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Why Do Grocery Stores Spray Their Fresh Produce With Water?

Fresh Produce being misted with water
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I’ve gotten this question a lot by customers over the years, why do grocery stores spray their fresh produce with water? It’s because unpackaged fresh produce is comprised of mostly water and will dry out due to the constant airflow produced by the refrigerated cases they are displayed in.

Fresh produce subjected to the constant airflow of a refrigerated case will look unappealing to the customer as well due to its wilted, dry appearance.

Not to mention the potential money stores could lose due to fresh produce such as broccoli losing weight or becoming unsaleable due to evaporation. It’s also not part of some evil master plan to extract more money from the customer buying heavier, water-logged produce.

I get thoroughly annoyed at such clickbait content purporting to “expose” the real reason why produce departments keep their produce hydrated.

These kinds of stories all detail the “hidden” truths behind why produce is misted, with them all espousing a type of fleecing of the customer through heavier-than-necessary, price-per pound produce.

I would ask any of the authors of these articles to spend a day in a produce department and see what happens when a produce case’s misting system goes down. It’s not pretty.

In fact, go into any produce department early in the morning and one of the first things you’ll see is the wet rack guy pulling off the lettuce and other greens to crisp them back up in a sink of water in the backroom.

This daily practice isn’t to make more money, this is to not lose money. Every single produce department does this to stay in business.

A crisp bunch of celery
You’ll never see the owner of an independent grocery store pull out of the parking lot in a sports car shouting, “Thank you heavy celery!”

The Real Reason Why Produce Departments Mist Their Produce With Water

The next time you’re at the grocery store take a closer look at the cases in the produce section, particularly the air grates in front. If there is any produce abutting those air grates you’ll notice it will look dryer and perhaps more wrinkled than the rest of the display.

This is due to the constant flow of refrigerated air that the fans inside the case are generating and pushing out of those grates in front as well as the air vents on top and anywhere else in the case.

Celery, broccoli, lettuce, greens, radishes, green onions are all composed of over 90% water so they will dry out unless they are packaged or more water is introduced. This water is vital in keeping the product from drying out to the point of becoming unsaleable.

Wilted greens and rubbery broccoli crowns that need to be thrown out are an inevitable cost of doing business in the produce game. This is all due to a lack of hydration in the product itself.

So, now that you know this little tidbit of information you’ll be more understanding when that wet bag of baby peeled carrots has just gotten the rest of your groceries wet in the bag.

Which leads me to your next inevitable question, why do produce departments insist on putting bagged carrots or other bagged produce in their wet refrigerated cases next to the celery and lettuce?

It’s not to piss you off. It’s part of making the produce eye-catching and appealing to the customer.

How do wet carrots make produce appealing you ask?

Wet bag of carrots
That’s the last time they put that wet bag of carrots in with my Economist magazine! Who am I kidding, it was US Weekly.

The Real Reason Produce Departments Put Packaged Produce in Their Wet Cases

Customers are drawn towards visually appealing displays. Because most of the items in the produce department that need to be refrigerated, as well as hydrated, happen to be green, this leads to a dilemma of aesthetics.

Rather than have a drab, monochromatic wall of green, other colorful items are introduced to add splashes of color to create a more visually appealing produce section.

Carrots in the bag fit the bill perfectly. They’re colorful and since they’re in a bag you don’t have to worry about them getting wet.

You wouldn’t want to put colorful peppers or yellow squash in those spots because water isn’t good for them and they’ll decay prematurely.

Carrots also go naturally with celery, cabbage, and other green cooking items, so that just makes sense logically.

Matchstick-cut carrots or carrot coins will be placed by the lettuce to pair in salads, and other baby peeled carrots will be placed by the broccoli and cauliflower for customers making stir-fries or vegetable platters.

So, that is why you’ll see bagged carrots staggered throughout the wet refrigerated cases in produce.

The Leafy Vegetables at Farmer’s Markets Doesn’t Need Water Argument

I’ve actually had this discussion with customers before. Their logic is that they’ve never seen water being sprayed on fresh lettuce, kale, and chard at the local farmer’s market so why does the grocery store feel the need to do so?

They continue on, touching on all of the grievances noted previously; added cost due to weight, getting their Oprah magazine wet in the grocery bag, while I patiently listen.

When they are through, I agree with them that, indeed, is the case at farmer’s markets.

