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.

Woman doing grocery shopping at the supermarket and reading food labels, nutrition and quality conceptPhoto: Shutterstock/Stokkete

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.”

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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.

Be suspicious of “natural” labels

The food labels “natural” and “organic” are pretty much interchangeable, right? That’s exactly what food companies want you to think. But here’s the truth: Use of “natural” on labels is a much more loosey-goosey affair than use of the term “organic.” There’s no single set of requirements for products claiming to be natural, but such labels are supposed to be accurate. If, for example, meat is claimed to be natural because the animal was not fed antibiotics or hormones, the label should say that and it should be true. Farmers or food companies that use the “natural” label are not subject to inspections as a condition of using the label. You just have to take their word for it.

Be wary of the serving size

Many “Nutrition Facts” labels are designed to make you think you’re getting fewer calories than you really are. For example, labels list the nutrients on a per-serving basis. But be sure to check the “serving size” and “servings per container” lines. The candy bar that most people would eat all by themselves in a single sitting may say that it contains two servings. If you saw “100 calories” on the label, you must make a mental adjustment—you’re actually eating two servings, so you’re getting 200 calories.

Use a pocket calculator to compare items

A calculator is the best tool for helping you figure out what the food industry doesn’t want you to know: the actual value of the nutrients in the food you’re buying. For example, say you’re trying to find out which breakfast cereal is more nutritious, General Mills’ Multi Grain Cheerios or Kellogg’s Frosted Mini-Wheats (the whole-grain version). The Cheerios serving size is listed as one cup, but the Mini-Wheats serving is “about 24 biscuits.” You can’t really open the box in the store to see how that stacks up against the one cup, so the only way to compare unit to unit is to use grams, which are listed on both packages. The 59-gram Mini-Wheats serving is almost twice the size of the 29-gram Cheerios, so you have to cut in half the nutrients listed on the Mini-Wheats label. Gram for gram, their nutrients are very similar: roughly the same calories, fiber, carbs, protein, and fat. Even the amount of sugars is about the same, despite the fact that the Cheerios box proclaims the contents to be “lightly sweetened” and the Mini-Wheats have frosting! This might come as a surprise to a lot of nutritional gatekeepers.

Get the “whole” story

Marketers know that nutrition-conscious shoppers are interested in whole grains these days. Don’t be deceived into buying a product that’s labeled “wheat bread,” however. What you really want is “whole wheat” or “whole grain” bread.

Don’t confuse cereal hype with facts

If you want a healthy breakfast cereal, not one that just claims to be, ignore the large-type claims on the package and go right to the labels. Look for a short list of ingredients. Look for a whole grain as the first ingredient. Look for one that has no sugar. (You can always add sugar yourself if necessary.) Then look at the per-serving nutrients on the nutrition label. Look for a cereal with a lot of fiber in each serving. Highly sweetened cereals, when fed regularly to young children, condition their taste for sugar at an early age, forming habits that are hard to break. Nutrition professor Marion Nestle says that most breakfast cereals are now processed and sugared to such a degree that “they might as well be cookies—low-fat cookies.”

Don’t get soaked for watery foods

Water is the magic ingredient in prepared foods, and if it’s first on the list of ingredients, that’s a clue that there’s a long list of additives to follow to give that water some taste and texture. You might not be surprised to see water at the top of the list of ingredients in soups. After all, soup does take a lot of water. It’s more surprising to find it so prominent in SpaghettiOs. Many, many salad dressings contain more water than anything else, and since oil and water don’t mix, it takes a bunch of additives to hold everything together. Water is cheap, so the food industry likes it.

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Scan the can for MSG

Check out the ingredient list on the labels of prepared foods—on soups, for example. Keep reading, because it’s pretty far down on a long list (although if there is no MSG, that’s usually prominently mentioned at the top). MSG (monosodium glutamate) is sometimes listed under its own name but often under other names, among them hydrolyzed soy protein, autolyzed yeast, and sodium caseinate. MSG is a synthetic version of the substance umami, as it is known in Japan, which occurs naturally in some foods, including Parmesan cheese, soy sauce, and mushrooms. MSG, widely used in Asian cooking, went out of favor when it became associated with headaches and other unpleasant symptoms. Now many Asian restaurants proudly advertise “No MSG” on their menus, but the food industry still sneaks it in as a flavor enhancer. So if you’re concerned about MSG, look for it under all of its names.