It’s Not Really Robbery…

…Because they’re not lying.  You’re just not reading the labels.

Are you paying extra because you don’t realize what you’re buying?  Here are some of the largest ripoffs in the supermarket, and how you can avoid paying extra for them:

Some organic produce: Ever wonder why organic bananas really aren’t that much more expensive than conventional bananas?  It partly has to do with the lack of natural predators to the banana.  And what’s worse?  You don’t need to eat organic bananas.  If you remove a thick peel before eating the produce, you’re already throwing away the pesticides.  This includes bananas, mangos, pineapple, onions, avocados… I can go on.  So what needs to be organic?  The “dirty dozen” are peaches, apples, sweet bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, pears, imported grapes, spinach, lettuce, and potatoes.  The least contaminated are onions, avocado, sweet corn, pineapples, mango, asparagus, frozen sweet peas, kiwi, bananas, cabbage, broccoli, and papaya.  And organic wool clothing?  Um… that’s going a little far.

Hormone-free poultry: Last Thanksgiving, I counted at least five Facebook friends who felt better about their dinners because they had spent extra money on “hormone-free turkey.”  The truth?  Since the mid-70s, the USDA has regulated that hormones can only be used in beef.  No pork, no poultry.  So why do some poultry companies still advertise “hormone-free?”  I’ll let anyone who has ever paid more for their chicken answer that for you.  Antibiotics, however, fall into a completely different category.  If you don’t want antibiotics in your meat, make sure it says “no antibiotics” on the label.  Because, chances are, a farmer gave that animal some medicine to keep it healthy before it reached the slaughterhouse. 

Really? You don't say!

“Cage-free” chicken or eggs: Have you ever seen Food, Inc.?  I did, and it wasn’t nearly as left-wing as I expected it to be.  The living conditions they portray for chicken and beef are very realistic.  “Cage-free” only means that the chicken is not confined to a cage its entire life.  The bird can still have the same allotted space per animal, giving it only a few inches to walk around.


All natural products: Ok, I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again.  “All natural” is a marketing phrase.  So often, I’ve heard people say, “It’s all natural, so it’s safe.”  Rattlesnake venom is all natural!  Plus, define “all natural.”  If a human has picked a spinach leaf and stuffed it in a plastic bag, is it still natural?  What about the seafood pulled from the Gulf of Mexico during the BP oil spill?  That was rather natural seafood, with rather natural (and organic) crude oil all over it.  Next time you see these two words on a food or cosmetic label, just pretend they don’t exist.  Because that’s about all they mean.

Fruit drinks: Contains real fruit juice!  Right.  How much fruit juice?  And what else is in it?  Usually water, high fructose corn syrup, and maybe a bit of added wheat starch.  If the label contains the words “drink,” “beverage,” or “punch,” keep reading the label.  Check how much fruit juice is actually in it.

 The label tells you how much actual juice you get.

Cartoon characters: I read in a related article on grocery ripoffs, “You know there’s trouble when the food needs a mascot.”  These are normally sugary products, and most of the money you spend on them goes to marketing.  My kids constantly ask for brightly-dyed high-fructose yogurt with the right cartoon characters.  They’re getting older, so at least they understand me now when I argue that I don’t want to pay for a label.  But they still beg for it.

Laundry products: We can go both ways on this.  You can pay less for a bottle of bleach, only to read the label and find it has been diluted with water.  Or you can pay extra for a “concentrated” liquid laundry detergent and end up using just as much because you don’t pay attention to the lines on the cap.  Detergent companies stumbled onto something great when they realized this.  They offer less detergent, in a smaller bottle, and you buy more of it because you don’t realize how little it takes to do a load of laundry.  The most powerful cleaning agent in your washing machine is the water, and the force of the water as it agitates through your clothes.  The soap gives the dirt something to stick to, and it really doesn’t take that much to break the surface tension of the water and lift the dirt.

