Decoding the Grocery Store to Find Safe and Healthy Food

Dear Friends,

Happy Tuesday! I apologize for being a day late with this post. I have no excuse, except that I had a case of the Mondays yesterday and couldn’t focus to write!

Get Healthy Month is winding down, and now that you have a plan ahead of you for your healthy diet, it’s time to figure out the hardest part — finding the food that is good for you! American supermarkets are overflowing with options, the majority of which cater to the standard American diet; meaning highly processed and lacking in nutrients. Even the product packaging the claims to be healthy it’s usually not…so how do you really know what is good and what isn’t?

I have a few ideas, tips, and cheats to help you out with that. So let’s begin:

#1 — Buy Fresh Produce

What I mean by this is — choose fresh produce over frozen or canned. The reason for this is that fresh produce will not be processed, preserved, or packaged in tin or plastic (not good for you or the environment). There also isn’t a guessing game involved — you can see right in front of you just exactly what you’re getting, no ingredients list required.

The biggest plus to fresh produce is that you are getting a product that maintains 100% of its nutritional value, which means you are maximizing the benefit you get from eating your fruits and veggies. I know it can be intimidating to learn how to cook with fresh produce when you haven’t been used to working with it, but it really is simple, and with a little practice you’ll have it down in no time!

#2 — Know Your Grains

I find that one of the most difficult things to find that is healthy, is anything “whole grain”. There is an endless supply of breads, bagels, tortillas, chips….the list goes on….of products that say “whole wheat/grain” on the package, but isn’t really. This is where you will want to get familiar with your ingredients lists.

When it comes to any type of bread product, none of the first few ingredients should include the word “enriched”. And the very first ingredient should say “whole wheat”. One of the biggest things to look for is high fructose corn syrup, because so many bread products contain that these days; or if not that, then at least sugar. So I would also look at the nutrition label to see how many grams of sugar are in the bread. If it’s more than 1 gram, I’d leave it on the shelf.  Finally, you want to choose a product with a short ingredient list. The longer the ingredients list, and the more words you see that you can’t pronounce or don’t know what they are, the less healthy it is. Realistically, bread products only need a handful of ingredients, so a long list is a big red flag.

#3 — Watch for Hidden Sugars

Americans love their sugar, and for that companies have been adding it to everything. I was recently talking to a friend about tomato soup, and she had no idea it even had sugar in it…let alone 12 grams per serving! My boyfriend and I had the same conversation the other night, and he also didn’t realize that much sugar was in a can of tomato soup. Even the organic version they have at my beloved Aldi is full of sugar, which means tomato soup is one of those “convenience foods” that I will make homemade rather than buying canned!

There are also processed products that are marketed as healthy, that are about the same as eating a serving of cookies. One of the biggest culprits is granola bars. I love the Simply Nature brand at Aldi, but even their organic chocolate chip granola bars have 8 grams of sugar per bar, and 100 calories. You may as well eat a Chewy Chips Ahoy cookie — one cookie only has 6 grams of sugar and 70 calories.

You’ll find added sugars in so many things…juices, dried fruits, pasta and pizza sauces, protein bars, breads, condiments such as ketchup and BBQ sauces, even in processed lunch meats! So until you really start to get down your go-to products and brands, take some time while grocery shopping to check the labels on everything for sugar.

#4 — Stay Away from Convenience Foods

So much of the standard American diet has developed based significantly on the need for convenience. And believe me, as a working single mom and part-time college student, I get it. But I am here to tell you that it is so easy to throw a meal together in half an hour or less that is good for your health, your budget, and your busy life.

First and foremost, cooking with fresh produce cuts down a lot of cook time, because so many fresh veggies take only a few minutes to cook…and some don’t need cooked at all! Get yourself a steamer for the microwave and you can steam fresh veggies in just a few minutes. You can sautee fresh spinach or kale right in a skillet with a bit of olive oil and garlic for just a few minutes. Pop a few sweet potatoes in the microwave and they’re done in less than five minutes. Then of course there are salads, which require no cooking at all!

Basically, anything that comes in a box or a bag that you dump onto a cookie sheet and pop into the oven, toss into a pot or skillet with a sauce packet, pour form can to bowl and heat up, stick into the microwave to cook from frozen to done…even if it’s organic or marketed as healthy or says non-GMO…it’s processed and high in sodium and/or sugars, and is lacking in nutrition.

#5 — Don’t Buy it Just Because it’s Organic

This one almost hurts to say, because there are so many things that I love to buy organic — tomatoes, whole grain breads, crackers, pasta sauce, chicken and veggie broths. But, with that said, just because a product is organic does not mean that it is good for you. For example, you can find organic packaged mac n cheese. While it may be made using all organic ingredients, it is also usually a white flour instead of whole grain, and a processed cheese product.

Also, like I mentioned above with the sugar, those granola bars…they may have been organic, but they were also full of sugar. Organic sugar is still sugar, and sugar is only okay in moderation. So when choosing organic product, my rule of thumb is this:

Make sure it checks your boxes on being a healthy product first. Then if you have the option to buy the organic version, go for it! Just keep in mind that there are some things that aren’t worth it to buy organic. Organic onions, for example. You’ll pay more for them, and they’re a vegetable that is typically grown with minimal, if any, pesticides in the first place. For more information on what produce is safe and what produce is grown with lots of pesticides, check out The Dirty Dozen list from EWG, as well as The Clean 15.

#6 — Know How to Cheat the System!

Here is where I’m going to introduce you to one of my favorite apps — Fooducate. It has a database of just about every food you can think of, and all you have to do is scan the label (or search for a product if you want to look something up while making your grocery list) and it pops up with a score from A to D.  It gives an explanation as to why it gives the score that it does, as well as shows nutritional information and provides a list of alternatives. If you really want to take the guess-work and the label reading out of your shopping — then go armed with this app!

Just know that when you do, you’ll want to always read the explanation. For example, the photo below of the C+ rating is for the Simply Nature Organic Multi-Grain Tortilla Chips that I use. It is a true whole grain product with only a couple of ingredients, but it gets a low rating simply for being a chip. So sometimes you will have to weigh the pros and cons for yourself on some products, but this app has definitely been a life saver for me!

I hope this has been helpful! I’ll be providing even more resources on the last day of the month that will help you out with adopting your new healthy life. Coming up on Thursday: Breaking Patterns to Learn How to Cook and Eat Healthy.

Talk to you soon!


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