Updated: Oct 21
A topic that I covered in two of my last health and nutrition presentations, one to an international school secondary class students and the other one to professional business people club, is how to read nutrition labels. What came to me as a surprise is that from the children hardly anyone read the product labels in the shop when buying a food items like chocolate, chips, candy, ice-cream, protein bars etc. So I thought to write a broader article how can you shop your groceries for better health, how to be more mindful as a consumer as at the end of the day it's us voting with our money for what products we create a demand for.
Photo source: Unsplash
1. Purchase whole foods
Whole foods are foods which are minimally processed and free of artificial substances. These include fresh vegetables, fresh fruits, nuts, legumes (beans, lentils), meat, fish, eggs and whole grains. With whole grains, it's recommended to consume gluten-free and if possible lectin free (defensive mechanisms of plants) grains- opt for millet, sorghum, teff and fonio. Though buckwheat and quinoa don't contain gluten, they do contain lectins - so it's important to soak them properly and pressure-cook them. You can read more about lectins from Dr. Stephen Gundry, what foods contains them, how to reduce lectin content in the foods.
2. Purchase local, organic food where possible
I know it's not always possible depending where you live to purchase locally grown food, but do the best you can (even if it's for example focusing buying locally grown food during the summer months in Northern Europe). The more food needs to travel, the more nutrients it looses.
When you purchase eggs, it's better for you and for the environment to buy eggs from chicken who are able to forage freely, eat omnivorous diet with worms, organic grain. Eggs from these chicken contain more vitamin A, more Omega-3 fatty-acids, less saturated fat, more vitamin E etc. Look for the marking on the egg. The first number on the egg indicates how it was produced: 0- organic egg production; 1- free-range eggs; 2- deep litter indoor housing; 3- cage farming.
When you purchase meat, ideally look for meat that is grass-fed, grass-finished for the beef; free-range chicken, chicken grown without antibiotics; grass-fed lamb. But if you find or can't purchase organic, grass-fed beef, know that it's still better to eat conventional meat than eating processed meat products, like hot dogs.
When you purchase fruits and vegetables, it's good to follow on a regular basis the Dirty dozen list to understand which fruits and vegetables are highly recommended to purchase organic to avoid the heavy pesticides load on your body and which ones are ok to buy non-organic. Here is Environmental Working Group 2022 list for Dirty Dozen. And here is the 2022 list for clean fifteen fruits and vegetables from the Environmental Working Group- these have the least pesticide residues from fruits and vegetables. If you want to learn about the safety of one of the most commonly sprayed commercial and residential weed killer Roundup, click here.
When you purchase dairy, opt for as clean as possible and as much as possible in its natural state. Fermented dairy products are better for you, like kefir, ricotta cheese, natural Greek yoghurt, sour cream, cottage cheese. From cheese, better options are for example mozzarella, parmesan, Swiss, Pecorino Romano, feta cheese from goat or sheep milk.
3. Purchase organ meats
Organ meats are nutrient-dense, packed with minerals, vitamins and micronutrients. They have higher nutrient density than muscle meats which we mostly consume. Different organ meats from animals support the same organs in humans- liver, heart, kidneys, tongue, tripe, oxtail etc.
4. Read the product labels
Whole foods, like vegetables and fruits don't come with a label, as well as when you buy fresh meat, fresh fish, seafood, raw nuts and seeds, eggs, fresh herbs.
But when you buy any packaged product for the first time, read the product label. You can use the following simple guidelines:
Check the order of ingredients (they are listed in the descending order, the ingredient you have the most in the product is listed first and what there is the least, is listed last
The longer the ingredient list, the more processed the product is. As a general guideline, avoid products that have more than 5 ingredients listed.
Check the sugar content. Take the total carbohydrate number and subtract any fibre that's shown on the label. Then you get the actual sugar amount. Then divide the number by 4 (there is an average of 4g of sugar in 1tsp) and you get how many teaspoons of sugar is in the product. Know that sugar comes in different forms. Here is my blog post on sugar and a list of sweeteners what is best to avoid.
