By now, you know the aisles of your local Whole Foods or natural grocery store like the back of your hand. Every week, you stock up on your organic, gluten-free, ethically produced, non-GMO perfectly created ingredients including…
Green powders- ✓
Organic eggs- ✓
Bone broth in the fridge- ✓
Wild blueberries in the freezer- ✓
Gluten-free bread- ✓
Fancy delicious artisanal honey that goes in your tea and also on your face- ✓
You love your coveted trips to the health food store. It takes a lot of courage to change our dietary choices, let alone our lifestyles, so it’s certainly something to be proud of!
What I want to speak to you about today is an aspect of healthy and clean eating that often goes overlooked. And it’s not intentional by any means. It’s a little part misinformation, a little part really effective advertising & marketing, and a whole lot to do with the learning curve and time it takes to understand all the nuances when it comes to eating and living well.
I want to explore the fact that not all items sold at your local ‘organic’ grocer are perfect (insert gasp). Amongst your gluten-free, dairy-free, Himalayan salt-dosed and avocado oil-drizzled food favorites are foods that do still have some offending ingredients (for those of us on an anti-inflammatory or autoimmune diet, that is). Now, if you’re already on top of reading ingredient labels and know which ingredients to stay away from, you’ve got this in the bag and you can stop reading this post and go on with your day. However, if you’re the type that waltzes in and gloriously picks up any every product from the shelves (you’re like the red dress emoji lady) without regard to the ingredient label because you assume it’s healthy since it’s there, this post is for YOU.
During my first two years shopping at Whole Foods, I was the girl described above. I thought EVERY product was perfect and I could eat any of it, but Whole Foods didn’t know the ingredients *I* couldn’t have! And they also weren’t appeasing JUST to those on a gluten-free, dairy-free, soy-free, egg-free, and refined sugar-free diet. They’re also there to provide healthier versions of those foods for people who *can* eat them. This is why I want to share with you some of the wisdom I’ve picked up over the years as I got smarter about shopping at my coveted natural grocer so you can be wiser about your choices and where you invest your dollars, too.
Ready to dive into the tips?! Read on…
Yes, branding is important and it’s fun to support products that value good design, but above all, you should value brands that have quality ingredients. After all, the food is what you’re consuming.
Even if you see GMO-free, soy-free, gluten-free etc. on the packaging, it’s really important to look at the actual ingredients (some of them may still surprise you — I’ve been caught off guard many times!).
A lot of specialty foods at Whole Foods that are seemingly healthy can still be heavily processed (I’m talking about boxed, frozen, canned or other prepared foods). For example, that gluten-free bread may have waaaaaay more ingredients that the simple Sourdough bread with just three ingredients (sans fillers). Just because there’s a big shiny “gluten free” label on it doesn’t mean it’s healthy. I’ve seen more fillers in gluten-free bread than regular bread — yuck!
So, look at the ingredients and break it down. The basic rule of thumb is: if you don’t know to pronounce something on the ingredient list, your body likely won’t know what to do with it either! You can also turn to your trusty friend Google and research an ingredient if you don’t know what it is (I do this all the time). If the ingredients all look good, carry on. Otherwise, put it down and look for another option. The folks at Whole Foods and other natural grocers are incredibly friendly and helpful, so don’t hesitate to ask them for help!
Whole Foods also has an awesome page on their site of all the ingredients they do not allow in their stores. So, if it’s easier, search through this list first so you can rule out the ones you’re already avoiding to speed up your grocery shopping trip.
We Americans loooove sugar. Or have we been hooked on it from food manufacturers? Hmmm… Either way, sugar has a sneaky way of making it into more products than you’d assume. Breads, ketchup, salad dressing, you name it! Nowadays, however, there are many different sweeteners out there — and not all are bad. I’m mostly referring to white, refined sugar when I call sugar “bad”. Better sweeteners like honey, maple syrup, monk fruit, and stevia are generally okay.
But even if a good sweetener is used, sometimes there’s quite a LOT of it in the food item. For example, the other day I saw an “organic detox” drink at a natural grocery story that had 37g of organic sugar! 37 grams!! (Here’s my Instagram post about that one)
Be a smart consumer and check the ingredient label and see how many grams are in each serving. If it’s 12 grams of sugar in a teeny tiny serving, that means sugar makes up most of that food and it’s likely not the most nutritious food out there — unless you’re eating pure honey or a handful of pitted dates (guilty!).
And before you buy that loaf of gluten-free bread, organic ketchup, or paleo salad dressing, flip the package over to see (1) what’s in it and (2) how much sugar per serving to determine if it’s truly nutritious or just going to put your blood sugar on a rollercoaster ride.
Natural flavors sound like an innocent ingredient, but it isn’t always a safe-proof term. Natural flavoring can be a blend of all sorts of different components that actually aren’t always ‘natural’. In fact, some of these names are a loophole for companies to sneak other things into their products so they can fly ‘under the radar’ and appear healthy and clean. I’m certainly not saying that about all natural flavors, I’m simply saying it’s important that you don’t take these things for face value and trust that they pass your high-quality health test.
So, what I do when I come across “natural flavors” on an ingredient label at Whole Foods? I look for the following: Is the product 100% organic? Is it non-GMO? Is it gluten-free? Do I recognize all the other ingredients? How often will I eat this? How much of this will I eat/use per meal?
