Whether we like it or not, buying food is a necessity. We can’t avoid it. And although many of us want to buy and eat healthy food, it’s not always an easy task. From fancy displays and packaging, to the explosion of more than 40 000 products in the average supermarket, deciding what is healthy and what isn’t can be a challenge.

One would think the greater amount of choice would be better for us. But it’s not the fruits and vegetable aisles that have got larger. It’s the packaged and processed foods that have grown in number. And the proportion of space given to healthy foods has been shrinking.

So with all the choice, how do you know if a food is healthy or unhealthy for you?

1. Does it have a best before date?

If yes, then good. The closer a food is to its natural state, the fresher and healthier it is. It also means it won’t last forever. That’s because there aren’t any preservatives added to the food (as opposed to the 40 year old Twinkie).

Foods with best before dates include eggs and dairy products. But not all perishable foods are dated. For example, fruits and vegetables aren’t, yet we know over time they will go bad.

Keep in mind a best before date isn’t an expiry date. There’s no way to predict when a food will spoil. If you buy milk and leave it on the counter, it will go bad well before the best before date. If you keep it refrigerated, it may be okay for a few days after the date. And of course, freezing the same milk will extend its life further.

food on shelves at supermarket

2. Where did you buy it in the supermarket?

How food is laid out in a supermarket isn’t random chance. From being on the perimeter to what shelf it’s on, it’s all done on purpose. The main reasons for deciding where a food goes is ease of restocking and to promote sales of the product.

In most stores, you’ll find fruits, vegetables, baked goods, meats, seafood and dairy all on the perimeter of the store. It’s not a coincidence that almost all of the perishable foods are located on the edge of the supermarket. Having them on the edge makes it easier to keep an eye on the foods and re-stock. In some cases, such as milk, foods are stocked from the back leaving the oldest products in the front to be purchased first.

Likewise, foods on the shelves are strategically placed. It’s well-known that products at the end of aisles sell faster as do products given more shelf space. Those products placed at eye level tend to sell more and explains why all the sugary cereal are at kids eye level who then bug their parents to buy them. And lastly, foods at the checkout counter. These chocolate bars and candies usually aren’t on anyone’s shopping list, yet they end up getting purchased as you stare at them while waiting to checkout, fatigued from shopping and wanting a quick energy boost.

3. How much packaging does it have?

Foods are packaged for storage and ease of transport. A rule of thumb I go by, is the greater the number of packaging layers, the less healthy it is for you. As opposed to fruits and vegetables, which are rarely packaged, processed food always comes in packaging. Commonly in two or more layers (the outside box and the inside plastic wrap/bag). Besides these foods being highly processed, there is evidence to indicate that foods absorb some of the elements of the packaging in the food itself.

do the ingredients contain healthy foods

4. What’s in the ingredients list?

Yes, I know, reading the ingredients might be about as fun as getting a root cannel. The ingredients list is meant to inform you the consumer, but sometimes it feels you have to have a chemistry degree to figure it out. But even a quick scan can be super informative and you don’t need to know what all the ingredients are.

First off, the longer the ingredients list, the less healthy the food. The extended ingredients are mostly things such as preservatives, added colours and flavours, and ingredients to keep the food bound together. Then do a quick read of the list itself. How many of the names do you recognize? If you have trouble recognizing at least half of them, then you might want to leave it on the shelf. Lastly, what are the top 3-5 ingredients? Is sugar one of them? If so, take a pass.

pop has a lot of sugar

5. Do you need to buy that drink?

The only real drink we need is water. Yes, there are benefits to drinking milk as it’s an easy way to get calcium, protein and a number of vitamins with little downside. Beyond that, any other drinks we consume are really for taste and not for nutrition. This doesn’t mean all other drinks are unhealthy. Having tea is a great way to drink water if you want some extra flavour.

But once you get into drinks which have calories in them, then it’s not so easy to say these are good choices. While juices have vitamins, they have the same amount of sugar in them as pop, and those increased sugars increase your chances of getting diabetes and heart disease. Better to eat the whole fruit and drink water, than have juice. The same goes for pop.

The other problem with drinks is they don’t fill you up as much as solid food does. As a result, you may be tempted to consume more calories from drinks than you would if you ate a solid food. For example, a can of pop has 140 calories. This is the same as eating one and a half apples.

6. If it has a label saying ‘healthy’, isn’t it?

With more and more of us being health conscious consumers, the food industry has taken notice. This is a good thing as it has led to more healthy foods being available. But it also has resulted in stealth health products; those foods which may not be healthy but have health-claiming labels. Not all foods that have labels such as ‘all-natural’, ‘organic’ and ‘fat-free’ are healthy.

Following these simple rules can help steer you towards healthy food choices when shopping and make shopping less challenging.

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