How Sight Became the Sense of the Supermarket

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Shopping with my eyes is second nature to me. But I could be using so many more senses.

How we buy food changed dramatically over the past century and a half. For many, particularly in the industrialized world, buying food has become a one-dimensional experience based primarily on looks. As a business historian, I found myself intrigued by the disconnection between what we experience when we purchase food and what we experience and value when we’re eating food—the smells, tastes, textures, and, of course, sight. How did visual information come to be king? And what do we lose with our other senses relegated to the sidelines?

As I investigated, I discovered people’s sensory experience in food shopping and eating changed as a product of complex interplay between advances in science and business, how those advances were reflected by our attitude toward nature, and the introduction of new political and economic powers. Over time, the forces of industrialization and standardization pushed for a bright, uniform look of food available year-round, exposing people to new visual and taste experiences. But this came at a cost to the other senses and diminished more localized relationships with food.

Eye appeal has become buy appeal. But why and how? A history of how they became connected provides insight into the transformation of people’s relationships with food, nature, and society.

Back in time: From a market to a supermarket

If you lived in late nineteenth-century New York City, you would have likely purchased your food at a public market, where you could see and touch produce, smell combinations of the foods and spices for sale, and speak to sellers and other customers. In this multisensorial environment, you would have discerned the quality of foods through their appearance, smell, and texture, and through communication.

Meanwhile, in a regular grocery store, your sensory access to food may have been relatively limited. A store clerk would usually retrieve goods for you from a shelf behind the counter. And although grocery stores sold some perishable foods, their major food trade was canned and other processed products. After stopping by the grocery, you would make your way to the butcher shop and then the produce shop, which would have been separate.

Beginning in the 1920s, large grocery stores began absorbing neighboring butcher shops and produce stores. By the mid twentieth century, you would be shopping in grocery stores similar to what you’d be familiar with today. Stores that carried everything you need—butcher, baker, produce, and packaged items. Bright lights and colorful displays, aisles and aisles of options, carefully displayed and enthusiastically marketed.

Standardizing the senses

This change in our sensory experience involved a shift in the entire food chain from producers to distributors and retailers since the late nineteenth century. The United States was then at the forefront of the industrialization of agriculture and food processing, the emergence of the food-coloring business, and the growth of a modern food retailing system. The early development of the mass production and mass marketing of foods proved particularly conducive to the standardization of food colors.

With rapid industrialization and market expansion in the United States from the 1870s on, agricultural producers and food processors sought to streamline production, emphasizing efficiency, consistency, and standardization. Through this shift many consumers attained an unprecedented variety of foods. Mass production, long-distance transportation systems, and refrigeration technology meant a wider variety of both agricultural and processed products reached a broader population. But sensory experiences became increasingly uniform and predictable. A bag of apples, a box of breakfast cereal, and a tub of margarine invariably offered consumers from Los Angeles to New York the same color and the same flavor.

Prioritizing our visual experience was key for this shift. Color turned out to be easier to control, reproduce, and commoditize than did other sensory factors. The smell of food, for example, was difficult to convey in print or other media. Color served as a powerful communication tool for the food industry not only to appeal to the eyes of consumers but also to stimulate gustatory, olfactory, and tactile sensations.

Farmers, food processors, dye manufacturers, government officials, and intermediate suppliers began devoting enormous resources to determine and create the “right” color of foods, which many consumers would recognize and, in time, take for granted.

Manufacturing “natural” and “fresh”

Seeking to create uniform, bright colors as the sign of succulent fruits and vegetables, growers and packers tended to prioritize the appearance of their produce over the actual taste. Several studies conducted in the 1920s and 1930s suggested that produce artificially ripened with ethylene gas (a gas that helped fasten a ripening process of fruits and vegetables) did not develop full flavor due to a lower sugar content than those ripened on the plant. One study, for instance, showed that tomatoes ripened by ethylene remained solid for a longer period than did vine-ripened fruits. The firm fruit was easy to transport and looked good, but it came at the expense of flavor and texture.

