Navigating the Supermarket Part 1: Produce

Ahh, the supermarket. A cornerstone innovation of the 20th century. Centralizing all of a consumer’s shopping needs under one roof for maximum convenience in what was becoming an increasingly busy lifestyle. Forgotten was the neighborhood butcher, baker, produce stand, milkman, and pharmacy. It made enough sense. Instead of having to stop at 4 or 5 different places, one could now just make one stop. With this convenience, however, came one serious consequence: it caused us to become increasingly disconnected from our food. The food chain that brought our meals from the farms to our tables became increasingly longer, and more centralized. While the butcher from 100 years ago likely knew the local farmer who raised the animals, today the butcher at your local supermarket has likely never even seen a livestock farm. Why is this such a bad thing, you ask? Because the more we disconnected about where our food came from, the unhealthier our relationship with food became. Never in human history have we been so detached from our food, and never have we been so confused about what to eat. That is a correlation we should not ignore.

That is also where I come in to help. This blog is the first in a series that I will devote to helping you, a health conscious consumer, navigate the supermarket, decode a confusing array of labels and options, and make the best possible choices for your health and your budget.  

When you walk into your local supermarket, the very first department you usually enter is produce. This is actually a good thing, because loading up your cart with vegetables and fruits first will leave less space for the processed, packaged, non-perishable junk located in the center aisles. Today, however, even produce has been over complicated and we find ourselves bombarded with a variety of labels and choices. Organic or Conventional? Local or Imported? Pre-cut or Whole? Fresh or Frozen? In season or out of season?  Well the answer to these questions is….all of the above. See, when it comes to vegetables and fruits, the sad truth is that we Americans simply do not eat anywhere near enough of them. How much is enough? More than you eat now. I find the idea of counting servings to be a recipe for neurosis and one of many reasons we have a poor relationship with food. Don’t count servings, just eat more vegetables! Always strive to eat more, even if you think you eat enough. The reality is, one cannot over-consume vegetables. They are far too high in fiber and low in calories to concern yourself with eating too much or gaining weight. In fact, the very opposite may occur. Just like with your shopping cart, when your belly is full of fiber and nutrient rich/low calorie vegetables, there is little digestive space left for lower quality/higher calorie foods that actually can cause weight gain. Eating more vegetables is one of the single most effective habits you can change today to positively impact your health and weight. 

Let’s dig a little deeper now and discuss the different categories of produce you will find in the supermarket. Perhaps the most heavily debated food topic in the social media universe is organic versus conventional. Based on the research I have seen, there is actually little evidence to suggest that organic food is any more nutritious than conventional. The jury is also still out on any long-term health and/or environmental consequences from pesticides and GMOs. Neither side can definitively prove if they are harmful or safe, so I do believe it is irresponsible for any person, group, or corporation to try to sway consumers one way or the other. The fact is that for many people on a budget, it makes little sense to break the bank and overpay for organic produce. The choice should never be organic or bust. Conventional vegetables are better than no vegetables. Buy whichever you can afford and as much as you can afford. 

What is far more important than whether a vegetable is organic or not is actually whether it is fresh and local. Why? Because freshly picked produce begins to lose its nutritional value very quickly after being harvested. If you have the option of choosing a product from your home state that was harvested yesterday 100 miles away versus a product from South America that travelled 7 days and 2,000 miles to your supermarket shelf, which do you think will be fresher, tastier, and pack more of a nutritional punch? The carbon emissions required to import and transport food thousands of miles by plane, truck, and train should also be considered. It has always fascinated me to see people choose a plant-based lifestyle because they are trying to be environmentally conscious, yet they always seem to overlook their carbon footprint when half the foods they choose to eat need to be imported huge distances from other countries.  

What is the best place to find fresh, local produce? Your local farmers market. You don’t need to buy everything there, but I encourage you to at least stop by and sample a thing or two. I think you will be amazed at how much better it tastes than the supermarket fare. There is also one natural, ecological truth you will learn at your farmers market that you most certainly have never learned from shopping in a supermarket: Vegetables and fruits have seasons. We live in a time when every vegetable and fruit is available year round. Watermelon in January? Absolutely! Tomatoes in March? You bet! A person used to have to wait until spring to eat asparagus, summer for berries and tomatoes, and autumn for root vegetables. Now, you can have them year-round. Although if you have ever grown your own tomatoes, or bought one in a summer farmers market, then I am sure you realized the “tomatoes” they sell in supermarkets are tomatoes in a theoretical sense only. You simply cannot beat the taste and nutrition of vegetables grown and eaten seasonally. 

Finally, let’s discuss vegetables processed for convenience (pre-bagged salads, pre-chopped vegetables). If you are legitimately short on time, or just hate prep work, then there is nothing wrong with buying pre-chopped and bagged vegetables. Just remember that they are prone to spoiling much faster than whole vegetables, so use them quickly. Pre-cut vegetables are better than no vegetables. How about frozen or canned vegetables? Some people may turn their noses at these, but it is important to know that canned and frozen vegetables are almost always processed within hours of being harvested. Remember how quickly vegetables lose their nutrients after being picked? Frozen and canned vegetables will offer peak nutrient content and afford the consumer the convenience of not spoiling. Personally, I find they usually don’t taste as good as the fresh alternative (likely due to the processing), but they do make for a great backup, so go ahead and stock your freezer and pantry. 

In conclusion, when it comes to produce; the fresher it is, the healthier it will be, and the better it will taste too. While I have given you some guidelines as to which products are better than others, please remember that any vegetables are better than no vegetables, so purchase what is within your budget, and remember… JUST EAT MORE VEGETABLES!