We all want clean, healthy food that tastes good, gives us energy and enhances our health. Yet we have all heard about the variety of issues surrounding our foods—from pesticides and artificial ingredients to excess fat and sugar. To make matters more complicated, most of us are on a budget and can’t afford to buy all of our groceries at specialty natural foods stores. The good news is that it’s still possible to use shopping smarts to eat better, even on a budget. Let’s take a virtual trip through the supermarket together to find out how to do it.
Although it can be easy to miss, most grocery stores are actually laid out in a very similar pattern: Whole foods such as produce, meat, bread, dairy and grains lie around the store’s perimeter, while the interior aisles include processed foods, canned foods, sauces, cereals, drinks and snack foods. Keep that in mind as you visit your local store. In general, it’s better to fill our carts from the perimeter aisles rather than the center areas. And as you make the rounds to the other sections, use the advice on the following pages to make smart, savvy decisions that will put better foods in your fridge and pantry.
The Bad News: Organic produce often costs more than conventional. But there is good reason for this price discrepancy, and this is truly a case of getting what you pay for. To that point, let’s consider how non-organic food is grown: A farmer selects a variety of fruit or vegetable with traits for mass production such as high yield, durability and shelf life—that peach or potato will need to be able to survive a long journey, first to a centralized distribution system and on to grocery stores all over the country. The farmer plants giant swaths of land in that one variety to make easy work of planting and harvesting. Because so much of one variety is growing together, its insect pests can find it easily and would be able to overtake it if it weren’t for the chemicals called in to kill them. Without the biodiversity that otherwise fends them off, weeds might thrive, as well, unless they’re also sprayed with chemicals. Those chemicals don’t just affect weeds and pests. They linger on foods and contribute to a host of maladies, from skin and respiratory infections to cancer and reproductive damage as they make their way down into the soil, into our water supplies and all the way out to our oceans. They also affect the health of the workers who apply them, the organisms in the soil that could otherwise promote the development of healthy plants for many generations to come, and ultimately the fish swimming many miles from the farm.
Eventually it’s time for harvest, which means the farm’s workers—who may or may not be legal citizens paid a fair wage—pick the produce before it’s fully developed nutritionally, so that it will be “ripe” by the time it hits store shelves many days or even weeks later. This definition of ripe concerns the point-of-purchase texture or color, but not necessarily flavor or nutritional quality.
The Good News: Organically grown produce is on the rise. In organic fruit and vegetable production, crops are interplanted or moved around from year to year, giving pest insects less of a chance to take over and reinvigorating the nutrients in the soil. When non-chemical means of pest and weed control are employed, life in soils and waterways is left unharmed. When varieties are allowed to ripen until they are at their peak of nutrition and flavor, they can’t be shipped as far away because they’ll spoil before they hit store shelves. But they taste much better and contain more nutrients. For example, the vitamin C content of peppers and tomatoes increases when they ripen fully on the vine.
Although organic farming is on the rise, less than 1 percent of U.S. food is grown that way. That means most of the fruits and vegetables you see in the grocery store are not organically grown. However, more and more grocery stores have an organic section, some of which also feature foods grown locally or at least domestically. Whether or not your grocery store stocks organic produce, you have other options: Grow your own, shop at farmer’s markets or join a community-supported agriculture (CSA) subscription program, all of which can often be ways to obtain organic produce for less. Be aware that many farmers sell organically grown produce that is not certified by the USDA—obtaining organic certification can be expensive for small farms, even if they’re following all the rules—so ask your farmer about her growing practices. If you are prioritizing which items to buy organically, consult the Environmental Working Group's “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean 15” lists or via the “Dirty Dozen” smart phone app, which tells you which conventionally grown fruits and vegetables have the highest pesticide residue, and which are safer to eat. For more help understanding organic labels and standards, visit "Understanding Food Labels."
The Meat Counter
The Bad News: The meat counter is another place where it is vital to consider quality in addition to cost. Many experts suggest that, because pesticides get stored in fat, it’s most important to buy meat, dairy, oils, nuts and seeds produced organically. And conventional livestock farming presents a host of other potential health issues in addition to pesticide residue. Consider this: When you are overworked, your interactions with your family and your community probably suffer. Maybe you are less patient with your partner or kids when you’re tired. You might also find that when you’re stressed for many days in a row, you have a tendency to get sick. It should be easy, then, to understand why meat and eggs from animals that are overworked, undernourished, crowded and sick would not be very good for us. And that’s what most of the livestock in this country endures.