If it passes this quality inspection and isn’t a huge part of a meal, then it may be okay. But if there are some other red flags, like a few other suspicious ingredients, or no non-GMO or gluten-free label, then what’s in the natural flavors could be some gluten, GMO products, non-organic ingredients, etc.
If you’re so bold, you could try contacting the company to inquire about what’s in their natural flavors blend, but I can’t guarantee you’ll get a response. Your best bet is looking holistically at the product and make your best-informed decision.
By now, you understand that there are a lot of buzzwords used on product labeling today, some of which are genuine, others that are not. This is also the case when it comes to shopping for meat. Grass-fed doesn’t always mean grass-fed, for example. A farm can still use that term if the animal was fed grass most of its life, but shortly before its slaughter, it was fed grains (this is called “grain finished”). This means grains were actually most recently circulating in the animal’s body. For those of you who are hyper-sensitive to wheat gluten (or are Celiac), this can be problematic. And terms like “organic meat” and “ethically raised” are as fluffy as the clouds, so unless you know the farm and how they actually raise their animals, you have no idea how strictly they took meaning to those words.
Whole Foods has a page on their website about animal welfare and standards. which outlines what they do and don’t allow: https://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/department/meat-poultry. This can provide helpful guidelines as you navigate this section of the store. Personally, I get the Stage 3 chicken (that’s the highest level they sell at the one near me) and Stage 4 grass-fed beef (sold at the meat counter). And if I do get eggs, it’s the brand Vital Farms. They treat their chickens well and I feel good buying from them. (Whole Foods also has a page on their egg standards here: https://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/egg-standards)
If you’re looking for the highest standards in chicken and meat, you may want to instead source from your local farmer’s market. However, be sure the vendor you choose has the level of standards you are looking for (just because they’re at a farmer’s market doesn’t mean they’re the best, either). Buying your eggs and meat from local sources where you can actually talk to the vendor yourself and find out more information about the product you are buying is a great way to get closer to your food and support your community! Because I don’t have a lot of farmer’s markets around me, I buy through a CSA I love and trust, called Walden Local Meat. If you’re local to New England, I HIGHLY recommend them. They have THE best meat I’ve ever tasted. Otherwise, I know many have had a great experience using Butcher Box.
When buying these products from anywhere, here is what you want to look for:
Ideally, you should look for organic ‘pastured’ eggs. A lot of eggs that are ‘organic’ may be fed organic feed but they are contained to very small areas of land with little to none room to move. This can create stress in the animal’s system and therefore, increase cortisol in their body. We want to consume eggs from chickens who have been given room to roam and laid eggs from a healthy environment alongside the healthy feed. Hence, look for the word ‘pastured’.
As I mentioned earlier, take terms like “grass fed” with a grain of salt. Inquire about how they were “finished” (not a great image, I know, but if you’re sensitive to wheat products, this matters). Ask about the quality of life they had (did they have a lot of stress or were they free to live their lives every day?) Ask if they are given antibiotics (the main source of how all of us get so much antibiotic exposure, not through medication — did you know?!) or hormones. If they pass the test and were raised ethically, grass fed AND finished (if you’re not wheat sensitive maybe this matters less), and not given antibiotics unless absolutely needed and no hormones, then it’s a good meat!
Nowadays we don’t have a relationship with our local butchers like people did a few decades ago, but get to know your Whole Foods butcher! They’re usually really nice guys and gals and by asking them about the meat some more, not only do they get to share their knowledge but you learn more about your food quality. If you don’t find an option that meets your high standards, opt for a CSA or local farmers market.
‘Wild-caught’ is a key term to look for when buying fish. If it says farm-raised, STEER CLEAR! This means there were thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of fish swarming within an inch of each other amongst each other’s feces and toxins for their entire life just to be slaughtered for your consumption. Yuck! Wild caught means they weren’t confined to such close quarters and likely consumed far less toxins in their life.
A rule of thumb to go by, especially if you’re looking to avoid heavy metals or are pregnant and avoiding mercury, is the larger the fish, the more mercury content it’s absorbed from the sea over its life. That’s why fish like tuna often are some of the highest in mercury and pregnant women are advised not to eat it. Smaller fish like salmon are usually lower in mercury.
The point of this blog post is not to have you running from Whole Foods, doubting every food choice you’ve ever made, or feeling fearful of the entire American food supply. Quite the contrary! I believe in food education, and the more you know, the better choices you can make. Me, the person with 20+ food sensitivities and an autoimmune condition, can cruise through Whole Foods with EASE knowing what I’ve shared with you today. That’s exactly what I want for you.
All it takes is a few extra seconds scanning ingredient labels or signs at the store to verify if a product meets your standards and you can be on with your day. If the list of items covered here is overwhelming to you, take it one at a time. Ease into it! The more you get used to each item to be on the lookout for, the better you’ll be able to spot it in the long-run.
I’d love to hear from you in the comments: Did any of this change the way you’ll grocery shop? Do you have any other tips to add to this list?
If you want to be surrounded by a free community of others on a clean eating journey to address digestive and hormone health, I invite you to join my free private Thrive by Food Tribe group on Facebook.
Kristin Thomas is a health coach and Functional Diagnostic Nutrition Practitioner specialized in helping women with hormone, digestion, and autoimmune health concerns. Having gone through these health challenges herself, she now helps clients find their own path to complete wellness through practical and natural diet and lifestyle changes.
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