So, you’ve started eating out less, and you’ve embraced making a few things from scratch. Awesome! Still hungry for more? Get ready to get grocery store savvy by reading those food labels!
Living a cleaner life doesn’t have to be complicated. But, like anything worth doing, it does take a little knowledge. I’d be lying if I said that it was as easy to do as making the decision itself. It does take a little know-how and remembering a bit of information when you’re shopping. But don’t let that dissuade you, because really, if I can do it, anyone can. Seriously. Full disclosure: my brain is a
steel trap sieve. I get lost driving in my own neighbourhood and if I had a nickel for everything I don’t remember from university, I’d be able to retire and live high on the hog (or off the hog, I can’t remember which). I honestly couldn’t tell you what I ate for lunch yesterday, or what colour underwear I put on this morning. I am potentially one of the most unobservant people I know; but I will tell you this: when I go grocery shopping and I read those food labels, I remember everything I don’t want in my food. I remember because it’s important to me (more important than remembering where I live, apparently!)
Look, I get it, I do. It’s annoying to have to read all the food labels all the time. It is so much easier to pick up a pre-made frozen lasagna or nuke a microwavable rice packet on those crazy nights when the only other option seems like drive-thru and you feel totally virtuous because you chose something heated up at home over something heated up at a fast food chain. I’ve been there, and some nights I still am there. Choosing to live a cleaner lifestyle isn’t about being perfect and restrictive and a slave to the rules (unless you like that sort of thing, in which case: you go, rule follower!). It’s about being informed and making choices, even if you choose to grab that burger or frozen dinner. It’s about being aware of what you are ingesting. The price of convenience is always a trade off: you are trading in saving time for added chemicals, additives, and toxins (yes, toxins). I am not an alarmist. This isn’t new information. We know that processed foods have chemicals. We know that whole grains, simple ingredients, and fresh always win. We know these things, but the fact that we have little time and sometimes little desire, shapes the way we eat and the unhealthy choices we make.
Become an Investigator: Read those food labels!
I know, I know, more reading, more labels, more chemicals with weird names to try to remember. It sucks. And I’m not even talking about GMOs and organic vs. conventional. This is about all the refined or processed products we buy. It’s pretty much inevitable you will buy something premade, unless you are a total 100% committed homesteader and, realistically, who has time for that?! You could probably drive yourself (and your loved ones) crazy with the laundry list of chemicals and additives to avoid. And to be honest, the best way to avoid them altogether is to make everything from scratch. However, in our busy lives, this often is unrealistic. Although I make much of what we consume, and my list of things I avoid is growing longer by the day, the below list is one that I think is pretty doable and one that I used when I started my journey. I feel like these are easiest to avoid, sometimes just out of the simple act of committing not to consume an item, like pop. If you simply choose to drink water instead of pop, you’ll automatically be avoiding BHA, food dyes, and high fructose corn syrup in your beverages. Not all choices will be as easy, since sometimes chemicals in products are sneaky. Just because something doesn’t taste sweet doesn’t mean there isn’t a large amount of corn syrup, for example. Arm yourself with a list of additives you want to avoid on your next visit to the grocery store; put them in your phone, write them on your arm, do whatever you need to do to have these at the ready. You may be surprised at just how many of them will be present in foods you bought thinking they were clean.
Six additives to avoid:
Both sodium nitrate and nitrite are salts, usually added to deli meats, hams, and bacons, as a preservative and colour enhancer (it helps make the meat look pinkish or red). The problem with these salts is that they mix with stomach acid and create nitrosamines which are potentially cancer-causing agents.
You are safe to assume that products that are a vibrant blue or neon pink are probably full of dyes and did not originally start out looking so colourful. So, yes, stay away from those sugary candies, gummies and sports drinks. But dyes are also used in sneaky ways, like to boost the colour of something so that it looks more natural: think meats, desserts and baked goods, fruit juices. Look out for ingredients like Red#40, Yellow #5 (which is also called tartrazine) and #6.
BHA (Butylated Hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoulene) are preserving agents found in baked goods, potato chips and cereals. They are known carcenogens and have been linked to cancers, fetal abnormalities, liver and kidney damage. Yum.
Most people would be like, yeah, MSG, that’s the stuff in take-out Chinese food and it’s horrible for you. But what many don’t realize is that MSG is also in canned soups, packaged seasonings, cookies, frozen dinners, and deli meats. Monosodium glutamate is a super sneaky one. It is such a common grocery item that I could dedicate an entire blog to discussing it. It’s safe to say that this neurotoxin should be avoided at all costs. The best way to avoid MSG is to steer clear of prepackaged soups, instant rices, and noodles, hot dogs, salad dressings, etc. (for more info on MSG check out this article from Whole Foods Market. It’s short!)
