What I Look For When Buying Food From the Grocery Store
It’s late February, and that means that all of the food that we grew, preserved and put up last summer and fall is beginning to run out. This also means that we’re beginning to make more frequent trips to the grocery store to supplement the things we need.
Before I go on, I will say that I still try to shop local first and foremost.
We’ve switched to buying all of our meats locally. This is one area where I’ve made a commitment to purchasing only local, ethically-raised, grass fed/pasture raised meats (save for the odd pack of bacon or organic whole chicken from Costco).
This is important to me for a number of reasons, including quality of life for the animals (I feel strongly that livestock should experience a happy, healthy life and am very much against factory farming), health reasons (you are what you eat, and so I believe in eating meat from animals who led happy, healthy lives), and ethical/economic reasons (I believe in supporting local farmers and small businesses who are also running their businesses ethically, as well as keeping my dollars within my community as much as possible).
Besides our meat, we never purchase eggs from the grocery store since our small flock of backyard laying hens provide all that we need and have been laying right through the winter. If we did run out, I would only source local free-range eggs for the same reasons as listed above.
But we’re also privileged to live in a place where there are tons of small-scale and hobby farms with lots of people who sell fresh eggs. If I had to eat eggs from the grocery store, I would always choose organic free range.
Oh, and I also never really buy bread anymore. I’ve been on a real sourdough kick lately, so we’ve had more bread than we can even eat! Every now and then though, I will buy bread products from the grocery store.
Aside from that, in the summer we literally never buy fruits and vegetables from the grocery store as we grow most of our own produce and source everything else locally. (Again, we’re lucky enough to live somewhere where there is a big farming and local food culture, and I know that not everybody has access to these things nearby).
Save for the odd “exotic” ingredient like bananas or pineapples, we get pretty much everything from as close to our home as possible in the summer and preserve it to eat throughout the winter.
But like I said, come late winter/early spring, a lot of those food stores begin to run out, so this is the time of year (between now and late spring when things start to come on in our garden), when we tend to use the grocery store the most.
That being said, when I do need to purchase foods from the grocery store, be they “fresh” foods like meat, produce and dairy products, or processed foods and grocery items like grains and pasta, snacks, oils, sauces, condiments, etc. I don’t just throw my ethical and health concerns out the window. And neither should you.
3 Things to Consider When Buying Food From the Grocery Store
Like I said, I truly believe that you are what you eat, and while I certainly haven’t always thought this way, this is one of the main reasons I got into homesteading in the first place.
This thought process has evolved over the years and continues to evolve all of the time. I’ve upgraded my food choices, slowly but surely, one-by-one, day after day and year after year. And the more I learn, the more these food choices evolve.
I say this so that you know I am in no way perfect with all of our food choices all of the time, and I’m still learning about the dangers and downsides of some foods while continuously learning about the health benefits and advantages of others.
Likewise, wherever you’re at in your journey to a healthier, more natural life, know that you don’t need to be perfect to be better. Improvement happens little by little, one step at a time.
That being said, I believe in doing the best we can with the knowledge and resources we have. This applies to all sorts of things, but for me, it’s extra important when it comes to what we put in our bodies and what we spend our money on.
In general, I’m pretty intentional about the food choices I make for myself and my family, so when it comes to the grocery store, there are three main questions I ask and things I look for when I’m buying food…
1. What are the ingredients?
The first thing I check on any packaged food is the list of ingredients.
This might seem obvious, because (duh) I just rambled on for multiple paragraphs about how I care about what we eat. But I’ve learned that many grocery store foods can be pretty deceiving, and if you’re not diligent about checking the list of ingredients, you could very easily purchase something that looks healthy, but really isn’t.
This has mostly to do with smart marketing and packaging, as well as where things are located in the grocery store. For example, there are many things in the “health food” aisle that really aren’t very healthy for you at all.
Some of the ingredients I try to avoid at all costs include any type of food additives and artificial sweeteners, including (but sadly not limited to):
- High Fructose Corn Syrup
- Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)
- Synthetic Food Dyes (Blue 1, Yellow 5 & 6, Red 3 & 40 are common ones to avoid)
- Artificial Sweeteners (aspartame, sucralose, saccharin, etc.)
- Artificial Flavours
- Natural Flavours (they may be derived from natural foods, but they’re still extracted in a lab)
- Xantham Gum
- Guar Gum
- Propylene Glycol
- Sodium Nitrite
- Phosphates (sodium phosphate, calcium phosphate, etc.)
