Until Eugene Trufkin explained his rationale, I would never believe Walmart sometimes beats Whole Foods in the realm of nutrition.
Humans get nutrition from food. While we produce some vitamins and minerals in the body, we get others from food.
This discussion focuses on produce. The nutritional value of plants comes primarily from two factors: soil quality, and freshness.
How Soil Quality Determines Nutritional Content of Food
Humans rely on food for nutrition, but how do plants get theirs?
I first thought the seed and then the sun via photosynthesis. But for minerals that’s not it.
Bacteria in the soil decompose and recycle living matter. Plant root systems form a symbiotic relationship between a fungi called mycorrhizae that helps plants access nutrients in the soil itself. Without soil microbes, the process would halt, plants wouldn’t get their nutrients, and neither could you.
Therefore healthy soil leads to nutritious plants.
This is true for both primary macronutrients and micronutrients. Plants cannot grow without primary nutrients. They can without micronutrients.
Problem is, you can’t tell if a plant received enough micronutrients just by looking at it. Growing healthy micronutrient-rich plants costs farmers more, so they cut corners.
There lies the problem:
Micronutrient deficient produce that looks great and doesn’t improve your health.
How Freshness of the Food Matters Beyond Taste
Produce degrades FAST once harvested. How fast?
“Spinach can lose 90 percent within the first 24 hours after harvest.”
Every day after picking the nutritional profile of the produce declines.
From harvest to supermarket shelf can take unbelievably long. In the case of apples, the lag can take up to 10 months. Ten months of the apple losing nutrients day by day.
The Guardian ran a report in 2003 on the average storage length of different fruits and vegetables before they arrive in supermarkets. Their findings:
- Apples: 6 to 12 months
- Lettuce: 1 to 4 weeks
- Bananas: 14 days
- Tomatoes: 1 to 6 weeks
- Potatoes: 2 to 12 months
- Carrots: 1 to 9 months
Only then do the fruits and vegetables wind up in your local grocery store. It sits some more waiting to be picked, and then spends a few more days in your fridge.
Modern food preservation technology will only lengthen the harvest to consumption period.
How Walmart Beats Whole Foods
Back to the original question.
By the time it makes its way into your mouth, how is Walmart’s produce more nutritious than Whole Foods’?
It comes down to the above two criteria. I’ll borrow Eugene’s example since he has supply chain data.
- In his area, Cals Organics supplies both stores. That means the produce in both stores comes from the same exact fields.
It stand to reason that the final deciding factor comes down to freshness and how fast each store can get the food from field to your hand. According to Eugene, Walmart is much quicker to transport produce:
- Whole Foods: 5–10 days
- Walmart: 2–3 days
With equal produce coming from the same farm, Walmart’s faster supply chain makes their produce higher in nutrition by the time it reaches you.
What You Can Do to Get More Nutritional Bang for Your Buck from Food
Between our depleted soil and long lag between harvest and consumption, you might wonder how you can get ahold of more nutritious food.
You have several great options.
1. Chop it Yourself
If you care about food quality, pure convenience comes at a cost.
Heat, oxygen, and light degrade the nutrients even faster than whole supermarket produce.
On top of that you pay for the pre-cut convenience.
2. Skip the Fridge and Stock the Freezer
Frozen food holds its own against fresh.
Likely because manufacturers flash freeze produce shortly after harvest. Freezing affects a few heat-sensitive nutrients, but research shows that most stay nearly the same.
To my surprise I discovered that the freezing process actually increases levels of certain nutrients above the fresh varieties.
Texture and taste have improved markedly over the years thanks to advancements in freezing technology.
Before hoarding the entire frozen foods section, check product labels for any suspicious ingredients.
3. Meet Your Farmer
Shopping at farmer’s markets all but guarantees higher quality. An extra trip takes time, and the products usually cost more, but in my experience the taste alone is worth it.
Applying our soil quality and freshness framework to compare small farmers with grocery stores:
- Freshness: Small local farmers typically sell their produce shortly after harvest.
- Soil: Without visiting the farm, we will have a hard time evaluating their soil quality. Talk to the farmer and ask about their soil.
Your small, local farmers probably care more about soil than those that run huge, industrial operations that sell to grocery stores.
You won’t get worse produce.
Want an easy way to evaluate farmers yourself? Ask to try something they sell. Often taste alone can indicate quality. Or you can ask about their soil practices and see if they sound legit.
4. Make More Trips to the Grocery Store
If you find shopping therapeutic, do it more often.
Buying fresh food in smaller quantities keeps it fresher, tasting better, and retains more nutrients.
For the rest of us, I would rather spend the time at a farmer’s market, getting to know the local cultivators.
Get the Most Nutritious Food Possible and Enjoy
I only compared the nutrition content of produce between the two stores in one area. The supply chain in your area may differ, and there is more to food than nutrition.
I hope these tips helped you discover how to get more out of your groceries.
Remember that produce nutrition comes from the quality of the soil it grew in, and how quickly it gets to you.
A general rule of thumb is the more inconvenient, the more nutritious. Farmers markets are a great option when available, but frozen food works too. Choose whole foods over pre-cut.
Most important of all, enjoy whatever food you have access to.