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America is shopping, ‘experts’ are listening

If you want to know what’s going on in America, don’t watch TV. Go to the supermarket. All the trends sweeping our country are visible if you look through Lempert glasses.

Phil Lempert is The Supermarket Guru. You may have seen him on the “Today Show” where he’s been reporting on grocery trends longer than a can of anchovies sits on the average American’s shelf. So when we spoke about his latest Trends for 2013 list, I was excited to hear about some new developments, beginning with men.

“A couple of retailers are actually putting up man aisles in stores,” Lempert said.

At last! Now we can pick up a man on our way home from work. My single friends will be so relieved!

Uh, no, Lempert explained: The aisles are for men to shop IN. (Still sounds like they’ll be easier to pick up, now that we know where to find them.) “Men are getting more involved in the cooking and the shopping,” Lempert said, thanks to two enormous shifts in America: 1 — More people are working from home. And 2 — More people, especially men, aren’t working, period. When you’re home trying to save your money and sanity, the kitchen beckons.

So what, exactly, sits on the shelves in the man aisle? It’s “evolving,” the expert hedges. Right now, there’s some macho stuff, such as bags of charcoal and cans of Manwich. But eventually he expects to see more seeds, salmon, sardines — foods that are rich in zinc for prostate health — along with berries, mangoes and apricots, which are also good for that manly gland. In other words, men will be shopping with the goal of staying alive.

That’s a goal that’s influencing other shopping trends, including the use of cell phones as in-pocket nutritionists, or even nurses. One app that Lempert himself developed — and offers for free, called Smarter Shopping — does things like suggest substitutes for ingredients if you’re allergic to an item in a recipe. It also “translates” the labels on food if you’re wondering what “BHA” means. And the app (available only for iPhones so far) also can be used with a device that monitors blood glucose, alerting diabetics to the foods they can eat or should avoid.

Those three capabilities, or widgets, or whatever you call them, just happen to represent three more huge trends in America: allergies, fear of chemicals and diabetes. And a fourth trend is embedded in the existence of the app itself: the way that phones are making us all experts. One tap and suddenly we’ve got everything from recipe ideas to scientific analyses. Who needs a college education? (Except to figure out how to make your phone do everything it can possibly do, that is.)

Another app, not Lempert’s, involves a sensor you somehow attach that allows you to check if there’s any pesticide residue left on a food, or if it is truly “organic” — surely a trend in itself: obsessing about purity.

And then there’s the over-arching snack trend. “We’re snacking not just in between meals but AS meals,” Lempert says. More than half of all Americans snack two to three times a day. This doesn’t just explain a lot of blubber, it reflects the way our days have evolved. From sit-down breakfast to sit-down lunch to sit-down dinner, we now have drive-around breakfast, at-our-desk lunch and catch-as-catch-can supper. Our meal times have been fractured as surely as our attention, as we bounce from screen to screen (phone, TV, PC, tablet), with what has been dubbed our “continual partial attention.”

And in the end, that’s the irony of the way we’re shopping and eating: Intensely focused on our health, right down to the molecular chemistry of our food. And yet too distracted to sit down and enjoy a whole meal.

How very American! The same country that is sexy yet prudish, and brave but alarmist, is ready to eat right, even while making a meal out of Cocoa Krispies. It’s enough to send you to the man aisle for what I’m sure will be there. Beer.

Lenore Skenazy is the author of “Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry),” and, “Who’s the Blonde That Married What’s-His-Name? The Ultimate Tip-of-the-Tongue Test of Everything You Know You Know — But Can’t Remember Right Now.”

©2012 Creators

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