What used to be a run of the mill task is now an operation, where you best be prepared, armed with knowledge and research if you are to choose well and leave without falling into the deception of good marketing, trendy diet products or old-fashioned cravings.
Each aisle is lined with misleading labels and competing brands, one product often contradicting the message of the next. The grocery shelves are now an intellectual war zone.
Navigating the aisles
So how do we navigate them? How can we stroll down the aisles confident that we are making good, healthy choices?
Well-known advice includes shopping the perimeter, reading the label and only buying organic. Although very helpful, these nuggets of wisdom have exceptions and loopholes that deserve some attention.
The perimeter is a fluid place. It’s where we find most produce, but we’ll also find ice cream here next to the probiotic yogurt, hot dogs next to the grass-fed beef and processed fruit juice next to the oranges. The perimeter is a good guideline but requires interpretation and good judgment.
Reading labels is now a given in a grocery store. Scanning a label should be an automatic instinct when purchasing anything in a box, bag, bottle or can. Although reading the label will help you to decipher if the product in question has unhealthy ingredients, it’s frequently difficult to decipher what constitutes unhealthy ingredients.
With foreign names and acronyms, unhealthy ingredients can be tough to spot. For example, did you know there are other names for MSG, like yeast extract or ‘natural flavors?’
Sugar also hides on labels under unassuming titles like fruit concentrate or misleading names that appear healthy like raw sugar. Worse still, some ingredients, depending on the amount used, might not legally have to be mentioned on food labels at all!
Reading a label is helpful, but getting duped is still possible even when you have the best intentions.
Purchasing organic when possible and as much as possible is always a good thing. However, unhealthy foods are gaining a health supportive boost when the word ‘organic’ is slapped on the label.
Organic potato chips are still potato chips, organic lollipops (yes, these exist) are still lollipops. Organic does not make a food health supportive. Organic produce is worth striving for—especially when it comes to specific fruits and veggies.
Check out the clean fifteen and dirty dozen from The Environmental Working Group to help make wise, economical choices for your family. Keep in mind that sticking to ‘organic’ as your golden rule might still leave you with unhealthy foods at the checkout line.
These grocery store rules are great guidelines to have in your toolbox but this one nugget of grocery store wisdom trumps them all.
What is the one piece of advice that supersedes any other? Buy real food. It’s not enough to reconsider a food because of what’s written on the label; reconsider it if it has a label!
The definition of real food is food that comes from the earth, from nature and is not processed packaged or refined. Real food does not have an ingredient label. Vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, whole grains, legumes—these are the foods that promote health, happiness, and longevity.
Real foods are foods that are made from the very thing we are made of: foods that come from a plant rather than being made in a plant; foods that are familiar to our bodies, not modern day innovations that taste good yet provide little in the way of nutrition.
This is also the one thing that many trending, health supportive diets have in common. Behind plant-based, paleo and raw food movements you’ll find a common undercurrent and that is that they all focus on minimally processed real foods. It’s worth noting that the health results experienced on each of these diets are often attributed to their differences, when in actual fact it might just be their similarities that deserve the credit.
So before you place something in your cart, ask yourself: is this real food? Granola bars, no. Potatoes, yes. Chicken nuggets, no. Wild salmon, yes. Frozen brown rice microwavable TV dinner, no. You get the picture.
We also need to be practical; buying real food should be seen as a continuum. Every single thing you buy and eat isn’t going to be a whole food. Things like Dijon mustard, tamari and apple cider vinegar are going to be premade for your purchase. We don’t need to take this caveat too literally; real food can come in a box with a label that identifies what the food is. Take a bag of quinoa or dried beans for example.
It’s important that we stay cognizant of the advice mentioned above as well. Keep these grocery store guidelines in your bag of tricks. Imagine a flowchart where “Is this real food?” is the first question and all other checks follow. If yes, this is real food, the other questions are secondary. If, however, you’ve chosen a food that is considered processed, then the other guidelines weigh a lot more. Reading the label is now imperative.
Food manufacturing and nutritional science are constantly changing and keeping up with the newest health trends can be nothing short of exhausting. Keep the above tips in mind, and know that you are armed and ready to march through the battleground that is the grocery store aisle.
Feel free to share your grocery store challenges and any advice on how you seek out the healthiest options.