At the end of a long day, there may be no worse sight than a mountain of vegetables and raw ingredients just waiting for the dinner fairy to turn them into a tasty home-cooked meal . Who hasn’t wished for a magical kitchen assistant to do all the chopping, slicing, dicing, and prep work that makes cooking feel like a chore? Obviously a lot of us have, because today’s supermarket aisles are full of ingredients that have already been cut for our convenience: precut stalks of celery just waiting for a scoop of peanut butter; pre-boiled eggs; bagged salads that require almost no effort at all; pre-diced onions that save us sweat and tears.
According to the United Fresh Produce Association, sales of these convenience foods have skyrocketed in the past two decades, with more and more customers choosing them in order to make food preparation easier and faster. When you’re shopping at the supermarket, they may seem like the best culinary development since the deep fryer, but the next time you’re tempted to grab that pre-bagged spinach or pre-grated Parmesan, think twice about the hidden costs—literal and figurative—that accompany them.
1) They have a bigger carbon footprint. Much is made these days about food-miles, which refers to the distance food travels from farm to table, and how it affects carbon emissions. Preprepared ingredients require significantly larger amounts of energy for packing, processing, and transportation. After harvest, mass-market precut produce is either washed in a chlorine solution or irradiated in order to eradicate microbes and bacteria, and then put into packaging. Once it’s been packaged, the produce requires refrigeration during transportation, during display, and after purchase. Not only do mass-market precut vegetables generate a bigger carbon footprint because of transportation and cleaning, but their packaging alone adds to landfills and contributes to pollution.
Some grocery stores offer their own lines of precut fruits and veggies that are produced in-house. Although these foods don’t need the extended refrigeration or incur the transportation costs of the mass-market varieties, they still require extra packaging, extra handling, cleansing, and extra labor, all of which mean higher costs for the environment than if you did the slicing and dicing yourself.
2) They’re not necessarily cleaner. We all love the fantasy of opening a bag of spinach and dumping it right into the salad bowl, but back in August 2006, consumers discovered that this particular fantasy was a great way to get E. coli. In August 2007, it became a great way to get salmonella (the most common foodborne pathogen). Over the past few years, dozens of vegetable recalls have been initiated in order to protect consumers from these pathogens as well as others, such as listeria. It’s not spinach itself that’s to blame; although bagged and precut vegetables have ostensibly already been washed and treated, they’re actually more likely to harbor pathogens that can cause foodborne illness, especially if the vegetables are not kept properly refrigerated through every step of the production process.
The problem arises from both handling and surface area; the more a food item is handled and processed, the more likely it is that the item will come into contact with germs. The more food is cut or sliced, the more surface area it has, meaning germs can cling to more places. Although the risk of contracting any foodborne illness is relatively small, pre-grated cheese, precut salad, and pre-chopped onions are all riskier than the whole, unadulterated versions of the same foods. The FDA recommends washing all precut and pre-bagged produce just as you would wash whole foods, so buying them preprepared doesn’t really save as much time as you’d think.
3) They’re (much) more expensive. Precut and preprepared fruits and veggies may save a bit of time, but that convenience comes at a cost. On a recent trip to a Whole Foods store in San Francisco, the prices between preprepared produce items and their whole counterparts was striking:
One sixteen-ounce bag of organic spinach was $5.99, compared with one sixteen-ounce bunch of organic spinach for $1.99.
Twelve ounces of organic apple slices were $2.99, compared with loose Braeburn apples for $1.99 per pound.
Ten ounces of precut celery sticks were $3.99, compared with loose celery stalks for $1.99 per pound.
One and one-quarter pound of precut pineapple chunks were $6.99, compared with one whole three-and-one-half-pound pineapple for $4.99.
The prices of the prepared vegetables range from 50 to 75 percent more; the increase goes toward paying for the factors that increase the products’ carbon footprints—handling, washing, transportation, refrigeration, and packaging. Even when you take into account the weight of cores, stems, seeds, and rinds—parts of the veggie that will probably get tossed away —it still amounts to a restaurant-size markup. Why pay it if you’re still the one doing the cooking and the cleanup?
4) They’re not as healthy. Many consumers look to precut veggies and fruits as a way to make healthful options as convenient as packaged cookies and potato chips are. But while precut veggies are certainly more wholesome than a candy bar, they’re not as wholesome as their whole counterparts. Vegetable growers label their packages with nutritional data gathered for whole, uncut products, but once a vegetable or piece of fruit has been sliced, the nutrients begin to degrade. Slicing through cell walls halts the movement of nutrients carried by water, such as vitamin C , folate, and beta carotene; the longer the veggies are allowed to go uneaten, the more those nutrients decompose. Precut veggies’ packaging is specially designed to help prevent some of this decomposition; however the New York Times reported in 2001 that after eight hours, cut veggies lose about 10 percent of their vitamin C—and that’s assuming that they’ve been carefully wrapped and refrigerated. Veggies cut and packaged by the supermarket staff may have only been on the shelf for a few hours, but those packaged at the source may have had the time to degrade substantially from their original state.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with the concept of convenience; if it wasn’t for convenience, after all, we’d all be responsible for milking our own cows, kneading our own bread, and butchering our own livestock. But even though the convenience of a precut celery stalk is still preferable to a Snickers bar, the greenest, cheapest, and healthiest option is to take the time to do the slicing and dicing yourself.