Conventional meat producers generally want to slaughter animals as soon as possible, so they can produce more meat on a faster turnaround and make more money. To hasten the animals to an appropriate slaughter weight, producers feed them an unnatural diet designed to make them gain weight faster. They also pump them with growth hormones to make them even bigger or keep them cooped up with lights and heaters that make them lay eggs longer than they normally would. To save money on the cost of feed, producers also buy junk (including, literally, plastic pellets and byproduct candy, sometimes in its wrappers) to supplement the already-unnatural feed. To increase the number of animals producing meat or dairy, more animals are packed into a space than is healthy for their immune systems, so they must be routinely dosed with antibiotics.
The slaughterhouse is no pretty picture either. Production goals demand that animals be processed so quickly that it can be dangerous for the workers—who may or not be legal and paid a fair wage—and lead to poor-quality products with a high rate of exposure to untraceable contaminants. By the time meat products reach the stores, they may have been pumped up with water (as is often the case with pork) or packed with “pink slime”—finely ground beef scraps, sinew, fat and connective tissue that is processed into a paste and treated with ammonia gas—(as is often the case with ground beef) to make it weigh more, or packed with gases that make it last longer than meat should. By the time eggs get to your store, they may be several months old.
The Good News: Although meat and eggs from animals raised with integrity will cost more, it’s worth it. Pastured animal products are lower in fat and cholesterol but higher in vitamin E, beta-carotene and healthy omega-3 fatty acids, with a healthier ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s. Eating these foods can actually improve our health, rather than damage our hearts.
Like organic farming, raising animals humanely and sustainably is on the rise all over the country. If you can’t find pastured meats and eggs in your grocery store, check Eat Wild for a list of producers near you. Finding farm-fresh eggs is easy and inexpensive in most parts of the country. The best way to find out whether hens actually roam on pasture is to ask the source directly—and not rely on labels. According to the Humane Society, the majority of egg labels, from “natural” and “cage-free” to “certified organic,” have little relevance to animal welfare and no standards to enforce them. If you can’t find contact information for an egg producer, it’s probably a good sign you should avoid its products. You might also consider raising a few backyard chickens yourself. To dig further into egg labels and learn how to decode all kinds of claims, check out "Understanding Food Labels."
Because sustainably raised meat often costs more, you can reduce your diet’s meat quantity and round out your nutritional needs with grains and legumes such as quinoa, millet, lentils and beans; quality soy products such as edamame and tofu; and nuts and nut butters. For more on how to save money on meat without compromising the quality of your protein choices, check out "Save Money on Meat: Protein Penny-Pinching Tips."
The Dairy Case
The Bad News: The issues with dairy products are much the same as with meat. One or two varieties of dairy cows, selected based on the quantities they produce rather than the quality of their milk, are subjected to the same confinement and antibiotics-dosing as meat animals. They may also be treated with artificial, genetically engineered growth hormones to make them produce more milk. Before the milk gets to you, it’s heated beyond a temperature necessary to kill pathogens so that it will stay “good” for a long time, which has the side effect of destroying enzymes and flavor. It’s separated and reconstituted into fat percentages, then it’s homogenized in a way that beats the creamy texture out of it, simply so the cream won’t rise to the top.
The Good News: A number of alternatives to conventional dairy exist. Although USDA certification of organic milk helps ensure cows were not fed pesticide-treated grain or treated with synthetic hormones, not all organic milk is created equally. The nonprofit Cornucopia Institute rates organic milk companies in its “dairy brand scorecard.” To take the health of your milk a step beyond the organic label, select milk from pastured animals raised not far from you so the milk is fresher when you get it. More and more grocery stores are stocking local, high-quality milk.
Avoid milk that has been ultrapasteurized and look for grass-fed products free of growth hormones (rBST- or rBGH-free). If possible, try to find nonhomogenized milk for its creamy mouthfeel; it’s becoming more available as people remember that a creamline is actually a sign of quality. Check Eat Wild for local producers if you can’t find these at the store. You may also find a dairy CSA in your area. If you are unable to find healthy, sustainably produced dairy products in your area, consider vegetarian alternatives to dairy milk.
Cheese, butter, yogurt and other dairy products all follow this pattern. Thankfully, we’re living through an artisan food revival, and delicious cheeses made from organic, pastured milk, whose complex flavors rival famous European cheeses, are increasingly available. Check out The Atlas of American Artisan Cheese by Jeffrey Roberts to discover a new favorite near you.
