Rachel Laudan

Mexican supermarkets versus US supermarkets

A couple of months in the US has given me lots of time to ponder these differences which reveal so much about the way the two countries actually eat, as opposed to what we learn from cookbooks or tourist literature.

Here I am comparing two supermarkets in south Austin (HEB and Randalls) and two in south Mexico City (Walmart and Mega of the Commercial Mexicana chain). They have similar clienteles, ranging from wealthy upper middle class to lower middle class. They are similar in square footage.

Of course there are lots of people who know all about these differences.  The management of cross border chains and of multinational corporations such as Nestlé.  They don’t broadcast their knowledge though.

Since most readers are from the US, I will take US supermarkets as the norm.

1.  Dairy

More yogurt in the dairy case in Mexico, lots of it drinkable.  (The man behind me at the check out today had 24 drinkable yogurts, 18 flavored ones and 12 gelatinas which are in the dairy case). Better crema and cream (not difficult).

2. Packaged goods

Lots of the dairy is here. Stacks of tetrapak long life milk in different sizes and fat levels. And lots of Nido (Nest-Nestlé, get it?) including special versions for children of different ages and whole milk (great for home made yogurt).

More rice, fewer varieties of rice. More beans, more varieties, some imported but still overwhelmingly Mexican.

Herb teas rather than black tea, single not mixed flavors. Coffee improving though Nescafé continues to reign.

Cheaper cookies, such as the Marinela line (made by Bimbo) with its signature chocolate-covered cake, Gansitos.  Oreos make common ground north and south of the border.  Galletas saladas (soda crackers) and habaneros.  Bimbo bread.

Fewer canned vegetables, mainly mushrooms, corn, and tomato puree and carrots and green beans mixed for rice, overwhelmingly Mexican brands, Herdez, for example, in US part of Hormel.

Lots of bottled and tetrapak sauces including increasing numbers of Mexican red, green, and mole sauces, as well as the indispensable hot sauces, salsa maggi, salsa inglesa (Worcestershire) and soy. Oh and mayonnaise of course. In quantity.

Packaged cake mixes becoming more popular, Betty Crocker and Duncan Hines crowding out national brands.

EDIT.  And if you have read that Mexicans cook with lard, comparing the four 1 lb packets of lard in the meat section with the rows and rows of bottles of cooking oil will make you re-think.

Main foreign cuisines on the exotic shelf are Jewish, Chinese and Japanese. Goya does not cut it in Mexico.

Much less pet food, much less variety.

3. Meat

Overwhelmingly boneless as in US, except that in Mexico it is cut thin rather than thick.  Street food vendors buy in quantity. Move over mole, milanesa of beef, pork or chicken (thin, breaded slices) may be on its way to becoming Mexico´s national dish.

Fish piled up in ice, particularly in Lent.  More tripe and pigs feet.

4. Deli

Packed sliced meats are Spanish.

Chorizo.

Stacks and stacks and stacks of pink wieners, including from FUD (part of the big Monterrey meatpacking group, Sigma Alimentos).  Another candidate for national dish.

Bacon.

Cheeses mainly Mexican (fresco, cotija, crema, chihuahua, quesillo etc.)  Increasing foreign cheese selection, mainly Spanish (Manchego), Dutch (Gouda) and French (Brie and Camembert, often made in Mexico).

Grape leaves, hummus, etc.

5. Bakery and tortilleria

The in-store bakeries mimic traditional bakeries with aluminum trays and tongs to pick up your rolls (bolillos, panbazo) from wooden bins, your pan dulce (sweet bread) from wooden shelves.  I counted around 80 varieties of pan dulce today, though many of them are minor variants on a few general themes. Also some “artisanal” European breads and lots of birthday cakes.  Quality about as depressing as in US supermarkets.

Tortilleria makes corn tortillas on sale in 1/2 and 1 kilo packages and has the longest lines in the store.  Also sopes, tiritos, totopos, etc.