Ultra-fresh produce straight out of the field that is displayed for, at most, eight to twelve hours, under a canopy, should hold up until it’s purchased by someone.

What they don’t see is all of the excess produce not sold yet tucked away in a cool and moist environment, in a cooler or refrigerated truck.

If that produce had to be displayed for 18 to 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, that would be a different story.

All produce looks amazing right after it’s harvested.

Think about that in the dead of winter when you’re buying a head of romaine lettuce sourced from some sunnier climate and everything it took for it to get to you so you could make your caesar salad.

Don’t take this as me dumping on farmer’s markets, I’m not, I buy produce from them all the time.

I’m just explaining that if you want certain products all-year long, some compromises will need to be made.

There is Such a Thing as Too Much Water

Go into any older grocery store and you’ll encounter some older refrigerated cases (and misting systems). Some of these cases have been in operation for 30 years or more.

That’s a lot of misting and a lot of produce it’s had to keep fresh for a long time. This refrigerated case, like any other piece of equipment, needs to be maintained to extend its life.

A produce case needs to be regularly cleaned in order for it to function properly and maintain proper temperature and airflow to keep produce fresh.

The misting heads that spray the water on the product also need to be regularly cleaned to avoid hard water build-up as well.

A malfunctioning misting system will lead to over and under-watered produce and so it’s up to the produce crew to make sure the cilantro isn’t getting blasted with a jetstream of high-velocity water.

The misting heads are adjustable so any produce manager paying attention will make sure your bagged carrots aren’t getting blasted with too much water.

So, now that we’ve determined that water on your produce is inevitable, what can you do at home to mitigate an excess of moisture on your produce?

Storing Fresh Produce at Home: Best Practices

What’s the best way to store refrigerated produce items that have been sprayed with water once you get them home?

While leafy produce that is being displayed in a refrigerated case needs to be misted with water because the constant airflow will dry it out, the opposite is true once you get it home. The reason is that, once it’s inside a bag, moisture will be retained, and any excess moisture will lead to premature decay of the product.

Getting rid of excess moisture on cilantro before storing it in the fridge.
Getting rid of excess moisture on cilantro before storing it in the fridge.

 

So the objective becomes getting rid of the excess moisture before putting it in a bag. That’s why I save some plastic produce bags that are dry to transfer fresh, wet produce into when I get home from the store.

Here’s what I do with leafy greens, broccoli, celery, cilantro, green onions, or any similar items to store them in the refrigerator:

  1. Take the produce out of the bag and shake off any excess moisture over the sink. Take paper towels and wipe off any excess moisture on the produce before putting it in a dry plastic bag.
  2. Sometimes you’ll need to keep a paper towel wrapped around the produce to continue to soak up water when in the bag. You can remove the paper towel when the produce itself is free of excess moisture.
  3. Once your produce is inside the plastic bag, make sure it’s closed to ensure airflow from your refrigerator doesn’t dry it out.
  4. Keep your produce in the 40 to 42 degree Fahrenheit range until you’re ready to consume it.

Spraying Produce With Water Isn’t Sneaky or Making Anyone Any Wealthier

I laugh at some of the articles on the internet explaining the reason why produce is sprayed with water.

One article characterized the practice of watering produce as “sneaky” and the reason behind it, drumroll please, it is more visually appealing.

No, that wasn’t from the website, Duh.com, but it should’ve been. By the way, that same article showed a stock photo of lemons, limes, and oranges in the article. Can we at least stay on topic here?

The main theme tying all of the articles of these modern-day Upton Sinclairs is that grocery stores are profiting from the practice of watering their produce to keep it fresher, longer.

Anyone with even a faint idea of how grocery stores operate and their slim profit margins laughs at such assertions.

Depending on the store, when everything’s been paid for; the rent or lease, the electricity, the sewer and garbage, the vendors, the employees, the insurance, and a billion other things, a grocery store is left with anywhere from 1 to 3% profit.

Think about your local grocery store during the holidays and let’s say that on the day before Thanksgiving they had $300,000 in revenue for the day. That’s insanely busy. If they had a 1% profit margin, they’re putting a cool 3 grand in the bank.

I’ve worked many day-before-Thanksgiving days and I can tell you there is way too much work involved to make so little, yet that is the truth.

But yet, I look at my shiny Porsche out in the parking lot because of the heavy broccoli and smile, because I know we’ve tricked em’ again, at least for one more holiday.

 

 

 

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