Food & Nutrition

10 Secrets for Shopping Healthier at the Grocery Store

Grocery shopping can be a dietary minefield. Be sure to head in with these great pointers.

Look for short ingredient lists

When you find a packaged food in the supermarket with a long list of ingredients on the label, just set it back on the shelf and look for a simpler version of the food. (We’re talking here about the “Ingredients” part of the label. “Nutrition Facts” is another part, and more about that later.) The alarming truth is, many of those ingredients are various kinds of sugars and chemical additives, and they’re not put there for you — they’re there to benefit the company that processes the food. They “enhance” the looks, taste, or shelf life — which is all about marketing and shipping and not at all about your health. Most additives aren’t known to be harmful (although the health effects of some are still open to question), but they aren’t about nutrition or taste as nature intended taste to be. In fact, one of their main purposes is to make up for a lack of those things. So check the list of ingredients every time. Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University, says that almost always, the shorter the better. These are the things that frustrate every grocery store employee.

Think twice about “no cholesterol” claims

Cholesterol is a fat that occurs only in animal products (meat, fish, eggs, milk, and butter, for instance). So why do some plant-derived products claim in large letters that they contain no cholesterol? Because the food companies know that people care about their cholesterol levels, and they know that most people probably have forgotten or never knew that plants don’t contain any. Some of the offenders are cereal, bread, cookies, salad dressings, and, especially, oils and margarine. Oils are obviously fats, so the makers think you’ll be reassured to see that there’s no cholesterol in the corn oil, safflower oil, or olive oil. Next time you see the claim, just say to yourself, “Duh! It’s a plant product! Of course it doesn’t contain cholesterol.” 

Learn what “organic” really means

There’s considerable confusion about the use of the word “organic” on food labels, just as there is about almost everything having to do with labeling. For starters, the organic label is earned through a certification process, and it means the producer adhered to a strict set of rules and procedures.

• For organic fruits and vegetables, U.S. Department of Agriculture rules—and virtually identical regulations in Canada—say that they must be grown without any of these things: genetically modified seeds, fertilizers made from chemicals or sewage sludge, chemical pesticides or herbicides, and irradiation. Growers are also required to keep records and present them upon demand by accredited inspectors. Foods may also be labeled “100 percent organic,” “organic” (95 to 99 percent organic), “made with organic ingredients” (74 to 94 percent organic), or, for organic content of lesser amount, the specific organic ingredients may be listed.

• On meat, the organic seal means the animals may be fed only certified organic feed and no by-products of other animals. The animals can’t be given hormones or antibiotics. They must be allowed access to the outdoors and treated humanely.
All organic farms must keep records and be inspected by accredited inspectors. There isn’t enough organic food being produced to meet the demand for it, but its availability is increasing all the time. Many supermarkets now carry some organic food, and there is at least one chain (Whole Foods Market) that sells mostly organic. In addition, farmers’ markets, health food stores, and individual farms are good sources of organic food. Nutritionist always do these 14 things at the grocery store, so you should too.

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