7 Grocery Store Danger Zones

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It’s that time of the week. Parents all over the country grab their lists, study the ads and hunt through their stash of coupons. Heaving a big sigh, they head to the grocery store. Time to restock the fridge and the pantry for the family. But as routine as it all sounds there are grocery store danger zones, hidden where you may not even think to look.

If it weren’t already hard enough to stay within a budget as prices rise, it seems new warnings about poor food choices come out every week. That adds to the anxiety and frustration. Nutritionists tell us of the shortcomings of American feeding habits, and doctors pound hard on the danger of being overweight.

7 Grocery Store Danger Zones
7 Grocery Store Danger Zones

On a regular basis we’re reminded our children are not eating properly. The government insists on new standards for school meals; news programs feature stories about how to eat better. There are so many new choices are out there now, filling a shopping cart is not at all as easy as it was for our parents, much less our grandparents. Nobody seemed to be judging their choices.

And take note: Lurking in the aisles of the Piggly-Wiggly store there are perils far beyond our imaginations. Threats come at us from every one of the five basic food groups: fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy, and protein foods. During World War II the U.S. Government introduced “The Basic 7” food groups. Some of the groupings seem a bit bizarre, but the intent was to help people to eat healthy during the war crisis when, because of rationing, not all foods were available all the time. For your information, they were:

  • Green and yellow vegetables
  • Oranges, tomatoes, grapefruit
  • Potatoes and other vegetables and fruits
  • Milk and milk products
  • Meat, poultry, fish, eggs
  • Bread, flour and cereals;
  • Butter and “fortified” margarine

These groups were later condensed into the five basics we have today.

In college a friend tried to convince me pizza, chips and beer provided the most essential food groups in one meal; bread (the pizza crust), vegetables (the tomato sauce topping), protein (the yeast in the beer) and dairy (the cheese). He claimed he was eating healthier than we who visited the campus cafeterias. On my weekends home, I could never convince my mother of his reasoning.

In the interest of giving you all the latest news about children’s health concerns, here, according Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, are the real threats to your kids.

The Most Obvious Pitfalls:

1. Cereal

As you step into the cereal aisle, peril instantly surrounds you. Not only are your little ones besieged with the offers of “FREE INSIDE” items (though this feature seems to be fading), but there is another major worry. Cereal usually contains added sugar. To be more attractive to the taste buds, sugar content has increased. I discovered nine of the most popular brands in America today are “flavor enhanced” with sugar. Even the “obvious” grain brands (corn flakes, bran flakes, and rice) have natural sugar. Study the nutrition labels.

Notice how the choices with the most sugar are conveniently shelved within easy reach of the little ones. For the health of your children, monitor which cereals you buy. Scan the label and aim for less than 6 grams of sugar per serving and at least 3 grams of fiber.

2. Potato Chips

Okay, Children’s Healthcare, now you’re meddling. There was a time when I could eat a seven ounce bag of potato chips a day. My taste buds rotated; one day it would be barbecue flavored, the next day plain, then the third day I’d devour the salt and vinegar flavored chips. Before I married, I would sit down in front of the TV with a half gallon of milk and either a bag of Chips Ahoy cookies or a bag of potato chips and wolf it all down before bedtime.

Now, my much wiser wife has reigned me in. I’ve stopped snagging a handful of chips at night while I made the coffee for the next day. I’ve learned potato chips can be full of fat. If you need an occasional chippy snack, an OK choice is baked or trans-fat free chips but keep in mind these are usually close to twice the usual price.

And check on the sodium levels on the nutrition label, too! Humans love salt; what was originally only a preservative has not mushroomed to a absolute “necessity” for eating and flavoring.

Plain popcorn (no butter) or baked pretzels are good substitutes for chips. In our house we do indulge in popcorn regularly. And the crazy thing is both our dogs will fight you for the bowl. Haven’t checked with the vet about how badly we’re destroying their health, but they are 13 and 15 and seemingly doing just fine.

3. Packaged Snacks

I audited our weekly shopping once and determined that almost 40% of our purchases were of this class. This includes candy bars, “protein bars,” cheese-on-cheese crackers, candy and nuts. Trans-fats are hiding in many packaged snacks. Look for zero trans-fats. Remember, chocolate is chocolate so go for snacks with more than 5 grams of fiber.

Since that audit I’ve been more careful and followed this advice. To tell the truth, I cannot tell the difference in taste or satisfaction. To some this may seem obsessive but for the sake of my cholesterol and blood glucose, I’ll be neurotic.

4. Drinks

Here comes the real killer … literally. One word: Sugar! Don’t even tempt yourself by walking down the soda/tea/sports drink aisle and skip the juice section altogether. Water is best for keeping hydrated and is the best deal around (even at $2 for 32 ounces). I have diabetes, and to help control it, I drink water constantly. It also seems to curb my hunger cravings. As long as it is iced, I can drink 64 ounces a day, and my A1C behaves nicely.

Soft drinks have become such a habit in our society! We had a friend who I know must have drunk at least two liters of cola a day. When we traveled to Israel, he filled one suitcase with cans of it (ostensibly to avoid the high price overseas) but most assuredly to satisfy his addiction. He ended up dying of pancreatic failure, likely accelerated by his over consumption of soft drinks.