6. Snacks and soft drinks

Large overlap, not surprising since Sabritas, the largest snack company, is part of Pepsi.  Bloated bags of potato chips and chicharron.  Fewer dips.  Some Mexican brands, such as Jarritos.

Lots of water here, but not designer water.  This is because water from the tap is still iffy.

7. Fruits and vegetables

Good stuff here. Everything you find in a US grocery store, but fresher and cheaper. More melons, more tropical fruits. Plus lots of romeritos, nopales, and my very favorite, huazontle.  More chiles, fresh and dried, more ingredients for aguas frescas, such as tamarind pods, guavas, dried jamaica blossoms.

8. Alcohol

Rum, brandy and tequila are the big sellers most of the former made by big international corporations.  Wine is becoming commoner, with Argentinian and Chilean wines perhaps the commonest inexpensive wines,  but beer is the regular drink of choice.  Mexican brands or Heinekens, not surprsing since Heinekens owns FEMSA one of the two major Mexican companies along with Modelo.

9.  Frozen food

Still not popular in Mexico, generally about quarter the space of American stores.  Mainly hamburgers, french fries, some vegetables and fruit, and baked desserts.  Oh, and ice cream of course.

10. Ready to eat

Prepared rice, mole pastes, rotisserie chicken and in some stores complete meals ready to go.  Some salad bars.

In general

I am struck by the integration of the Mexican and US/international food corporations as well as by their careful positioning to local markets (crema de chile poblano y crema de elote instead of beef vegetable soup).

I am also struck, in spite of the bad press supermarkets have had recently, of the wealth of choice and, if you are careful, excellent products that can be obtained in both countries.

EDIT.  And perhaps the most striking difference is the number of items. I would reckon that in the same square footage the US stores have about twice the number of items.  This seems to be largely thanks to the taste and flavor industry.  Where (say) there are half a dozen kinds of canned tomatoes in Mexico, in the US there are more, with multiple different flavoring agents. Same with coffee or with rice or with crackers.

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15 thoughts on “Mexican supermarkets versus US supermarkets

  1. Kay Curtis

    Welcome Home, Rachel, and THX for a very interesting comparative post of availability of food items. It correlates with my cross-border experience. I wonder, though, about the HEB. I “frequent” the HEB in Leon and find many things there that are not easy to find in other supermarkets in Mexico. I would love to hear a comparison of an HEB in USA with one in Mx. I’ve never been in one north of the border.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Actually, what really strikes me Kay is the similarity of the stores. You can easily prepare standard American food from a Mexican grocery store and it’s not that hard to prepare Mexican food in the US.

      The HEB in Leon is interesting. It was a big disappointment to many of my Mexican friends who were expecting/hoping for something more upmarket. In Texas, HEB not only has very nice regular grocery stores but also the famed Central Markets, crammed with packaged goods from around the world. They decided to place themselves at a much lower price point in Mexico, more like the regular Walmarts, rather than the Superamas that are the upper end of the Walmart grocery chains.

  2. Don Cuevas

    “And lots of Nido (Nest-Nestlé, get it?) including special versions for children of different ages and whole milk (great for home made yogurt).”

    Do you mean we can make yogurt from Nido? What a breakthrough. Does Nido come in a lower fat version?

    Saludos,
    Don Cuevas

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Yes. I like the fact that it’s dried whole milk, hard to get in the US. So I haven’t looked for a low fat version though I think they have one for kids.

  3. Cooking in Mexico

    In our part of Mexico, near Puerto Vallarta, with a sizable foreign population, we have a huge Mega Commercial, as big as any grocery store in the US. It and the new Super Walmart have imported food sections, with such items as cornmeal, canned pumpkin, and Bob’s Red Mill whole grains and flours. It’s nice to have these options, but the prices are sky-high.

