Check out these shopping tips to make sure you are an informed shopper at the grocery store.
By Miranda Guilamo, Contributing Writer
Have you ever paused to think about how you consciously or unconsciously select food at the grocery store? For example, when you are food shopping, do you tend to:
- Rigorously read labels of products before you buy them?
- Choose products with less toxic packaging (e.g. glass instead of plastic)?
- Pick products that produce less waste (e.g. rice from a self-serve bin versus in a pre-packaged plastic bag)?
- Look at the sugar content of products?
- Find the non-GMO Project Label or the USDA Organic label?
- Get annoyed and pass up items with claims that say “all natural” or “100% natural”?
I do ALL of the above.
It would be so much easier to just walk down the aisles at my local grocery store and grab whatever looks yummy. Or whatever catches my attention. Or whatever is on sale. It would be simpler to go grocery shopping like a “normal person”.
I just can’t. Here’s why.
A few years out of college, I found myself living overseas in Switzerland. Across the street from my apartment, there was a farmers market with local fruit, cheese and more. Around the corner, there was a “patisserie” with delicious croissants and a bounty of freshly baked bread every morning. I wondered why eggs at my local grocery store weren’t refrigerated. My friends and neighbors all seemed to make smaller and more frequent grocery trips versus stocking up at the likes of Costco in the states. So…I started to think more and more about the food I was consuming, the quality, and the ingredients. I began to research and read.
And Voila! Fast forward to years later and my shopping habits will never be “normal” again.
Photo by Miranda Guilamo, farmers market in Switzerland
Why Should You Be More Vigilant When Choosing Food For Your Family?
- The EU bans several pesticides, hormones, and GMOs widely used in foods grown or in the U.S. These include:
- Potassium bromate and azodicarbonamide (ADA)
- BHA and BHT
- Brominated Vegetable Oil (BVO)
- Yellow food dyes No. 5 and No. 6, and Red Dye No. 40
- Farm Animal Drugs
- Companies change their product formulation depending on where their product is going. For example, fewer chemical additives for the European version.
- The USA has high levels of ultra-processed foods, although other countries are quickly catching up. According to one study, 60% of the calories Americans consumed came from these highly processed foods and drinks.
- Studies suggest there could be a connection between the increasing sales of ultra-processed foods and the rise in obesity. It feels like we are onto something here.
- Restaurants and brands continue to show value with bigger portion sizes for less.
All of this may be points to the health crisis in the United States. Americans have the highest percentage of obese children and young adults relative to the overall population (13%). In absolute numbers, the U.S. has the most obese adults (79.4 million). As an awakened consumer, it can without-a-doubt feel overwhelming and daunting to buy real, clean, healthy foods for you and your family.
What Can You Do?
1. Make food less about “necessity” or “convenience” and more about “enjoyment”
- Take time to cook, by yourself or with family and friends. The more you can make from scratch, the better.
- Try new recipes. This is a great way to incorporate new ingredients in your diet, add in more vegetables, and branch out!
- Plan ahead, to avoid fast-food restaurants or grabbing take out as a last-minute option. Even quick and easy meals from the grocery store are notoriously processed and filled with preservatives.
- Use mealtime to converse and catch-up. If you can help it, try to slow down and chew more, which aids in digestion.
2. Read labels
- Non GMO Project: verifies that a product doesn’t contain genetically modified (GMO) ingredients (or technically less than 0.9% GMOs). GMO foods are not natural and are engineered to be more resistant to herbicides.
- USDA Organic: the highest standard we have in the states because this avoids use of herbicides and pesticides, as well as GMOs.
- Cannot be grown with synthetic pesticides, and contain much lower pesticide residues overall
- The most widely-used herbicide on the planet – Glyphosate (Roundup) – is prohibited on organic crops
- Meat isn’t produced with growth-promoting drugs, like ractopamine
- If you have to prioritize, focus on the “dirty dozen” and the “clean 15” which is a list produced by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) citing the top foods to buy organic and the foods where it is safer to buy conventional based on pesticides.
- Fair Trade Certified: certification that ensures social, environmental, ethical and economic impact in the production and sourcing of products. Over 2 million farmers and over 100 countries are included in the broad group of brands committed to ethical sourcing. This certification stands for fair wages and proper treatment of farmers. It stands for doing what is right for the environment and all the people involved in the food supply chain.
3. Buy local
- Nowadays, we rarely see how our food is being grown or where it is coming from. Whenever I move to a new city, I start searching for local farms. Food is fresher when it doesn’t have to cross oceans to get to you. This means the food retains more nutrients since it spends fewer days in transit.
- CSA‘s or Community Supported Agriculture are great ways to source local vegetables, fruits, eggs, cheeses, and meats. It is basically where you buy a certain “share” each week or month of selected products directly from farmers. For example, signing up for one bag of mixed vegetables every 2 weeks for the summer season. CSAs usually have several local pick up places or even deliver to your home. Here’s a website that can help you locate nearby CSAs.
- Consider a trip to your local farmer’s market. This can be a great activity for the entire family and a fun way to connect with local farmers. You may end up going home with fresh baked bread, a bag full of fruits and veggies, and a nice bouquet of flowers!
- Lastly, when food has to travel shorter distances, that means less pollution and CO2 emissions.
4. Be informed
- As consumers, we “vote” with our dollars. Would you want to know that you were supporting rainforest destruction? Or child labor? Or the carcinogen by-products in food? Choose to support brands that you know are working towards promoting positive change in the food ecosystem.
- If it is important to you, read books about nutrition and food studies. I recently found The Case against Sugar to be particularly interesting audiobook!
- Watch documentaries to gain different perspectives on health, diet, and food production.
- Choose packaging that can be recycled or produces less waste. Thankfully, more and more products are coming out that are “refillable”.
5. Recognize unregulated claims and labels
- Companies have realized that there is huge profit to be made by adding the word “natural” to their packaging because 1 in 5 consumers are willing to pay more for “natural” products. So don’t be fooled by products that claim to be “all natural” or “100% natural”. There is no set standard for these words being included on labels. These are not regulated or checked by outside agencies.
- Other labels that do not have set government standards or only give you a portion of the facts are “cage-free eggs”, “pasture-raised”, “antibiotic-free”, and “grass-fed”.
- So stick with the two labels and claims that carry the most weight in the US: “100% USDA Organic” and “Non-GMO Project”.
As much as we can become hyper-obsessed about everything we eat and reading all the fine print in food labels, stress and anxiety are not good for your health. We are all human and we all get busy. Cut yourself some slack. Sometimes you just need a trip to the drive-thru or a bowl of cereal for dinner!
Remember, meals can be the perfect time to relax, unwind, and connect with others. The above tips will help you to know more about what you are eating and what you are ultimately putting in your body. Using some of this knowledge to become an informed consumer is something that you can be proud of. Final warning though…you may never grocery shop like a “normal person” again.
What matters to you when buying food?
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