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Supermarket shopping: It is
the ultimate multiple choice test

I do most of the supermarket shopping. Linda tags along occasionally, but I usually wander the aisles alone. I've been supermarket friendly since I obtained my operator's license at 16, at which point I was appointed food shopping chauffeur for my mother who never learned to drive.

What I like most about supermarkets is being surrounded by so many goodies. Maybe it's my Catholic upbringing and all that delayed gratification. Maybe I've been thinking that some day I'll fill my cart with treats I've avoided for years, then go home and eat til I burst.

But something sinister is afoot. It's more likely the next time I go to my neighborhood Publix I'll discover everyone shopping there is standing pie-eyed and slack-jawed in front of the shelves and display cases, made comatose by choices that became too complex, too difficult.

Despite their inability to make a selection, their brains continue to function. They wonder ... why so many choices? Why do manufacturers make things so complicated?

The situation has been obvious for years, but like everyone else I deal with it the best I can. Several people now shop with a cell phone in hand, ready to call home for advice, like contestants did on TV's "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire." I make difficult decisions with my eyes shut, trusting my hand to grab the right product (while praying I don't send things flying off the shelf).

SEVERAL YEARS ago I discovered Seattle's Best coffee when my stomach rebelled against Starbucks. My wife eventually came around, and we each selected our favorite Seattle's Best blend. Mine was labeled Colombian, she opted for something stronger

Then came the day Seattle's Best changed their packaging. Colombian was gone, replaced by containers numbered from 1 to 5. It was a momentary setback; after some taste tests at home, I decided I liked number 2, my wife preferred number 3. I like mine ground, she likes whole beans she can grind herself.

Each number came with at least two varieties, regular or decaf; some also came with that whole bean option. But packages of any number looked pretty much the same. You had to look closely to spot the differences. It made more sense to us when the company used names instead of the numbers. Buying coffee became like calling an office and being told, if you want to schedule an appointment, press 1; to inquire about a bill, press 2 ...

[However, I did get a kick out of Seattle's Best website. First off, they categorized the coffees by levels, not numbers. By choosing Level 2, said the company, I was considered spontaneous and fun, a curious optimist, fond of going off the beaten path. The coffee I drink has a slight aroma of cocoa and lively acidity. My wife, as a Level 3 drinker, is quick on the draw and ready for just about anything. She's adept at problem shopping. Her coffee has a nutty nuance and clean finish, with medium acidity.]

Since this was written, Seattle's Best has dropped the number 1 and 2, in favor of House Blend and Breakfast Blend, though I've yet to see the Breakfast Blend at our Publix.

WHAT PUSHED ME over the edge, food shopping-wise, was a tiny item – Splenda, a no-calorie sweetener. This curious optimist uses it in my morning cup of Level 2 coffee, one packet per day. We prefer to buy products by the bunch – we call it "being in depth" – so I don't need to buy if more than twice a year. Which is a good thing because now, when I look for those little yellow packets, there are choices that can cause a traffic jam in the sugar aisle.

Do I want Splenda with antioxidants and vitamins C and E? Splenda fortified with B vitamins? Splenda with 1 gram of fiber? A Brown sugar blend? Granulated Splenda for those who want the look of sugar? Or Splenda with flavors for coffee – French vanilla, mocha or hazelnut? (The aroma of hazelnut follows skunk on my most hated list.)

Another product that can stop you in your tracks is Tropicana orange juice. There's Tropicana with no pulp, with some pulp or with lots of pulp. Plus ruby red Tropicana or ruby red with calcium. You also can buy Tropicana orange juice in combination with strawberry-banana, tangerine, pineapple and peach-mango.

WHEN I WAS a boy, there were three good cola drinks at our A&P – Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola and Royal Crown (which tasted a lot like Pepsi). Coca-Cola was available in those classic six-ounce bottles, Royal Crown and Pepsi came in 12-ounce bottles. (The Pepsi jingle proclaimed, "Pepsi-Cola hits the spot, 12 full ounces, that's a lot!")

Now you can buy soft drinks in a whole variety of bottles, some about the size of a beer keg. You have diet colas and flavored colas, plus a wide flavor of fruit drinks, many of which are designed to kick-start your body. Another amazing change — well, amazing to anyone who grew up in the 1940s — is how bottled water is so popular that it can take up a whole aisle. (Maybe I'm helping to ruin the planet, but I need bottled water where I live because I don't trust what comes out of our faucets.)

Years ago pop corn was a simple item, sometimes in a plastic bag, sometimes in a can. You popped it with a cooking oil in a pot on your stove. Then came the microwave and the supermarket pop corn display experienced a growth spurt. Now you can spend a half-hour going through your choices — no butter, some butter, more butter, lots of butter, a whole heap of butter, kettle corn, movie theater corn, pop corn that tastes like sawdust, popcorn that tastes like styrofoam nuggets, you name it.

Compounding everything are the nutritional statistics on every product listing such things as calories, which they usually do by "servings," and you spend more time doing math — especially division, which is everyone's weakness — and after some calculating and big-time rationalizing conclude it's okay to buy this product because it won't make you fat ... though in your heart you know the numbers indicate the only way you can make that happen is to restrict your daily intake to one handful of pop corn, one spoonful of ice cream or one bite of a tiny doughnut you bought to eat with your Splenda-sweetened House Blend breakfast coffee.

 
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