    Even a little mom-and-pop store in our little town now carries Dijon mustard, balsamic vinegar, Parmesan cheese and a selection of vinegars. Savvy merchants will carry whatever the gringos with big pockets will buy.

    Kathleen

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Thanks for the input Katherine. I think big supermarkets are the rule in all the urban areas of Mexico now. And with the population 70% urban that means most Mexicans shop at them. And of course both Comercial and Walmart and Gigante and HEB are very good at tailoring ingredients to the local communities, hence the imported products in areas with lots of gringos. And the small shop keepers are smart too. You find the same thing in San Miguel and other gringo enclaves. Our part of Mexico City is not one of those, hence we don’t have those gringo staples you mention nor canned cranberry sauce!

  4. Claudia A

    Great article Rachel, I often make the same comparison in my head, especially when I go back homo and visit the supermarkets. Have you been to City Market in colonia Del Valle? I wonder what you think of it. I think it’s pretty great, kinda like Mexico’s version of Central Market, even with the similar name. I believe it’s an offshoot of Mega Comercial. My mom loves shopping there, the paella on weekends is actually outstanding!

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Yes, I go to City Market every few months. Early. It´s a real week end destination for families, for the paella I expect. I can always pick up some things there that I can´t find elsewhere. And yes, it is part of the Comercial empire and it has to be based on Central Market. What do I think? Ingrate that I am, I find both harder to like than I should.

  5. Kay Curtis

    THX, Rachel, for the expansion on the HEB marketing.

    Yes, Don, you can make yogurt from powdered milk. When I was a kid in Idaho (60 years ago) my mother made yogurt from Carnation powdered skim (non-fat) milk which came in 25 or 50 pound bags and was the same stuff that we mixed up in buckets to feed the leppy calves. It took some advanced planning because it was not ‘instant’ and took a lot of whisking and an hour or two of soaking to dissolve.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Yes, powdered milk is so much easier to handle than it used to be. And that was very forward-looking of your mother, Kay. Yogurt was nothing like so popular then.

  6. Bea

    So interesting!

    I was just in the grocery awhile ago and was struck by some things– I wonder if it is the same in Mexico– in the Philippines, supermarkets are actually starting to get into the street food realm. Near the prepared food section there are large steamers full of corn, camote (sweet potato), peanuts, ready to eat, just as they are sold on street corners or in traffic jams. One particularly “vicious” supermarket chain even has stalls of “palamig” or cold drinks (maybe like aguas frescas) like melon juice, various jellies with milk, coconut juice, etc. by its prepared food section.

    In a country where a large part of the population is poor and from “informal” areas, and where supermarkets are expanding at great speed (placing themselves strategically near public transport hubs), it is fascinating to see the bigger chains adopt the existing norms of its new “targets”.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Hmm, no I don’t think I have seen that. They are certainly coopting the looks and the products of traditional tortillerias and bakeries. And they certainly act as suppliers for street food vendors (as Costco and Walmart do for small eateries). But their fast food offerings are mainly rotisserie chicken and barbecued ribs and sometimes fonda-type meals set out buffet style for take out. Many do have small areas for sitting down and eating. I’ll look at this in more detail.

      I would love to see one of those supermarkets in the Philippines.

  7. maria v

    your post allows me to reveal a personal side to my travels: the first place my husband and I go to in a foreign country is the supermarket, not to buy a huge trolley full of items, but to browse every single food shelf/counter – and yes, it tells us a lot about the way people eat

  8. patricia begne

    Hola racheL:
    me encanto tu comparacion entre Mexican Supermarkets versus U.S.
    a mi me gusta ir a HEB en Leon, de vez en cuando. ahi compro los
    helados que le gustan a Rafael…

    veo todas tus paginas….me gustan mucho!!

    Saludos y felicitaciones, desde Guanajuato
    Patricia

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Hola Patricia, Mil gracias por la flor. Te extraño, saludos a Rafael, un abrazo, Rachel


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