Selecting food that is clean and healthy for you and your family can be daunting, so we’ve put together 10 tips for cleaner grocery shopping that will help to navigate your options.
We’re defining clean here as products devoid of pesticides, additives, or preservatives, and packaging by-products.
1. Rule of Thumb: Buy From the Perimeter
Most stores line the walls with the simplest of products: produce, the butcher, the bakery, dairy, etc. Aisles in the middle contain most of the processed foods that generally have additives and preservatives that you are better to avoid.
Now, there are caveats to this rule. For example, the bakery often also has items such as highly-refined cakes and cookies that are by no means beneficial to your health, and the dairy section provides a hearty supply of artificially flavored and sweetened creamers. You can find unhealthy products in every department, but the departments around the perimeter of the store contain the most simple and wholesome ingredients.
2. Buy Local
First and foremost, buy local. This can be anything from the weekly farmer’s market to a local bakery to local ingredients sourced by your grocery store. Smaller businesses are more likely to use safer practices when cultivating their goods.
Buying local also reduces your carbon footprint. Imported ingredients contribute to fuel consumption and air pollution as they’re flown in from overseas or driven across the country in a semi-truck. Local produce is fresher, often cleaner, and requires less waste to get to you.
3. Buy Organic
Purchase organic food when possible, as it’s grown without pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, etc. Particularly pay attention to the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen.” This is the produce with the most pesticide residue. This year’s list includes strawberries, spinach, kale, nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery, and potatoes.
If your budget doesn’t allow for all things organic, don’t sweat it: it’s better to gain the nutrients of produce, organic or not, than to go without.
4. Consider Frozen
Frozen foods get a bit of a bad reputation, but many companies have stepped up their game and you can find a variety of nutritious options in the frozen section.
If the fresh produce doesn’t look good, opt for frozen fruits and vegetables: they’re flash-frozen right after picking so often they are more fresh than the “fresh” produce, depending on where you live.
5. Try to Stick to ‘Whole’ Ingredients
An easy way to eat cleanly is to eat simply. Shopping the perimeter of the store will already introduce you to many unprocessed foods, but the interior aisles have options, too. Flour, nuts, dried fruits, beans, and rice are all examples of whole foods.
The biggest thing? Check the ingredients list. The simpler the ingredients, the better. If you don’t recognize or can hardly read the ingredients, do without.
A Few More Tips:
- Go in with a list. Studies have shown that entering the store with a set list of items to purchase reduces impulse purchases—most of which happen in the candy, cookies, and chips section.
- Bring reusable bags. Clean grocery shopping isn’t only what you buy, but also what you carry your groceries home in. Single-use plastic bags are unsustainable and end up littering our environment and clogging waterways. Many European countries have banned them, with some U.S. cities and states beginning to follow suit. If you don’t already, bring bags from home. It’s an easy transition to reduce your waste (and those reusable bags carry so much more!)
- Online grocery shopping continues to grow in popularity as the pandemic drags on. You can follow these same steps while shopping online. Products should be clearly labeled and many stores even have filters that allow you to narrow down your search to only organic products.
- Reduce consumption of canned goods. While many canned goods, especially fruits and vegetables, don’t contain many ingredients, they contain a harmful by-product from their packaging: BPA, a plastic additive that mimics hormones and disrupts our biochemistry.
- If possible, buy in bulk. Bulk purchases often save you money in terms of price per ounce and reduce packaging waste. Be smart about what you bulk-buy—make sure that the item won’t go bad before you get around to using it, and that you have room for the bulk items back at home.
The Bottom Line
The food we eat is a huge indicator of our health. Eating cleanly and simply, exposing your body to as few toxic pollutants as possible, will benefit your well-being. Be flexible; sometimes the only option may be non-organic or in the frozen section. Pick and choose what works for you and your budget, and know that every step toward eating cleanly is a step in the right direction.
Environmental Health News is a publication of Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to driving science into public discussion and policy on environmental health issues.