Check for thickeners and emulsifiers (soy lecithin, sunflower lecithin, guar gum, carrageenan, pectin, gelatin, polysorbates, monoglycerides. Though emulsifiers can be derived from natural sources (animal and plant products), they can also be man-made chemically. The more natural emulsifiers are for example lecithin and guar gum and are associated with few health risks if consumed in small quantities. But if you consume too much of them, they can cause diarrhoea, bloating, abdominal pain. Highly processed food additives can be more difficult to break down and can affect negatively your microbiota.
Check for preservatives and additives. Ideally you should avoid products with preservatives and additives and buy organic packages foods where possible. Here are the most common food additives and preservatives to avoid: trans fats (hydrogenated oil, margarine, shortening), sodium nitrite, sodium nitrate monosodium glutamate (MSG), artificial food colours (Yellow 5, Blue 1, Blue 2, Red 3, Yellow 6 etc), high fructose corn syrup, BHA, BHT, sulfites, sodium benzoate, potassium benzoate, benzene.
5. Choose the oils and fats you buy wisely
The best oils, fats for health and cooking are extra-virgin olive oil, ghee, extra-virgin coconut oil, avocado oil, camelina oil, hemp seed oil, walnut oil, MCT oil, sesame oil, butter. You can read more about healthy fats, what oils and fats to use with different cooking methods from the following blog post.
6. Opt for whole fruit, instead of juices, nectars, smoothies
If you have been used to purchasing juices, nectars, smoothies from the store you might want to consider making a shift. As with other packaged goods, check the ingredients list, nutritional value. Very often fruit juices (especially the ones without the pulp) have a high sugar content (fructose is a sugar), low in fibre and therefore affecting your blood sugar negatively. It's better for your health to buy whole fruits, eat them as whole or make a smoothie at home, where you can control how much fruit you add into your smoothie. Here is a guide how to make smoothies, smoothie bowls so that they keep you satiated and don't spike your blood sugar.
7. 'Gluten-free' doesn't necessarily mean it's healthy
You will find in bigger grocery stores, supermarkets shelves or an isle with products labeled gluten-free. If you are someone who has celiac, non-celiac gluten sensitivity, or you simply choose to stay away from gluten containing foods, you might be especially drawn to these shelves in the shop. But same like with any packaged foods, please do read the product labels. These products often contain sugar, corn, soy, artificial sweeteners, emulsifiers, preservatives or are high in other lectin containing foods.
8. Don't be afraid of frozen foods
Buying vegetables, berries and fruits that are frozen, can save money as well as since they are frozen at the point of picking, their nutrients are locked in making them more nutritious than fresh fruits and vegetables that need to travel long distances to get to your local grocery store. With fish, other seafood- check the ingredient list and where possible opt for wild-caught rather than farmed.
9. If it's in your shopping trolley, it's in your stomach
Consider your shopping trolley as your extended stomach. If you buy that carton of ice cream, bag of chips, bag of candy, box of chocolate- it's often that people are not able to eat these in moderation, having just a few bites. They tend to eat the whole thing. Try and be mindful what you put into your trolley as it will end up in your stomach. If it helps, try and visualise that whole bag of chips in your stomach, causing inflammatory response.
10. Make a shopping list before you go shopping or shop your groceries online.
This is probably self-explanatory, but if you create a list of products you need, you save time in the shop as well as money, as you won't be deviating from your path of your intent and really get what you need. Another option for making sure you stick to what you really need, is to buy your groceries online.
It can be overwhelming to consider all the above steps if you are someone who has not been used to paying attention to these areas. But even taking one of the above steps at a time will help you to become more mindful as a consumer, making better choices for your own and for your family's health. Also, do the best that you can considering your income, your lifestyle.
If you are someone who is truly confused about what you have in your cupboards, fridge at home, what's healthy, what's good for you, how to make the best choices for your health at the store, don't hesitate to reach out to me at email@example.com. I have helped my clients by going grocery shopping together with them, explaining what's good, what's not, how to read the product labels etc.