If you’ve been reading this four part blog series, you’re probably ready to throw your arms up in frustration. There is no doubt that maneuvering the food landscape has never been more difficult. But that doesn’t mean you can’t succeed at making good decisions when grocery shopping. In this final installment, we share how to avoid the traps and use the information on food packaging to your advantage.
Here are the 10 things you can do to be a better food shopper:
- Be wary about any claims on food packaging. We would suggest you use these only as a starting point and not as a reason to purchase a specific food item. To some extent, the more the item shouts about how good it is for you, the more skeptical you should become.
- Remember that the healthiest items in the grocery store have no claims, ingredient lists or nutrition panels on their packaging. These are the fruits, vegetables, herbs and leafy greens found in the produce isle. Make sure that your cart always contains at least some these items. The more, the better. All of these foods contain fiber, antioxidants, vitamins and various micronutrients vital for health. They are also naturally sodium and cholesterol free.
- Look at the ingredient list and, as a first pass, assess the length of it. In general, the shorter the ingredient list, the better. Remember the example of KELLOGG’S® SPECIAL K® STRAWBERRY PROTEIN MEAL BAR from the second installment in this series? That ingredient list went on and on and on. A long ingredient list is the first clue to an inferior choice.
- Read the ingredient panel to make sure the vast majority of what is listed is familiar to you and comes from real food. The more the list sounds like it came from a chemistry book, the less of it you should have. Yes, some of the ingredients may be fortifications, and vitamins can sound like chemicals, but foods that need lots of fortification are foods made from ingredients that are devoid of nutrients to begin with. Adding lots of vitamin C to Gummy Bears does not make them good for you.
- Look for the words “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” in the ingredient list. If either one of these terms is present, put the food back on the shelf. These words indicate that the food contains added trans-fats, which are completely counterproductive to health. Note that the nutrition panel and front of the box are not helpful here. So long as a food contains ½ gram or less of trans-fats per serving, by law it can be labeled as containing 0 grams per serving and call itself trans-fat free.
- Beware of foods that group their ingredients into components, especially if it hints at a marketing gimmick. It’s one thing to list chocolate and the sub-ingredients that make up the chocolate; it’s a different matter to start making up blends and calling out coatings to simply play with the order of ingredients or to hide all the added sugars.
- Use the nutrition panel to identify the amount of sodium present in the food. Sodium consumption should fall below 2300 mg/day. That’s the equivalent of a teaspoon of salt. If you have high blood pressure, you should be aiming for under 1500 mg/day. Looking at sodium content per serving is not enough without also checking what the serving size is. Until the new nutrition panels are ubiquitous and serving size reflects reality, you need to be much more of a sleuth – because only half of that small bag of chips might be called a serving. Sodium is not just an issue for blood pressure. In general, the higher the sodium content, the lower the overall quality of the food. Including fewer high sodium items in your cart is a good strategy.
- Use the nutrition panel to identify the amount of fiber per serving. For optimal health, taking in at least 25 grams of fiber per day is a must. Most people get half of that amount. So trying to actively increase the fiber in your diet is a good idea. A food is considered high in fiber if it has at least 5 grams of it per serving. But to understand whether a food containing fiber is truly a healthy one or one just masquerading as such, you need to look at the ingredient panel again. There, look for the words: “inulin”, “chicory root”, “fiber”, “cellulose”, “maltodextrin” and “polydextrose”. These are all fiber additives that are not part of the grain/vegetable/fruit-based ingredients that went into making the food. The data documenting the health benefits of a high fiber diet have come from studies where the fiber came from whole foods. Fiber additives may help with elimination, but their effect on overall health is much less certain. If you see a fiber additive in the food, be far less impressed with the overall fiber content.
- Don’t waste time seeking out foods calling out a high protein content. Protein deficiency is not a health concern for the vast majority of people. In fact, on average, most of us take in almost twice the protein we need for health maintenance already. In addition, protein supplemented foods often contain various sweeteners and flavor enhancers because protein on its own can have an off-putting flavor. The end result is a less health promoting, or even counterproductive, food overall. You’re much better off getting your protein from raw nuts, seeds, beans, fish and high quality meat/dairy.
- Beware of packaged foods that are inexpensive. Getting a packaged food product onto a store shelf has significant costs associated with it. And if a good chunk of the food price is related to costs of grocery store placement, how much can be devoted to the ingredients? In other words, cheap processed foods are made with really cheap ingredients.
That's a lot to keep track of.
And if you’re concluding that it might be too much to have to think about every time you go grocery shopping, we agree. It is frankly ridiculous that so much scrutiny is required to avoid being duped while trying to eat better.
But do try to incorporate these strategies into your grocery shopping routine as much as you can. Over time, you will become a much better judge of what is real and what is marketing hype. What is food and what is a chemical formula concocted to please your taste buds - without ever considering your well-being. And how much better you can feel when you trade out foods that help build disease for those that build health instead.
Foods like Step One - that have been formulated specifically to support cardiovascular health and healing. No gimmicks. No short cuts. Just results.