For the past 8 weeks, I have been amazed while food shopping in SW Europe, including France, Spain, and Portugal. Fruits and vegetables are 30-50-70 percent less expensive, and usually, they are organic and much better quality (flavorful and aromatic). Poultry has been 30-50 percent less costly, and seafood is extremely fresh, with much local variety, far better quality, and 50-75 percent less expensive.
How is this possible considering Europe’s cost of living is higher or equal than the US?
I should add that processed food seems fairly expensive in Europe. If you buy something in a package or prepared, it may cost as much or more than I may pay at home.
There are a couple of factors an individual cannot control, such as:
- There is more competition with retail food sales. Many small producers, and even the large European producers, are committed to keeping prices low and competitive.
- European governments subsidize fresh, wholesome food production. In the US, the government subsidizes mostly big farm production, for sugar, wheat, flour, corn, dairy and soybeans, with limited if any support for seafood, organic animal products, or fresh produce.
Yet there are several factors that we can impact, as in Europe:
- People eat what is produced locally. The markets and the supermarkets offer locally grown and produced products. The fruit and vegetables, the seafood, and even the dairy products are all produced locally and often by small farmers. They don’t have the expense of shipping food across the country when people eat locally.
- People eat what is seasonal. When peaches are in season, everyone seems to know that they should buy peaches. The same is true for most of the food here. People are aware of the seasons and buy their food when it reaches its peak.
- Local farmers sell their products to local markets. They don’t have massive food farms producing food on a national scale. The money flows locally. This eliminates many of the middle-level buyers who are buying and selling food.
- European food doesn’t have set sizes and color requirements. Generally speaking, Europeans care far more about the freshness and quality, than how it looks. It doesn’t have to have a standard appearance, specific size, or single color. An apple is acceptable if it has spots, a tomato is fine if it has bumps, and it is fine if things come in different sizes. In the US, food producers throw away vast quantities of food that don’t meet a pre-set standard appearance.
- Buyers in Europe expect fresh, excellent quality, and they won’t settle for less. They won’t buy inferior products, in contrast in the US in particular, where most of our food sold in the grocery store seems to be perfected shaped and colored, but of marginal flavor, we have become used to buying inferior fresh food products. Most of the time, our peaches are hard and without flavor, melons have almost no fragrance and little taste and tomatoes have the perfect shape and color, but almost no flavor. In Europe, people expect their food to be fresh and flavorful or they won’t buy it. In the US, we seem to care too much about finding the perfect color and shape, causing tons of food to be thrown away, and not picky enough about the flavor of food, and our quality suffers as a result.
- If you are able to shop at the local market in Europe (which exists in every small town) instead of a large grocery store, the food is often less expensive.
When you add all the factors together and shop in stores and markets, you’ll find that you get far more food in Europe at a lower price than what we spend at home.
What steps could we take to reduce our food expense and quality:
- Buy fresh food that is grown locally.
- Buy food that is seasonal.
- Buy direct from local growers. For seafood, look for sources of locally caught seafood options (lakes, rivers, and sea as is feasible with where you live).
- Accept food of varying sizes, colors, and shapes.
- When you can, support your local organic markets.
- Insist upon high-quality food, or skip it.
I wish you the best of health!
Steven Masley, MD, FAHA, FACN, FAAFP, CNS