The Seafood Counter
The Bad News: The seafood counter is perhaps more rife with environmental and social issues than any other section of the grocery store. Our stocks of fish all over the world are being overfished to the point of endangering or eliminating entire species. The runoff created by industrial farming practices has created a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico where no life can survive. Our energy habit creates pollution that famously threatens our climate, but also poisons our fish with mercury. Our rivers and lakes are often too toxic from pollution to even allow legal fishing.
The Good News: Healthy, sustainable seafood still exists. Your best bets for safe, responsibly fished seafood include wild-caught fish whose populations aren’t threatened; fish from responsibly managed farms; and smaller fish, which have generally accumulated less mercury in their bodies. For example, wild Alaska salmon, striped bass and Pacific sardines are good choices, while farmed salmon, orange roughy and bluefin tuna are not. The absolute authority on what fish you should or shouldn’t be eating is the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program. You can access the group's easy-to-use website at the store via its iPhone or Android app. You can also consult the Environmental Working Group’s Safe Fish List for a list of fish least contaminated by mercury.
Skip The Middle
You may have noticed that, so far, our carts have steered clear of anything you’d usually find in the middle of a grocery store. That’s because “processed food” and “quality food” don’t often go hand in hand. It’s in these aisles that you’ll find the most unhealthy nonfood filler: additives, preservatives, colorings, added flavors, excess sugar, excess salt, excess fat, genetically modified and chemically produced fillers, and even added nutrients. Added nutrients sounds like a good thing, but it’s an indication that the food isn’t so nutritious to begin with. If you buy healthful ingredients such as whole wheat and turn them into healthful foods such as whole wheat bread, there’s no need to buy a lackluster loaf to which nutrients had to be added.
But eating the occasional processed food can sometimes make our lives easier. When shopping for them, keep the previous cautions about fresh produce, animal products and dry goods in mind. Then read the labels carefully. You are looking for ingredient lists filled with food, not additives. For handy lists of safe additives and those that should be limited, approached with caution or avoided altogether, check out the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s useful report, “Chemical Cuisine,”which is also available as an app. The absolute worst additive offenders can be boiled down to this short list: sodium nitrite, saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame-K, caffeine, Olestra and food dyes.
Basically, if the list of ingredients is fairly short and you can recognize most of its names as food (what are ethoxylated diglycerides?), you’re off to a good start. Next, make sure the fat, sugar and sodium content aren’t through the roof.
Although the frozen food section has all the same issues about milk, meat and organic farming as the foods in the rest of the store, there’s at least one good reason to spend some time in the cold aisle: According to the USDA, frozen foods retain many nutrients because they can be picked at their nutritional peak and frozen immediately before they get to you. Frozen fruits, for example, retain 90 percent or more of many important vitamins and minerals. But keep this in mind: Many frozen organic foods sold in the United States come from China, where we have far less oversight of farming practices. Flip that bag of frozen corn over to see if it is a “Product of China.” Many conscientious companies—including the food companies profiled in our July/August 2012 issue—make high-quality convenience foods out of produce sourced in the United States and with an ingredient list that doesn’t read like a scientific formula.
The Bulk Section
Find a grocery store with a bulk department, and you will have found savings. You can save a bundle on staples such as black beans, brown rice, whole wheat flour, honey, olive oil and peanut butter by buying only the quantities you need from bulk bins. Portland State University recently found that shoppers can save almost 90 percent by buying natural and organic foods from bulk bins. Their study was conducted on behalf of the Bulk is Green Council, but independent researchers, such as journalist Craig Idlebrook, have found that you can save an average of 54 percent on a wide variety of goods, with the largest savings coming from organic nuts, seeds and oils.
When it comes to dry goods, the farming trend has been similar to produce: find one or two varieties that give a big yield—with little regard for flavor and nutrients. Lucky for us, more farmers are bringing back ancient varieties of whole grains that offer both flavor and nutrition. The best way to bring this variety to your table is to think about diversity when you’re shopping for these health foods. Had quinoa last night? Try farro today. Had whole wheat bread last week? Try rye bread this week. Eating a variety of whole grains is good for your body and for biodiversity, and it makes eating fun. To learn more about the many whole grains available and how to cook them, see “The Whole Grains Guide.”