I’m sure there are many others ingredients that I’m missing, but that’s a pretty good place to start as far as things to avoid.
I also try to avoid high amounts of added sugar. Especially if sugar is the first or second ingredient listed, I generally try to avoid it. I also prefer organic cane sugar when possible.
Same goes for salt; I try to avoid it in excess and opt for sea salt or simply “salt” over sodium (ie. sodium phosphate or sodium chloride), and definitely over MSG!
When it comes to oils, I avoid highly refined vegetable oils, including canola oil, grape seed oil and sunflower oil. These types of oils are often extracted with chemical solvents and refined at high heat, which chemically alters their composition. They’re also high in Omega-6 fatty acids, which can cause dangerous and even chronic inflammation in the body. Whether I’m purchasing oils for my own home cooking or checking the ingredients list on a processed food, I try to stick to healthier cold pressed oils like olive oil, avocado oil and coconut oil.
I also try to avoid modified milk ingredients, although from my research these aren’t as dangerous as many of the ingredients listed above, so it depends on the product for me.
What I’m reading the list of ingredients on a food label, I look for simple, whole, natural ingredients.
The fewer the ingredients, the better.
For example, I went to the store to buy sour cream the other day, and almost every brand that I checked had a laundry list of ingredients including thickening agents like guar gum, xantham gum, carrageenan, carob bean gum and modified corn starch, sodium phosphate, propylene glycol, cellulose, sodium phosphate and sodium citrate, not to mention those pesky modified milk ingredients.
After checking the ingredients on a handful of different brands, I finally found one brand’s premium version of sour cream that listed only cream, milk, skim milk powder, bacterial culture and microbial enzyme. That’s as close to all-natural sour cream as you’re probably going to get in the grocery store, so I opted for that one.
However there was literally nothing to distinguish this sour cream from all the rest aside from the list of ingredients. And it was the same price as all the others to boot. But even if it was a couple bucks more, for me it’s worth the extra investment in my (and my family’s) longterm health.
Clearly checking the list of ingredients in processed foods is super important, but it’s worth mentioning because too many people are caught up with the nutrition facts but fail to consider the actual ingredients and the sources of the nutrition in the foods they’re eating.
While nutrition facts are certainly helpful if you’re trying to stick to a particular diet like low-sugar, low-sodium, keto, etc., I generally don’t even look at the nutrition facts. I really believe it begins and ends with the actual ingredients used.
2. Is the food organic?
Just as important as what’s in our food is what’s not in it. Chemical pesticides, herbicides and genetically modified foods are high on my list of ingredients to avoid, so I always opt for organic foods whenever possible.
According to the Environmental Working Group, “nearly 70 percent of the fresh produce sold in the U.S. contains residues of potential harmful chemical pesticides.”
When choosing produce, I always try to avoid the dirty dozen (the 12 foods that typically are found to have the highest concentration of pesticides and chemical residues).
The Dirty Dozen includes:
I also only buy organic lettuce, broccoli, herbs, carrots, peppers and garlic.
I’m a bit more lenient with some of the foods that on the “clean fifteen” list; Produce that has been found to have the lowest concentration of chemical residues. These include:
The Clean Fifteen includes:
- Honeydew Melons
- Kiwi Fruits
- Sweet Peas
- Cauliflower *
- Broccoli *
- Sweet Corn *
(The foods marked with an asterisk (*) are foods that I still personally try to buy organic. While I can peel the outer layers off a cabbage to avoid any pesticides that were sprayed, I can’t do the same with a head of broccoli or cauliflower, so I tend to opt for organic. Likewise, sweet corn is often genetically modified, so I typically steer clear of conventionally produced corn on the cob).
As for professed and packaged foods, I look for organic products as well. This isn’t always possible, but I’ll almost always choose organic ingredients when I have the option.
When it comes to dairy products, I do tend to buy conventional. However in Canada there are much stricter rules about how our milk and dairy products are produced and sold, including a complete ban on growth hormones and antibiotics. So for almost double the price for certified organic dairy products, this is one area where we do still tend to buy conventional. However if I lived in the US where the dairy products are not as regulated, I would definitely choose organic 100% of the time.
Not only are organic foods healthier for us, they’re also healthier for the planet, as well as for the workers who grow them and who are otherwise subjected to ingesting many of the chemical pesticides and herbicides sprayed on conventional produce.
