"Foraging" in the Modern Supermarket
An aisle-by-aisle guide to healthy “hunting and gathering” at your grocery store.
There’s good news at your local grocery store. "You should walk into a supermarket with a very positive attitude,” says Alice H. Lichtenstein, DSc, director of Tufts' HNRCA Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory and executive editor of the Tufts Health & Nutrition Letter. "The availability of healthy and affordable foods has greatly expanded in recent years. There are a lot of options now throughout the store that are really good choices."
Ironically, though, even as supermarket shopping has gotten healthier, more people are turning instead to convenience stores and warehouse clubs - where they're buying more salty snacks, pastries and sugary sodas. A new University of North Carolina study, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, reports that from 2000 to 2012, US households bought more food at mass merchandisers (up from 13.1% of total food volume to 23.9%), warehouse clubs (up from 6.2% to 9.8%) and convenience stores (up from 3.6% to 5.9%). Though still the majority of food purchases, grocery stores' share declined (from 68.8% to 51.5%) as others' rose.
Purchases at convenience stores were highest in sugar, with more than 35% of calories coming from gum and candy. Warehouse club purchases had the most sodium. On the other hand, foods bought at grocery stores had the lowest calories and better nutrient density.
So maybe it’s time to rediscover your favorite supermarket. A smart strategy of "hunting and gathering," Lichtenstein says, can fill your cart with nutritious, budget-friendly items that can be turned into healthy meals with minimal fuss. (For more on how to incorporate "processed" foods into a healthy diet, see our October 2015 Special Report.)
MAKING A LIST…: The first step in nutrition-wise "foraging" at the grocery store is to make a shopping list. Making a list and sticking to it insures that you'll buy only what you really need for meals and helps you reduce waste and avoid impulse purchases.
Next, says Lichtenstein, it's time to drop as outdated the idea of shopping only the perimeter of the store. "You shouldn't oversimplify," she explains. "Many stores have reorganized their layouts, and frozen fruits and vegetables are now in the middle."
Frozen produce, typically picked and frozen at the peak of ripeness, is at least as nutritious as fresh and sometimes more so, and usually has great value for the dollar. To minimize thawing before you get home to your own freezer, though, you should shop the frozen-foods section last.
Start instead with the fresh produce section. Lichtenstein advises, "Fill up your cart with seasonal fruits and vegetables, which will represent the best quality at the best price, as well as fruits and vegetables that are on sale. Because produce that's on sale moves fastest in volume, the quality will be higher."
Just make certain that you have a plan for anything you purchase. Also have a fallback option: For example, if it looks like you have too many fresh vegetables to use up before they go bad, consider making a quick soup and freeze in small portions. This rescues the vegetables and provides a quick meal on busy days.
It’s OK to pay a little extra for convenience if that means you’re more likely to consume healthy produce. Consider pre-cut "baby" carrots, prewashed lettuce and other salad greens, and cut-up butternut squash (also found frozen).
WHOLE-GRAIN WISDOM: Healthy choices can be found inside the perimeter of the supermarket, too. In the bread aisle, for example, whole-grain options have gained shelf space. "To make sure bread or rolls are really whole grain, read the label," Lichtenstein says. "You don’t need to do this every time you shop, just one time to identify whole-grain choices you enjoy. Don't be fooled by terms like 'multigrain,' which doesn't necessarily mean bread is whole grain, or by color. Darker bread does not equal whole grain; pumpernickel, for example, is very dark but not typically whole grain."
Similar smart shopping applies in the cereal and cracker aisles. Look for whole-grain choices as well as fortified cereals. Avoid very sugary cereals. Common sense can usually tell you which cereals are high in sugar (don't be fooled by "honey" in the product name, as honey affects the body similarly to sugar). Otherwise, check the ingredients to see if sugar by any name is among the first things listed.
"Pick something you'll enjoy," Lichtenstein adds. "Fortunately, there are now lots of good options in most categories." Whole-grain pasta, for another example, now comes in almost every shape and style.
NUTRITION IN A CAN?: Even the canned-goods aisles contain healthy choices, especially if you choose foods like canned beans. Nutritionally an excellent choice - and a protein alternative to meat - canned beans are far more quick and convenient than cooking dried beans. Draining and rinsing significantly reduces the sodium.
Tomatoes are another wise canned choice. Lichtenstein notes, "Sometimes they are more flavorful than fresh because they are processed at the peak of ripeness. Canned tomatoes may also include varieties that are more flavorful but that don’t ship well as whole, fresh tomatoes." A bonus: The lycopene in canned tomatoes and tomato sauces is more accessible than in fresh, uncooked tomatoes.
Reduced-sodium soups have become more widely available, too, improving options in a section of the supermarket that was once a sodium-laden disaster zone. The same section offers reduced-sodium and no-salt-added stocks and broths. Says Lichtenstein, "You just have to read the labels once. And the reduced-sodium broths make a great soup base for those extra vegetables in the bin."