Meat from grass-fed animals has two to four times more omega-3 fatty acids than meat from grain-fed animals. In animal studies, these essential fats have slowed the growth of a wide array of cancers and also kept them from spreading. Studies also show people who have ample omega-3s in their diet:
• are less likely to have high blood pressure or an irregular heartbeat
• are 50 percent less likely to suffer a heart attack
• are less likely to suffer from depression, schizophrenia, attention deficit disorder (hyperactivity) or Alzheimer’s disease
Monterey Bay Aquarium's Best Fish Choices
Arctic Char (farmed)
Barramundi (US farmed)
Catfish (US farmed)
Cobia (US farmed)
Cod: Pacific (US non-trawled)
Crab: Dungeness, Stone
Halibut: Pacific (US)
Lobster: California Spiny (US)
Sablefish/Black Cod (Alaska & Canada)
Salmon (Alaska wild)
Sardines: Pacific (US)
Shrimp: Pink (Oregon)
Striped Bass (farmed & wild*)
Tilapia (US farmed)
Trout: Rainbow (US farmed)
Tuna: Albacore (Canada & US Pacific, troll/pole)
Tuna: Skipjack, Yellowfin (US troll/pole)
* limit consumption due to mercury or other contaminant concerns
Top Food Additives to Avoid
• Artificial colorings: Blue 2, Green 3, Orange B, Red 3, Yellow 5, Yellow 6
• Asparatame (Nutrasweet)
• Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA)
• Caramel coloring
• Olestra (Olean)
• Partially hydrogenated vegetable oil (trans fat)
• Potassium bromate
• Propyl gallate
• Sodium nitrate
• Sodium nitrite
—The Center for Science in the Public Interest’s “Chemical Cuisine” report
Not So Sweet
High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a ubiquitous, factory-made sweetener found in many processed foods, from sauces and snacks to candy and soda. Although U.S. obesity rates have skyrocketed since the introduction of HFCS more than 30 years ago, some research shows we process HFCS in the same way as sugar, leading researchers to suggest that an overall increase in calories is the culprit in our national weight gain. Yet other studies—notably one conducted at Princeton University—have found a difference in the effects of refined sugar versus HFCS. In the Princeton study, rats with access to HFCS gained significantly more weight than those with access to table sugar, even when overall caloric intake was the same. Long-term consumption of HFCS also led to abnormal increases in body fat in the rats, especially in the abdomen, and a rise in circulating blood fats called triglycerides. “When rats drink high-fructose corn syrup at levels well below those in soda pop, they’re becoming obese—every single one, across the board,” says psychology professor Bart Hoebel, who specializes in the neuroscience of weight and sugar addiction.
The Big Gulp
It may be obvious that conventional sodas—usually filled with high-fructose corn syrup and other artificial ingredients—aren’t very good for us. But also consider the nutritional value of other beverages before you put them in your cart: Fruit “juices,” sports drinks and enhanced or flavored waters all are often little more than water with artificial sweeteners or additives. Water is your best bet for healthy hydration. For healthier alternative beverages, consider hot or iced herbal teas sweetened with local honey, organic coffee, natural sodas or sparkling water. Also keep in mind packaging: Most beverage cans are lined with the endocrine-mimicking chemical bisphenol-A (BPA), and plastic containers can often leach chemicals into liquid contents. Read more in the blog post "Better Beverage Containers."
Smart Choices Made Easier
• Eat well-grown food from healthy soil.
• Avoid food products with the terms “Lite,” “Low-Fat” or “Nonfat” in their names.
• Eat animals that have themselves eaten well.
• Sweeten and salt your food yourself.
• If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t.
• Eat sweet foods as you find them in nature (eat whole fruits rather than drinking their juice).
• Eat only foods that will eventually rot.
• Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.
• Avoid foods that have some form of sugar (or sweetener) listed among the top three ingredients.
• Regard nontraditional foods with skepticism (for example, partially hydrogenated oil or textured vegetable protein).
• Limit snacks to unprocessed plant foods.
• When you eat real food, you don’t need rules.
—Adapted from Food Rules by Michael Pollan
In recent issues, we’ve covered a number of ways to save money on groceries, reduce food waste and keep food fresh longer. Smarter shopping leads to the efficient use of quality food. Good for your body, good for your wallet!
Food Rules by Michael Pollan
The Real Food Revival by Sherri Brooks Vinton and Ann Clark Espuelas
What to Eat by Marion Nestle