And don’t get me started on Monsanto and GMOs. If you’ve never seen the documentary Food Inc., lets just say it was a catalyst for me when I first started exploring homesteading as a viable lifestyle “alternative.”
I believe we vote with our dollars, and so I always try to cast a vote for health, people and planet. This definitely applies to grocery shopping, among many other things.
3. Where does the food come from?
I’m a big believer in eating as locally as possible. As I mentioned earlier, if I can’t grow something myself, I typically try to source it locally from our farmer’s market or direct from local farms. But this isn’t always possible, so when I have to buy food from the grocery store, I try to be mindful of where it was produced.
I generally try to source food from as close to home as possible, so even if something isn’t necessary local to my community, I’ll still choose food from elsewhere in my province first, and after that I’ll look for either Canadian, American or Mexican produced next, then South American, European, African and finally food produced in Asia.
In general, Asia (China, specifically) tends to have some of the worst food safety practices and the highest use of pesticides in the world. According to this article from Stanford University, “China is the world’s largest consumer of agricultural chemicals, using more than 30 percent of global fertilizers and pesticides on only 9 per cent of the world’s crop land.” This equates to almost 1.8 MILLION tons of pesticides sprayed on Chinese crops each year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
While not all locally-produced foods are necessarily organic, they do generally tend to be safer than a lot of conventionally-produced foreign foods coming from places with very little regulation pesticide use. Not to mention, the less miles my food travels, the better it is for the planet.
To learn more about my philosophy on local food and tour a few of my favourite local farms with me, check out the YouTube video below:)
Other Things To Consider When Buying Food
While those are the three main things that I look for in when buying food from the grocery store, there are also a few other things that I consider (and I hope you will too!)
Ethically Raised Meats, Eggs & Dairy
I already touched on this above, but it’s worth mentioning again, because while we don’t tend to buy meat from the grocery store, I know many people do.
When purchasing meats and animal products I try to look for words like “organic,” “grass-fed” (and grass-finished), “pasture-raised,” “free range,” “hormone-free,” “no antibiotics,” etc.
While some of these catchphrases can be deceiving (and warrant a blog post all their own), they’re a good place to start.
Local Vs. Organic (And What’s With All the Packaging?? ?)
Sometimes local food isn’t organic, and sometimes organic food isn’t locally produced.
When faced with the choice between organic OR local, I usually choose organic. However if the food falls into the “clean fifteen,” I will sometimes opt for local over organic. It’s a bit of a toss up and it’s a conundrum that confounds even the most discerning among us.
Another thing I consider is how much packaging comes with a particular food item. I try to avoid single use plastics like the plague, but somehow they still they find their way into our home on almost a daily basis. Still, packaging is something I’m conscious of for environmental reasons.
Plus I can’t STAND how quickly our recycling box overflows with plastic packaging when we’re not careful. It drives me BANANAS (just ask my husband) and I actually get a bit offended when Im forced to accept a bunch of plastic packaging or bags with my groceries).
This is one major downside to eating organic foods from the grocery store: SO. MUCH. PACKAGING!!!
Okay, that was a lot of bolding and capitalizing, so you know how strongly I feel about this one.
While this isn’t always the case, I often find that organic produce comes wrapped in more packaging than conventionally-grown produce, which poses another moral dilemma for folks like me.
Luckily we have an awesome zero waste store in our town called the Local Refillery where you bring your own jars and purchase in bulk. This is where I prefer to do my shopping for things like spices, flour and baking ingredients, nuts, seeds and bulk ingredients, as well as refillable hand soap and shampoo. If you also live here in the Comox Valley, I highly recommend checking them out!
When it comes to certain ethical dilemmas or even having to choose between what you can afford and have access to and what’s best for your health, there just aren’t any “right” or “wrong” answers in some cases. It just comes down to what matters most to you, what you’re most comfortable with and what resources you have.
Like I say, we vote with our dollars, and the money we spend on food should also be considered an investment in our health. And no matter how much money you’ve got to spend, there’s always something small you can do to improve your family’s health and, if nothing else, avoid the very worst processed foods lurking on store shelves.
At the end of the day, my best piece of advice for you is to continue learning about healthy food choices that align with your own personal ethics and values, and then head to the grocery store armed with that knowledge.
And of course, don’t forget your shopping list;)
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