Are we all slaves to Big Pickle?

I am going to lay out a series of facts. I will then propose a set of conclusions based solely on those facts. There are forces in this world that would prefer I not publish these facts and their related conclusions. But you are free to read them and evaluate them for yourself—because this is the United States of America.

Consider pickles. Cucumbers marinated in vinegar and spices. A popular snack treat. The average American eats nine pounds of pickles each year.

American grocery stores, naturally, stock a wide variety of pickles. The majority of the pickles they stock are dill pickles. This makes sense, because dill pickles are by far the most popular variety of pickle in America. "Sweet" pickles, that have been marinated in a solution containing sugar, are a distant second in popularity.

Consider relish. It is little more than chopped up pickles. A popular condiment for hot dogs, potato salad, tuna fish, and what have you. Like pickles, relish is also available at American grocery stores. And yet—and yet—although dill pickles are easily the most popular kind of pickle, dill relish is frequently unavailable in grocery stores. It plays second fiddle to a form of relish that inexplicably fills the shelves: sweet relish.

Don't believe me? Go into your local grocery store and check. I'll wait. You will see that I am correct. Dill relish is either totally unavailable, or available in less quantity and variety than sweet relish. It is fair to say that sweet relish dominates the offerings of the typical American grocery store.

Savvy food analysts have noted this issue before. For more information, I contacted Mt. Olive, the largest independent pickle and relish company in the U.S. "You are quite correct - Kosher Dill is the favorite pickle for eating: whole, spears, chips or stuffers," Mt. Olive spokesperson Lynn Williams told me. "It is primarily eaten as a side with a sandwich or as a snack. Most Relish is used as an ingredient to add crisp texture and flavor enhancement. Sweet Relish is the more favored for tuna salad, deviled eggs, potato salad and cole slaw. We don't really know why, exactly, but it's clearly a consumer preference."

What sort of sales gap are we talking about? Mt. Olive provided me with national sales figures for the entire American market. Gaze in awe at the following facts:

  • In pickle sales, 75% are dill or "kosher dill," and 25% are sweet.
  • In relish sales, "Dill Relish does 21% of Relish sales. So Sweet is by far the largest seller."

Dill pickles are popular. Yet dill relish is not. And why? Because it is exceedingly difficult to find dill relish. Americans are being subtly forced into a preference for sweet relish, due to a lack of options. How bad is the problem? Consider this quote from Gawker staffer Andy Cush, when I asked him about his relish preference (bolding mine): "I prefer dill pickles to sweet. But I think sweet is the 'classic' as far as relish goes. I'm not even sure I've had dill relish, to be honest."

Andy Cush is the face of the problem.

Here we are, in a nation that runs under the system of market capitalism, and yet the public is being systematically deprived of their right to choose their preferred flavor of relish due to a lack of competitive marketing and retailing. I contacted a dozen of America's larges grocery store chains to ask them about their relish imbalance—none of them replied to my queries (except for Whole Foods, which told me that "in our NYC stores we carry a pretty diverse variety of relish products… a couple of sweet options as well as dill options in addition to a few other flavors." All I learned from this is that a Whole Foods in New York City is not representative of Real America—big shocker!!)

What is the grocery industry hiding? What shadowy interests lie behind the scenes of this mystery? Is it possible that there is a player even more powerful than the pickle industry itself, conducting this all like a shadowy orchestra? For an answer to that, let us examine relish itself. Here are the first five ingredients of Heinz Dill Relish: Pickles, Water, Distilled White Vinegar, Cabbage, Salt.

And here are the first five ingredients of Heinz Sweet Relish: Pickles, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Cabbage, Distilled White Vinegar, Natural Flavoring.

What do you see in the widely available sweet relish that you do not see in the hard-to-find dill relish? High fructose corn syrup. And what unhealthy and unnecessary American food product is forced into our foods at the expense of our collective health and subsidized by fat cat politicians beholden to the big agriculture conglomerates?

Yes—that would also be high fructose corn syrup.

Is it really plausible to believe that you, the consumer, overwhelmingly prefer dill pickles, and, at the same time, overwhelmingly prefer sweet relish? Is it really plausible that this bizarre and nonsensical consumer preference would be so strongly held that many grocery stores would hardly even bother to offer dill relish varieties for sale? Or is it possible, just possible, that shadowy business forces far from the public's prying eyes are conspiring in subtle ways to deprive you, the consumer, of your "right to choose" the tastier and healthier—but less amenable to Big Corn Syrup—relish that you would in fact choose if this nation's notion of freedom was more than a hollow sham?

I don't offer answers. I just ask the questions. Now pass the relish—the dill relish. (If you can find it—and good luck with that!)

[Image by Jim Cooke]