kg, is on special in a “100g extra” 1.1kg box. In this case, that’s more than 25 percent more oats.

So again, convenience costs. Even more so when it comes to popcorn. Those who’ve only bought microwave popcorn tend to think making popcorn on the stove is terribly quaint at best and a colossal waste of time at worst.

Here’s the thing. Microwave popcorn costs about R11 for 100g. You take the plastic off, pop it in the microwave and a couple of minutes later, the paper bag puffs up, you rip it open, avoid the steam and tuck in.

A plain old plastic bag of popcorn kernels – 500g – costs between R7 and R8.50.

You place a pot on the stove, add a little oil, heat, add a layer of kernels and wait a few minutes for them to pop, then add a little salt. So for a seventh of the price of the microwave popcorn you get a beautiful bowl of popcorn which isn’t oversalted or laced with a cocktail of flavourants. Plus you can make as much or as little as you like, and choose your oil – sunflower, or olive, for a more gourmet version. It really isn’t a schlep, once you get past the “it’s so much easier in the microwave” mentality.

If you’re prowling supermarket aisles with convenience in mind, the inconvenient truth is that you have no business complaining about high food prices. - The Star

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