Shrinking containers: Look at the bottom of your peanut butter.  Is the container flat, or does it have a concave dimple?  That dimple allows the manufacturer to reduce a few ounces and sell it to you for the same price.  And they’re sneaky about it.  Your soft drink may come in a bottle that looks identical to the old one, but through brilliant design holds much less soda.  The doubly brilliant part?  They also slap a “value” label on it, and you really do think you’re only paying a dollar for the same thing that was a dollar five years ago… but also contained four or six more ounces back then.  The key to avoiding this trick?  Read the product volume.  It legally has to be there.  Balance the price with the volume to determine which product is a better deal per ounce. 

Now with two fewer servings!

Brand names: My ex-husband once worked at a cereal manufacturing plant.  They made flaked cereals, extruded (ring-shaped) cereals… all the popular shapes and sizes.  And partway through the manufacturing process, they stopped to switch box labels.  Often, they would stop long enough to switch the brand name box with a generic box.  That’s proof that it’s often the same product in either container, and the brand name just takes your money.  Alright, what about non-cereal products?  Does the egg carton claim they use genetically superior chickens, or is the milk from a creamier cow?  I agree that there are certain products that are only good if you use that particular brand.  I do buy some name brands, for these products.  But there aren’t that many.

Fillers: It’s the difference between 100% Parmesan cheese and the other stuff.  It’s what they use to make expensive potato “crisps” that come in a tube.  It’s why imitation crab is so much cheaper than real crab, and why celiacs shouldn’t eat it.  Buying a product that was “made with real maple syrup” may be less expensive than 100% maple syrup, but consider the amount of maple you’re getting compared to the amount of high fructose corn syrup you’re getting.  If you compared those two ingredients on their own, in the quantities you receive, you’ll probably realize you’re paying extra. 

At least it tastes a little like crab.

Light and fluffy: You may like your bread light and fluffy.  And often, the fluffier bread has fewer calories.  But what do you think makes it fluffy?  Air.  That’s what makes whipped yogurt, or slow-churned ice cream, have the nice texture.  If you don’t mind paying for the air, go ahead and indulge in the fluffy product.  I like my air to be free.

Do you have any other grocery ripoffs to list?  Please feel free to comment!


Springtime Herbs, Already?

What’s the best thing you can grow if you want to improve your health but have almost no gardening space or knowledge?  My vote is herbs.  They’re one of the most expensive items in the produce department.  And one of the easiest to grow.  And the health benefits?  Well, I don’t have enough space to go into all of them.

Last year my herbs included cilantro, oregano, basil, chives, spearmint, lemon balm, parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme.  Yes, that was intentional.  I actually went out and bought thyme seeds so I could complete the quartet.  And as we enjoyed the flavors dinner after dinner, my daughter learned the words to Scarborough Fair.

And today, while I cooked a quiche with four fresh herbs, she asked me to play the song.  But alas, I need to replace my rosemary.  It didn’t make it through the weather.

But look what did!

Chives, oregano, and tiny lemon balm leaves.

Nothing else is ready to harvest.  The onions are barely an inch tall.  The lettuce and chard are just budding.  But I have oregano, thyme, sage, chives, and parsley.

The first four are perennials.  And one of the parsley plants lived through the frost.  How easy is that?

I mentioned health benefits.  These are just some of the health claims of the herbs I grew last year, taken from Nutri Herb and The World’s Healthiest Foods.

Oregano: Antifungal, antimicrobial, and source of vitamins A, C, and K.  Contains antioxidants (four times more powerful than blueberries,) iron, manganese, and omega-3 fatty acids.

Oregano and sage.

Cilantro: An anti-inflammatory, digestive aid, and for treatment of bad breath, it has also been found to lower cholesterol.

Basil: Anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and good for cardiovascular health.

Chives: Keep pests away from other garden crops.  Also, as part of the allium family, they’re good for the lymphatic (disease-fighting) system, and for prevention of cancer.

Spearmint: Good for stress and headache relief, and to help the digestive and respiratory systems.

Lemon balm: Sleeplessness, depression, anxiety.

Parsley: A rich source of Vitamin C, parsley is also good for circulation and rheumatoid arthritis.

Flat leaf Italian parsley, ready to come back for the season.

Sage: Good for indigestion, flatulence, insect bites, and topical infections, sage can also boost brain function.