One example from the Florida citrus industry shows even more complicated relations between taste and color. Orange growers sought to create a color to “match” the taste of food that consumers expected, or what growers believed consumers wanted. A certain variety of oranges grown in the state ripened without change in skin color due to the climate. Growers believed that these green oranges would not sell in the national market even if the fruit was perfectly ripe; they hence began coloring the skin orange with synthetic dyes in the early 1930s. By the mid-1940s, nearly 70 percent of fresh oranges shipped out of the state were colored with dyes.

This citrus coloring practice caused an uproar among the public, as well as the federal government, leading to a Supreme Court case in 1958 (the case concerned the safety of the dye used for coloring oranges). Some government officials considered the use of dye unacceptable while they insisted that ethylene treatment was legitimate as it simply enhanced a “natural” process. Meanwhile, consumers criticized the coloring practice as the deception of consumers, believing (sometimes stubbornly) that ripe oranges should look naturally orange, although green color was the “natural” color of oranges in this case. With industrialization and mechanization of agriculture—embodying what Leo Marx dubbed “the machine in the garden”—the line between the natural and the artificial, particularly in the case of agricultural produce, became increasingly difficult to draw.

Creating “natural” and “fresh” color was important also for processed foods like cured meat products. Since the nineteenth century, meatpackers had been using synthetic dyes in sausages and other meat products to give them a “fresh” red shade. Later, in the mid twentieth century, chemical companies introduced various additives, such as preservatives and antioxidant additives, for preventing cured meats from discoloring. Dyes and preservatives made meat products “chemically fresh” and provided retailers with more stable and reliable ways of manipulating the freshness of foods than refrigeration and packaging.

A colorful centerpiece

“We do our gardening in the grocery or delicatessen, and in our selection of foods odor and taste have taken an inferior place to sight,” noted a U.S. Department Agriculture scientist in 1929. By then, colorful vegetables and fruits and bright red meat became the centerpiece of the store to visually attract shoppers. Grocers believed that the appearance of displays was the most important factor in appealing to consumers and moving stocks of fruits and vegetables, and that the attractive display of agricultural produce influenced the ambience of the entire store. They thus arranged the produce section in the best position in the store—usually near the entrance.

One 1930s grocery journal gave grocers advice on how to make a produce section visually attractive:

“Place alternate rows of reds, whites, greens and yellows. Make narrow alternating bands or piles of red radishes, lettuce, carrots, spinach and celery, etc. that will give the appearance of so many colored ribbons. Arrange your fruits the same way, alternating masses of oranges, grapefruit, apples, lemons, tangerines and pears so that the contrasting colors will catch the shopper’s eye.” (Progressive Grocer, September 1935)

One grocer asserted that when each item was shown “in mass arrangement with special consideration for freshness and color contrast,” customers could not “resist buying liberally.”

The colors of produce and meat were important for grocery store operation not only because they brightened up store interiors and attracted consumers, but also because they served as a critical indicator of food quality, which determined whether a customer would buy a particular item.

Streamlining social interactions

While modern groceries became a vision-centered environment, they also streamlined our social interactions. In self-service stores, we wander around the store independently.

The introduction of the first self-service merchandising is attributed to Clarence Saunders’s Piggly Wiggly store in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1917. When self-service was a novel system in the 1920s and 1930s, neither consumers nor store clerks were fully satisfied with the system. Both wanted face-to-face interactions when necessary. In fact, grocers commonly kept service-type operation to some extent, say in the deli department. But over-time, many of these interactions gave way to self-service too. By the end of the 1950s, self-service had become the common way of buying foods in the United States. As a consequence, we rely more on our eyes in selecting foods than on assistance from specialists, like butchers, fishmongers, and produce sellers (except at specialty stores).

Technological advances after WWII further emphasized sight. Fluorescent light meant food could remain brightly light and wouldn’t spoil (incandescent bulbs gave off heat). Transparent packaging like cellophane ostensibly allowed consumers to see the “true” appearance of foods through the package. And refrigeration slowed the spoilage of perishable food such as meat and vegetables, helping both keep their “fresh” colors. Consumers could now see the foods, but all their other senses were blinded.

Uniformly bright red meat, brilliant green spinach, and shining red tomatoes, sealed in transparent film and displayed in sanitized cases, came to embody the aesthetics of “freshness” in modern self-service supermarkets. The bright color of perishable items sealed in transparent film and displayed in refrigerated cases, represented what Susanne Freidberg called “industrial freshness” in the place where nature and technology intersected.

