Part of being a savvy shopper is understanding food quality. Some of the most budget friendly items are a total rip off if you factor in the amount of nutrition you are actually buying. Here are three main points to lookout for to help you make informed decisions and get the best nutritional bargain for the money. The goal here is to get the best food possible, not necessarily the most.
It is best to buy foods, especially perishables like meat and produce, as fresh as possible. They will taste better and have a higher nutrient content as well. This is especially true of fresh fruits and vegetables. It may cost a little bit more bit more (or maybe not) to buy fresh, ripe fruits and veggies at the farmers market or CSA (Community Sponsored Agriculture – farmers deliver your weekly/bi weekly share), but when you do, you are getting a higher nutrient content for your money. Grocery stores buy produce from suppliers, not farmers. By the time the food has gotten to your local store, it may have been weeks or even months since it was harvested and changed hands many times. The rate at which nutrients decline varies from nutrient to nutrient, and depends on how optimally it has been stored since harvest. Values can drop significantly within days.
In general it is important to buy food from a store that has good turnover. Stores that have a high turnover of the particular items you buying are likely to have fresher supplies. Buying the same item from a store that sells it only occasionally means that the chance it has been in the store for a long time is high, and it may be well past its prime by the time it is finally purchased by the consumer. This is especially true with natural foods that do not contain any preservatives, and whole grains, nuts, and seeds because the good fats they contain have a short shelf life.
Once you get your food home, storing perishable foods including whole grains, nuts, seeds, and certain oils in the refrigerator will protect the nutrient content and flavor. Keeping your refrigerator at the lowest setting you can without freezing your food (about 33°f-34°f) will increase the amount of time your food stays at its optimal condition. *NOTE -not all fruits and vegetables require refrigeration. Some do better stored at room temperature!
Additionally, understanding the lingo of expiration dates will be a big help in maximizing the value you get from your food. I think it goes without saying, the fresher food is when you buy it, the longer it will last!
- Expiration date – refers to the last date a food should be eaten or used. Last means last – proceed at your own risk.
- “Sell by” date – Tells the store how long to display the product for sale. The “sell by” date is the last day the item is at its highest level of quality, but it will still be edible for some time after.
- “Best if used by (or before)”date – This refers to quality, not safety. This date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
Ingredients to avoid:
The next step is to become familiar with and avoid certain ingredients. They will for the most part be found in processed and packaged foods, which are designed for convenience, shelf life, and “taste bud sex-appeal” – not nutritive value. Many are created in laboratories, not kitchens, and that is a clue; it is not “real” food. The less processed and prepackaged food you buy, the healthier you will be, the less reading you will have to do, and the less time it will take you to get in and out of the store.
MSG: is one of the worst food additives on the market. It is used in canned soups, crackers, meats, salad dressings, frozen dinners and much more. MSG is an excitotoxin, which means it over excites your cells to the point of damage or death. It is known by more than 20 different names; autolyzed yeast, calcium caseinate, glutamate, and hydrolyzed protein to name a few.
Hydrogenated oils: AKA Trans fat, increases blood levels of low density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad” cholesterol, while lowering levels of high density lipoprotein (HDL), known as “good” cholesterol. It is known by many names including: margarine, vegetable shortening, and partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.
Sodium nitrite: This is a preservative, coloring, and flavoring commonly added to bacon, ham, hot dogs, luncheon meats, smoked fish, and corned beef. Studies have linked it to various types of cancer. Some experts consider it one of the most potentially harmful food additives.
Sugar: It is not necessary to avoid sugar 100%. Recognize sugars when you see them so you can control the amounts and types you include in your diet. Different kinds of sugars are recognizable by looking for words ending with “ose”, as in sucrose or fructose, maltose and lactose. Other forms of sugar include honey, agave, maple syrup, date sugar, molasses, and of course corn syrup. High Fructose Corn Syrup, or HFCS, is a good ingredient to avoid altogether. It is a cheap, highly processed sugar substitute, and is more toxic to the liver than other sugars. It is also believed by many in the health industry to be partially responsible for the huge increase in Type II diabetes since its introduction to the market 30 years ago. Sugar substitutes are probably more dangerous than sugar itself. Look for and avoid the following items: Aspartame, Sucralose, Acesulfame-K, and Saccharin.
In general, choose packaged foods with short, simple ingredient lists with items you recognize as food. Avoid the ones with long, complex ingredients lists with ingredients that don’t sound like actual food. Remember, keep it simple; keep it healthy.
By definition organic food is: “Food that is grown and produced without antibiotics, growth hormones, pesticides or bioengineering. Organic farmers use different agricultural practices that conserve water and soil by eliminating pollution caused by harmful fertilizers and pesticides. Organically raised livestock are allowed to graze outside, are fed organic feed and are provided living conditions that minimize disease.” Additionally, certified organic foods are grown in a way that is sustainable for the soil, planet, and farm workers as well. All food was organic until the 1900s. It is only in this century that chemical, genetic modification (different from selective breeding), and non-sustainable practices have been adopted.
There are a variety of terms that point to a food item being organic. They include “Certified Organic”, “Organically Grown”, “With Organic Ingredients”, and even “Natural”. Of these, only certified organic means you are getting a certified organic product. Small farmers and producers can be selling products that fit the certification criteria, but do not have the financing to pay for the costly certification process. If you know the producers, for example by meeting them at venues like farmers markets, you can have a pretty good idea of whether or not they are being honest about their farming methods. Often you can find no-spray produce in stores, which is still better than conventionally farmed produce. Some of the other terms like: “Natural”, or “With Organic Ingredients” can be nothing more than a ploy to attract well intending shoppers, and is no assurance of quality.
For many there is a financial consideration to buying organic. It can be considerably more expensive, especially for meat. Still, it is worth it to invest in your health. Pick and choose what you buy organic and what you buy conventional. A great way to offset the higher prices is to eat smaller amounts of higher quality food to. One reason some people over eat is because they are not getting the nourishment their bodies require. When food quality goes up, hunger goes down. Also, less food means less shopping, less fuss, less mess, and a trimmer and more energetic body to boot!
Organic is best for a variety of reasons however, lets focus on the practical side with how to make the best choices. Here is a list of fruits and vegetables to ALWAYS buy organic: celery, peaches, strawberries, apples, blueberries, nectarines, bell peppers, spinach, cherries, kale and collard greens, potatoes, and grapes. And a list of those you can purchase conventionally: onions, avocado, pineapple, mango, sweet peas, asparagus, kiwi, cabbage, eggplant, cantaloupe, watermelon, grapefruit, sweet potato, honeydew melon, to avoid high pesticide levels. Get the guide.
The next money smart tip is to shop organic for the foods that you eat a lot of. Foods that you eat very little of may not warrant the difference in price. This applies to meats, dairy, and cereal goods (all kinds of grains) as well as produce. When it comes to meat and dairy, “Grass Fed” or “Pasture Raised” is even better than “Organic”. Grass fed animals are healthier and have higher levels of Omega3 fatty acids than those that are conventionally grown. The animals are healthier and you will be healthier too. You are literally what you eat, and it is wise to build your body out of quality materials.
–One last little Savvy Grocery Shopping tip is to be smart with your time. After all, time is money. Know your stores, their prices, and layouts. Go in with a list, and shop at off hours (preferably when you are NOT hungry) to get in and out with the least amount of hassle. With a little practice you will become the consummate savvy shopper!