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A Food Shopper’s Smarts

February 5, 2012

You find out pretty quickly when you start talking to folks about food that many people are confused about what they should – or shouldn’t – be buying at the grocery store. There’s a good reason for that. Food labels can be bewildering. Is “organic” automatically good for you? Is “local” really better? And what about the catch phrase “natural,” which appears on more and more food products?

In short, what’s a shopper concerned about healthy eating supposed to do? Here are a few simple tips to help us all better navigate the puzzling world of shopping for healthful foods.

Smart Tip #1: A “natural” label doesn’t necessarily equal “healthy.” It doesn’t tell you anything about a food’s growing process or how an animal was raised. While the USDA Organic program requires stringent external audits to ensure farmers are not using chemical pesticides or fertilizers, manufacturers of “natural” products are not subject to these kinds of inspections. A natural cereal may have had pesticides applied to its ingredients or derive from Genetically Modified (GM) seeds. “Natural” simply means that during processing, no synthetic preservatives, artificial sweeteners or colorings or hydrogenated oils were added. While that’s nothing to sneeze at, it may be a lot less than you expected. “Natural” potato chips, for instance, may still contain significant fat and salt.

Smart Tip #2: Local farmers may spray their crops… heavily. Locavores will argue, quite convincingly, that some small farmers are actually growing their crops organically even if they don’t have the USDA label; they simply can’t afford the official designation. It’s a good point, but not one to take for granted. The best way to determine if a locally grown crop is no-spray or low-spray is to ask the farmer. It’s easy to do this at seasonal farmer’s markets or at the year-round indoor market in East Liberty. But you can also check out the grower’s website and shoot them an email or make a call. In my experience, they are happy to talk about their growing process with potential customers.

Smart Tip #3: Not everything at natural grocery stores is good for you. Whether you buy conventionally grown strawberries at the organic market or at a discount grocery chain, they are still packed with pesticides – actor and cancer survivor Fran Drescher once called them “a mouthful of poison.” And I’ve witnessed shoppers in the checkout line at a local natural food store with their carts full of organic soda, which, just like regular soda, is loaded with sugar (albeit organic, it’s still sugar) and phosphoric acid, which may deplete calcium from your body.

The bottom line is, no matter where you buy your food, you need to be smart about what you’re buying. That means educating yourself – something many of us often feel too tired or stressed to do at the end of the week. But the effort of reading labels, checking nutrient content, asking questions, and doing some sleuthing is worth it. After all, you put food into your body three or more times a day – it’s good to know what’s in it.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Debi permalink
    February 5, 2012 2:19 pm

    Are chemical fertilizers as bad as chemical pesticides? Probably as bad for the environment, but what about the direct harm to the body?

  2. February 5, 2012 3:08 pm

    Debi —

    They’re as bad, really, but in different ways. First, they create soil imbalances and deplete minerals, significantly reducing the nutrients in our crops; and mineral deficiencies have links to a variety of diseases. Second, they can kill natural organisms like bacteria or creatures like bees and worms that benefit agriculture. I also read that these fertilizers may contain recycled industrial waste. Thanks for reading the blog!

    Paula

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