Posted by: A Part of the Solution | February 11, 2014

Bulk Aisle ≠ Locavore

The Bulk Aisle, or shelf set, in your natural foods store lets you buy all manner of dry goods, in the volume which meets your needs, with a minimum of mark-up to support industrial processing, and even less packaging. While most of us understand our carbon footprint is set on ‘splurge’ when we buy spices–whether in the bulk aisle or not, few of us have a concrete idea of where the rest of the goods we regularly buy in bulk may originate.

If your natural foods store is a small chain or a co-op, the wheat flour in your bulk bins may well be quite local. But the other grains, and the more so if they’re organic, are often likely to have quite the travel record, albeit they never crossed an international border to arrive in your kitchen.  All your organic rice comes from Texas or California, unless it’s an organic Jasmine rice, in which case it may well have traveled from India or Thailand.

Most of the nuts in your bulk section are likewise domestic. Of course, your Brazil nuts arrived from South America. Your cashews came from Vietnam or Nigeria. Your hazelnuts originated in that part of Turkey which abuts the Black Sea and Georgia.

Seeds are a multicultural wonderland in the average bulk array. Flax seeds come from Canada. Pumpkin seeds, certified organic and otherwise, almost certainly come from China. India, Ethiopia or Central America likely grows your sesame seeds. Sunflower seeds may be domestically sourced; if not, they came from China or Russia. Quinoa and amaranth (and they are seeds), all iterations, grow above 3000 meters in the Andes, and come to you from South America without exception. Your ultra-hip chia seeds started their life in Australia.

The average selection of a natural foods dried fruit bulk aisle spans the globe many times over. Apricots come from Turkey. Dried pineapple arrives from Sri Lanka or Thailand. Goji berries grow high in the Himalayas–in ‘China’. Banana chips come from the Philippines, other forms of dried banana tend to originate in Ecuador. Dried apples most often comes from China. Cherries, blueberries, cranberries all originate domestically. As do your raisins and your prunes. But your figs and sultanas come from southern Turkey, and your dates do too–though if you’re in Europe, your dates likeliest come from Iran. Most crystallized ginger ships in from China.

Most of your dried beans and lentils originate in North America. Adzuki, mung and red beans, even the organic ones, come from China. If your navy beans don’t come from the US, they grew in China. Some of your garbanzos may come from Turkey, ditto your bulk red lentils.

Canola oil comes from Canada. Olive oil comes from California if it’s organic, and Tunisia-Spain-Turkey in a blend if it isn’t (a three continent special). Coconut oil comes from the Philippines. The maple syrup is domestic, and produced along the East Coast of the US, or it’s Canadian. Don’t buy your honey in the bulk aisle unless it bears a local point-of-origin. Otherwise, regardless of where it says it comes from, it effectively originated in China. Agave comes from Mexico. Bulk sugars come from all over: Malawi, Brazil, Mexico, the US, Nicaragua.

Pay attention to the products in your bulk section. If dates and figs look expensive, there may be trouble in southern Turkey brought on by the Syrian refugee crisis. If dried papaya and pineapple shoot up in cost, the recent unrest in Thailand may be catching up with their commodities pricing. Are dried apples and ginger looking pricey? Is it a retaliative tariff or too much rain causing the price shift on goods originating in China?

I presume you’re committed to buying coffee, chocolate and tea based on lack of pesticide residue, laborer quality of life, and Eco-sustainable practices. Apply the same care and consideration when you purchase anything which doesn’t come directly from the farmer/producer. Ask questions in the store where you shop. Do a little online research yourself to get detailed answers. Use the power of your shopping currency to make the world a better place mouthful by mouthful.



  1. Damn. After reading that, knowing that “local” marked on a bin in my town could mean something coming from 4 or 5 states away, that might be something I can live with.

    And I’m feeling lucky that organic local oats are readily available (and they’re *truly* local).

    • It’s important to keep an eye on where all the little bits and pieces come from. And the knowledge isn’t at all intuitive. Who knew China lead the world in organic pumpkin seed production and export?

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