Labels, labels, labels. As a teenager, heading back to school might inspire "label" anxiety - that of the "did I get the right sneakers?" variety. But modern moms (and dads) experience a label anxiety all their own - at the supermarket. If you've ever felt the wrath of mom-shaming, read on: here's your cheat-sheet on the myriad of food labels. Consider it a permission slip to shop guilt-free.
Food labeling has gone way beyond the Nutrition Facts Panel and an ingredient list (as if the former was ever that simple to decipher in the first place). What was once a quick scan for calories, fat, and sodium has now turned into an ordeal of food pageantry, with the FRONT of packages reading like the description of a bed and breakfast stay - complete with graphics of butterflies! Non-this, free-of that, handcrafted-here, fed-there. You get the picture.
Following these descriptors with the devotion of a Sunday-morning church-goer are the consumers who take them for gospel. I'm not sure if food has become more politicized or romanticized, but for some, so-called "clean eating" has taken on a cult-like obsession. Cue the food shaming and mom shaming if you don't follow suit.
As a mom and wife first and foremost and a dietitian second, I shop based on budget, preference, and science. I've posted before on how I feel about the term "clean" as it pertains to eating (and how I'd vomit if I ever heard my daughter use the term as a positive food descriptor - unless she's talking about food safety), and, as the name of this website implies, am a firm believer that all foods can fit - and are meant to be enjoyed! Here are some tips on navigating all those labels and terms, shame-free.
1. Stop fretting about "seasonal" and "local" produce.
Sure, the farmers market has its merits (if you live near one), and shopping the most plentiful produce at the grocery store will save dollars and help determine what's in season. But what about the winter, when, for us folks up north, there's snow on the ground? And consider those delicious, nutritious, naturally-packaged fruits we call BANANAS and ORANGES which are in season in most of the country...never.
The takeaway: Enjoy fruits and vegetables in all their forms - fresh, frozen, canned, and dried - year-round, and from a variety of vendors. Take advantage of the lower cost of produce that's in season, but don't eschew your kids' tropical and citrus favorites. Remember: more matters, and sometimes that means more papaya, mango, kiwi, and tangerines in the dead of winter.
2. Choose generic pantry staples.
Store-brand Oreos? NEVER. But when it comes to canned goods (like tomato products and beans), frozen fruits and veggies, baking ingredients, and oats, in-house labels are just as tasty and nutritious as their name-brand counterparts. Savings on store brands also await in the dairy aisle: generic Greek yogurt, no-salt added cottage cheese, and half-n-half for your morning coffee can be had for 50% less.
The takeaway: Go ahead and splurge on name-brand treats (because everyone needs a scoop of Haagen Dazs once in a while), but in general, shop generic with a clear conscience - and a fatter wallet!
3. Go for grain-fed beef.
Grass-fed beef is often touted as being nutritionally superior to the grain-fed variety. This misconception is based on the fact that grass-fed beef does indeed contain more omega-3 fatty acids. The catch? It's an insignificant difference: a serving of grass-fed beef provides 50 milligrams, while grain-fed contains 20 milligrams. Now let's put that 30 milligram difference into some nutritional context. Foods that are actually a quality source of omega-3s contain as many as 1500 milligrams per serving (for example, 3 oz. of wild or farmed salmon). Otherwise, grass-fed and grain-fed are nutritionally similar - and both types of cattle spend the majority of their lives grazing on grass to begin with. Another reason to choose grain-fed beef? These cattle leave a smaller carbon hoof print, if you will, by producing less methane.
The takeaway: If you truly prefer the taste of grass-fed beef, shell out the extra cash, but don't be fooled into thinking that it's a good source of omega-3s. Enjoy either type of beef for its other nutritional benefits - and it's deliciousness! Click here to view the benefits of beef consumption.
4. Stop chasing butterflies.
OK, broaching this topic feels like grabbing the proverbial third rail. I told you food has become politicized! But here goes: if you're worried about GMOs, I beg you: please, stop. Just stop. I could write an entire post devoted to my fascination with biotech and how I long for the reality of a non-browning avocado. I hope that engineered salmon becomes a readily available reality, allowing more consumers to meet the recommendations for fish intake. And genetically modified seeds that are resistant to adverse conditions? Technology that can help feed the world and reduce food waste sounds like a win for all. Knowing that GMOs are safe and overall quite beneficial to the greater population, I consciously AVOID brands that bear the Non-GMO Project Verified seal. Check out my favorite food-myth-busting moms here, here, here, and here.
The takeaway: Back to the nutrition: go ahead and compare a product bearing the Non-GMO Project Verified seal to a non-verified counterpart. You guessed it: they'll be the same. Case in point: Barilla vs. De Cecco penne are nutritionally identical.
5. Don't fall for health halo hype.
Nothing wreaks of elitism, or misinformation, quite like "oh, I bought them from (insert name of "natural" food market chain) - they're the GOOD kind." Listen, a graham cracker, cookie, cupcake, juice box, or chip is still just that - regardless of where it's sold. Read the food label, check for sugar content, and see for yourself. Trader Joe's is a great destination for reasonably-priced nut butters, pre-portioned almonds, and various spices/condiments. That doesn't mean our good friend TJ doesn't sell complete sodium bombs, overly-sugared treats (OK, I admit I'm a sucker for the whoopee pies), and processed meats.
The takeaway: Healthful options are not exclusive to "natural" stores. To the contrary, these specialty chains sell just as many sugary and salty treats as anywhere else. Your family isn't missing out on anything particularly healthful or nutritious if do most of your food shopping at a big box store or the good old supermarket!
Wherever you shop, do so with confidence, and keep these tips in mind.
Enjoy your food. Enjoy your life!