Now, we often make assumptions about food quality based largely on how they look, rather than factors that affect taste and nutritional quality, such as how much time has passed after fruits and vegetables were harvested and meat was cut.

Consequences of the emphasis on appearance

This creation of the visual hegemony in our food systems has had multifaceted consequences. The emphasis on vision, as well as the standardization of color, made “nature” more accessible to a broader range of people. For example, scientific engineering at the turn of the twentieth century made canned foods available to both lower- and upper-class consumers as an alternative to “fresh” foods throughout the year—canners even argued that canned foods were fresher than “the fresh articles.” The introduction of synthetic dyes enabled citrus growers to provide bright orange oranges as a product of nature with wider consumers than before.

This “democratization,” however, engendered inequalities in health risks. Cheaper food products, including low-grade canned foods, at the time were more likely to contain cheap, sometimes poisonous, coloring substances. Consumers who could not afford expensive and reliable foods were more exposed to the risk of health hazards.

A luscious, uniform look of fruits and vegetables on a supermarket shelf also came with environmental implications. Seeking a uniform look, fruit shipping companies, such as United Fruit, began mass-producing one banana variety, leading to a monoculture system that devastated the land, as well as the health of workers (see John Soluri’s fascinating book Banana Cultures).

The emphasis on appearance in selling food, among other reasons, contributes to substantial food waste. Every year, 40 percent of food is wasted in the United States. That includes 20 billion pounds of produce that is not even harvested, left on farms because it doesn’t meet grade standards, including shape and color.

To address this problem, a new generation of entrepreneurs launched the “ugly food” business in the mid-2010s. Companies like Misfits MarketImperfect Foods, and Hungry Harvest sell fruits and vegetables with blemishes and deformed shapes, such as off-color apples, crooked cucumbers, and oversize peppers.

But not everyone is impressed by their mission. One of them is Sarah Taber, who argues that reducing waste by selling ugly produce would not solve the problem. To be clear, she is not against the ugly food business or ugly food per se. She sees their narrative as a myth, noting that farmers and food processors have already been using mis-shaped and discolored produce as ingredients for processed products such as juice and salsa. It is “you” who are “tossing perfectly good produce.”

“If you’re buying ugly produce and it’s working for you, that’s fine,” Taber says. “But you should not feel obligated to buy ugly fruit because someone told you it’s going to save the world. It’s not. It’s just supporting someone’s business model.”

But the fact that there is a business modeled on selling imperfect produce suggests the current interest (though still a minority) in a movement away from a uniform, bright look of fruits and vegetables, at least among those who created the business and those who buy their produce. Whether this interest in ugly food becomes a new normal, and helps enhance diversity and sustainability in the ecosystem and our lives, is yet to be seen.

The rise of the online grocer

There is a new trend that could transform our sensory experience in food shopping entirely—the rise of e-commerce. Between 2016 and 2018, the online grocery market value doubled, accounting for nearly $30 billion, although e-commerce remains a small segment in the entire grocery business. The majority of consumers are not willing to buy their fresh foods online. Many of them want to see, touch, and smell the actual food (however limited their sensory access in a conventional supermarket may be), and pick their food by themselves. Over the past several months, however, online grocery sales increased substantially, reaching $6.6 billion in May 2020 (a 24 percent increase from the previous months). The coronavirus pandemic could accelerate how quickly people buy into online grocery shopping.

The online grocery store, relying almost exclusively on stock photos of the food, offers even more convenience and even less sensory information—let alone social interactions. The virtual grocery store could change not only how we buy foods but also how we understand what we eat, possibly shifting the food landscape even more drastically than the birth of self-service stores a century ago.

When it comes to food, changes in science and business over the last century and a half elevated sight above the other senses, taste in particular. The emergence of mass production, industrialization, and self-service merchandising helped the food business create and standardize a “natural” color for food, both processed and agricultural. The emphasis on color altered not only how people buy food but also how they interact with others and how they think of nature in modern capitalist society. Appealing to the senses and reinventing what consumers wanted became a crucial part of manufacturing and marketing practices to whet consumers’ appetites. A history of this creation of a new sensory world provides a new way of seeing the past, present, and future of food.

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