Redeeming the Supermarket: The Diet for the 99%

We've gotten too culinarily snooty for our own good. Say hello — again — to the old way of eating

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Dwight Eschliman for TIME

Is there anything sadder than the foods of the 1950s? Canned, frozen, packaged concoctions, served up by the plateful, three meals per day, in an era in which the supermarket was king, the farmer’s market was, well, for farmers, and the word locavore sounded vaguely like a mythical beast. We knew far less of flavor or freshness or artisanal excellence than we do now. We were culinary rubes and too clueless even to know it.

Of course, the food of that primitive era was affordable and nutritious. It was easy to prepare and it was always there. You loved it as a kid, and, be honest, you still love a lot of it now. What, you’re suddenly too good for peanut butter? For tuna salad? For jars of pickles and cans of baked beans and a carton of perfectly delicious ice cream that isn’t priced like truffle oil? Becoming food savvy is one thing, but it’s amazing how fast savvy turns to snooty, and snooty leaves you preparing three-hour meals that break your budget and that the kids won’t even eat.

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When our culture shifts, it tends to overcorrect, throwing out everything associated with an era we’ve moved past, rather than saving what was good and combining it with what is new. And when it comes to diet, a whole lot of what’s old and good involves the ordinary supermarket and some of the familiar foods on its shelves. Nutritionists and menu planners have increasingly been taking a second look at what we’ve dismissed as dreary, down-market and somehow below us, and coming to the rather surprising conclusion that there is plenty of room for a lot of it in our recipes and on our tables.

Take a block of frozen vegetables for instance. The flash-freezing method introduced in the 1920s by inventor Clarence Birdseye (yes, that’s how they got the name) works so quickly and at such low temperatures that it prevents water and flavor from being extracted because of the formation of taste-robbing ice crystals. Meantime, all but the most water-soluble vitamins — basically C and the various B’s — survive the freezing process perfectly well, and the B’s and C degrade only a little, particularly if the food is steamed instead of blanched before freezing. It worked then, it works now, and it tastes just fine.

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Canning is a little dicier, particularly since not all foods (think asparagus) take to the canning process so well. But the overwhelming majority do, and most manufacturers also offer lower-sodium alternatives, which is a big improvement over the almost lethally salted brands of the past. Canned tuna, salmon and chicken similarly retain virtually all their nutritional octane and are a whole lot easier to prepare than their higher-end, butcher-counter raw versions. An April study conducted by researchers at Tufts University looked at a range of canned foods — including corn, tomatoes, pinto beans, spinach and tuna — and found that in every case, the nutrition was terrific and the cost savings were considerable.

“There is increasing conversation around ‘fresh foods,’ especially fruits and vegetables, as being more nutritious,” said lead author Cathy Kapica when the report was released. “Yet this supposition has not been supported by evidence.”

Up and down the supermarket aisles, the same thing is turning out to be true, as other familiar comfort foods are enjoying a sort of public rediscovery and acceptance. It’s the 99% diet — cheaper and healthier than you think — perfectly suited to an era of both tightened belts and expanding waistlines. Yes, there are still things to avoid. It will never be a good idea to load your supermarket cart with Fluffernutter, pork rinds,  frozen corn dogs and Twinkies (O.K., that last one may have taken care of itself). But with a little smart label reading and a little self-restraint, everything (or at least most things) old can be very new — and tasty — again.

Read the full TIME cover story on rediscovering the nutrient-rich foods on grocery-store shelves, available to subscribers, here.

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