Rosemary: Can lend antimicrobial properties to the foods you cook.  It’s also a mild appetite suppressant, good for the immune system, and asthma attacks.

Thyme: An astringent, antiseptic, and antifungal, thyme is also a good source of calcium.

Thyme beside baby onions. You can see lettuce and chard seedlings behind the thyme.

Did I mention that I grew all of these in the small spaces beside my other food plants?  I had no large space reserved for herbs.  And, several times during the summer, I advertised free herbs on Facebook because they had produced far more than my family needed, and had to be cut back before they went to seed!

So today, we enjoyed a vegetarian quiche flavored with fresh herbs.  That’s just the beginning.  In addition to those I mentioned I’m growing two kinds of basil, shallots, fennel, and dill.  Most of these will be in between other plants, or in buckets set on the driveway.

How easy is that?

The Bucket Report: Dodging the Weather

As I write this, at 1pm on April 8th, the sun is shining on the patio.  It’s also 38 degrees outside.  Last week, we reached 83 degrees.  I think Mother Nature reserves Reno as a whipping child for all the other places that have chosen to abuse her. 

No, really.  I like it here.  There are far fewer bugs in Reno than any other place I have lived.  We have poor soil and it rains about… oh… five times during the entire summer.  But we have few bugs.

While the wind blows the snowflakes around the budding trees, my potatoes sit nice and cozy in the bay window.

The potato buckets sit cozy with the houseplants.

This is the result of the global buckets we are trying out this year.  And if this past month has been any indication, it will be a tremendous success.  The potatoes are just three weeks old. 

Already past the tops of the buckets.

On March 12th, Russ took all the white plastic buckets we had gathered so far and converted them into global buckets.

5-gallon buckets sit with other gardening supplies.

You can buy these buckets for $3 at most hardware stores.  We would rather get them for free.  And you can get them all over the city, if you know where to look and aren’t embarrassed to walk up to a deli counter and ask for leftover buckets.  Stores go through these like crazy.  They arrive filled with pickles, pineapple chunks, icing…  And much more, I’m sure, but those are the labels we’ve seen so far.  After the stores use the pickles or icing, they toss the buckets into the trash compactor.  Goodbye, perfectly good bucket.

That is, most stores do.  If you go to Whole Foods in Reno, you may be lucky enough to find a stack of buckets at the north entrance, beside the green shopping baskets.  There, I’ve just given away my secret.  And you can’t ask the deli to save them for you, as I have done at the Savemart in my neighborhood.  You have to make it there before someone else grabs them.  Hurry up, because more people are learning this secret.

Each planter takes two buckets.  The bottom bucket is the water reservoir.  The top holds the soil and the plants.  Drill a few holes in the bottom… some for drainage, one for the watering tube, and one for the plastic cup.  The cup wicks the water from the reservoir into the soil, and the tube is used to fill the bottom bucket.  As long as the plant is past the seedling stage, you can mulch the top of the bucket and just water through the tube.  Within a month, I’ve watered my potatoes once.

You can go here to learn how to make them.  We used electrical conduit for the pipe, at a cost of 50 cents for six feet.

To plant the potatoes, we put about four inches of fertile soil in the bottom of nine of the buckets and planted four seed potatoes in each bucket.  While they sprouted, the buckets stayed in the bay window with the tomato and pepper seedlings, with a few plant lights to help out.

The bay window, full of seedlings on March 26th.

 On March 26th, two weeks after planting, the potatoes had barely peeked through. 

All Blue potatoes

Yukon Gold potatoes


On the same day, Mother Nature threw another hissy fit, but the potatoes were perfectly safe.  

Just a few days away from April.

A week and a half later, the potatoes had reached the top of the bucket.  We add soil whenever the plants grow six inches above the dirt, and will keep adding soil until the dirt reaches the top.  The potatoes get to go outside and play when the weather is warmer than 40 degrees, and it only takes about two minutes to take everyone outside, thanks to the nice handles already on the buckets.

However, today, they have to stay inside.  It’s for their own good.  I’m sure they understand.

Playing out in the sun with the lettuce, spinach, and tomato seedlings.