High Fructose Corn Syrup
High fructose corn syrup is a liquid sweetner alternative to regular granulated sugar. It is a highly refined product made from corn. It is the sweetner of choice for many producers because it’s cheaper, it’s easier to blend, and helps products maintain a longer shelf life. We know that too much sugar is the leading cause of obesity and diabetes and high fructose corn syrup packs a major caloric punch in sodas, sweets, and other drinks.
Partially Hydrogenated Oil
Partially hydrogenated oil is made in a lab. Really. Basically, hydrogen is added to the oil, which alters the oil’s state from liquid to a solid. This is done to prolong the shelf life of the oil and in turn the food product in which it is used. The problem is that the process also changes the health benefits of the oil. Partially hydrogenated oil is full of trans fats, which are really hard for the body to break down. It raises LDL (bad) cholesterol and lowers HDL (good) cholesterol. Unfortunately, partially hydrogenated oil is ubiquitous and can be found in food products ranging from baked goods to potato chips.
This list is by no means exhaustive, but it can be totally overwhelming and disheartening to go to pick up your favourite cereal or bag of chips only to realize that it’s 90% preservatives/chemicals and 10% actual real food. These 6 additives to avoid are just a way to get started assessing the foods you are currently purchasing. Okay, so you have an intro list of additives to avoid. Now what?
How To Get Grocery Store Savvy:
- Make a grocery list and be honest about the products you normally buy.
- Take your grocery list, and your additives to avoid list to the grocery store.
- Give yourself an extra 20 minutes of time to spend reading food labels. You will only need to do this the first few times you shop, because you will start to get to know which brands tend to have fewer chemicals, and which choices work best for you and your family.
- If the items you normally buy contain the additives to avoid, then check out the food labels of other brands of the same item. If they all contain the same chemicals, leave that item behind. **
- Aim to fill your cart with items containing the fewest ingredients. (extra points for single ingredient foods! Wait, are there foods with one ingredient?? You betcha!)
(**so what happens if everything on your list contains chemicals or additives or toxins? Don’t panic. You haven’t failed at life. It is a sad reality that most of the products we buy have additives and preserving agents in them. Just pick the ones with the fewest chemicals, and load up your cart with fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats. Go home, feel awesome about yourself and, when you have some time, start considering cleaner options. It might mean switching to a health food store or taking stock of what your family has been eating. It may mean mass cooking on a Sunday and preparing meals for the whole week. It may mean eliminating only the most highly processed foods you normally buy. This part is up to you and it is an entirely personal choice. But even just assessing what you and your family are consuming is a win!)
Now, I know that this part of cleaning up your lifestyle feels like real work and, yes, you have to read food labels, which initially means added time in the grocery store. But, fortunately, food companies MUST list all ingredients, meaning, you have all the knowledge you need to make a good decision. Once you go to the grocery store and read labels a few times, you’ll get a sense for the products that are cleaner (and safer!) for your family. Soon, it won’t seem so arduous and your time spent at the store will become shorter and shorter! (that’s the good news!)
Eat more fresh fruits, vegetables and meat
As I mentioned, the easiest way to avoid food additives is to embrace a diet of unprocessed (single ingredient) foods. Fruits, vegetables, and meats are great examples of single ingredient foods. An apple, is just that: an apple. An apple has one ingredient: apple. The more fresh products that end up in your grocery cart, the fewer additives and preserving agents you will find (keep in mind, of course, that this doesn’t include canned, dried or frozen produce and meat, only fresh). Think about it this way: shelf life determines how long a product is safe for consumption. Food producers aim to extend how long a food product can be safe to consume. Unfortunately there is a direct correlation between how long an item’s shelf life is and how many preserving agents are necessary to prevent rot, bacteria, and dangerous pathogens. A canned soup’s shelf life can be years, whereas the shelf life of fresh produce is typically 4-5 days, and fresh meats (butcher cuts) are 2-3 days.
Hanging out in your produce and meat departments is a great way to clean up your diet without much thought. It’s when you move from the exterior walls of a grocery store to the inner aisles that things get a little more intensive. This is where it pays to have a little technical knowledge. Eating clean doesn’t have to be snobby, or esoteric, or overwhelmingly rule-based where you go around spouting off technical jargon and cool buzzwords. Unless you like being pedantic (which is cool with me). It can be as simple and as uncomplicated as eating fresh, eating items made with simple ingredients, and being cognizant of the additives that are being put into the foods we purchase.
Next week I’ll touch on the ways you can take your clean living to the next level. All you need is a freezer and some running water. Easy!
Miss the first challenge? Check it out here: Three Tricks To A Cleaner Life