We limited our son to one drink per day; it became known as “the can of the day.”

Those are the easy ones to identify; now we move onto the hidden threats…

5. Canned Goods

Most of the staples in America’s diet are canned. Once the process of storing food in metal containers was perfected, the industry exploded; soon most cupboards were stocked with “canned” goods. Today’s cooks find it a convenient way to keep canned beans, corn, even potatoes on hand. The downside is that over the years producers have felt compelled to add improvements to the food to make them taste better.

So, Children’s Healthcare warns added sugar, fat, and salt can be lurking in canned goods. Choose “no added salt” products and avoid creamy soups and veggies. An easy way to get around some of this problem is to drain off the liquid in which the food is packed, rinse with tap water several times, then add water in the cooking process.

I will attest that the “no salt” vegetables are somewhat bland, and you do need to add something to them to give a bit more taste. My wife suggests using the specially formulated “blends” of spices and herbs to bring out the natural taste in turnip greens, beans and peas. These don’t add the ill-effects of salt and they generate a tasty difference in the cooked food.

6. Condiments

Another habit in the United States is to add “flavor” to our food. I don’t mean just salt and pepper, but people splatter on the condiments. I remember watching the TV show Captain Gallant starring Buster Crabbe and his son Cullen. One of its sponsors was a ketchup manufacturer so a regular closing commercial had father and son eating scrambled eggs with ketchup. I’ve tried it, and it isn’t bad, but it ain’t eggs, either. So there is danger in condiments! Added salt and sugar can also be hidden in items like mayonnaise and barbecue sauce. Choose “light” and “low-salt/sodium” options.

7. Rice and Pasta

The warnings about white rice and regular pasta have been around for years. Typically the white rice and flour-based pasta have less fiber than brown rice and whole wheat pasta. Since fiber is one element most people don’t get enough of in their meals, look for “100% whole grain” on packaging and stock up.

How To Shop To Avoid These Perils

To help gain the upper hand, try these strategies while you are grocery shopping:

  • Plan your shopping! When you come home from the store, immediately start a list of what you forgot. As you organize your meals for the coming week, make note of what you need to replace.
  • Double check your needs. Are there items on your list for which you can substitute healthy choices?
  • DON’T TAKE THE KIDS WITH YOU! If you have to, keep them closely herded to your side. It may take longer by not asking Susie to run off and get some items, but at a minimum, you are protecting their health by controlling what goes in the basket … and ultimately into their systems.
  • Learn to read the nutrition labels on packages. They provide an abundance of vital information to keep your diet under control

Tell me about your grocery shopping experiences. How do you monitor your family’s intake of foods generally known to be unhealthy? What are some of the struggles you have with your taste buds?

( Photo by stevendepolo )

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6 Responses to 7 Grocery Store Danger Zones

  1. Grocery stores are stocked with so much junk food. Entire aisle dedicate to potato chips, soft drinks, and cereal. It’s insane. My wife and I made a rule when our kids were little that when our kids are with us we would only shop the perimeter of stores. I see too many parents give in to their kids, buying all kinds of junk for them. We solved this by not letting them go down those aisles.

  2. Hi Nathan – Shopping the perimeter is so important. It’s where the healthier foods are – meat, produce, dairy, etc. The packaged goods are all in the aisles. Good job on keeping the kids from junk foods. They develop that habit early then carry it through life. Too many parents try to make eating fun with all of the sugarred up cereals and snacks. The schools don’t help either. They talk a good game about nutrition, but then they serve greasy pizza, french fries and deep fried chicken nuggets in the cafeterias. I still trying to figure out how that helps the situation, or teaches kids anything valuable.

  3. There is also the hidden psychology of the layout of the store. As you go in, your natural tendency will be to go to the right, to produce and fresh vegetables, the bakery and deli. All these items are usually outrageously overpriced, but you pick them up because they are “healthy.” Meats are at the back of the store. Dairy will be on the side opposite of the produce. If you follow that trail, you might not have enough discretionary money left. Try reversing the route, going to the dairy first, then the meats and poultry, then produce. Might save you a bit.

    But I agree, Nathan, tell the kids to stay at home. They really can do nothing more than cause anxiety and frustration in the store.

  4. Now that I am retired from work,( and I worked in a supermarket) I keep pad on my refrigerator to make list of items I need because I no longer have them in my house. This list includes refrigerated and dry items plus things like soap. This is the list I grab when I go shopping and limit myself to buying. I do look around but I hold fast to my list items. It is too easy to get more than you really need when grocery shopping. I read labels very carefully any try not to buy too many processed items and any items with ingredients that are not good for you. e.g. I only buy Haggan Daas ice cream in pints because it is the only ice cream with 3 ingredients- milk ,sugar and eggs, Being that I worked in a supermarket, I ignore all displays at end of aisles unless it is an item on my list. Since I am shopping for a 2 week period, I buy the fish items that I know will last for that time period or can be frozen until I am ready to use. Fish is the only item I buy for immediate use. So twice monthly my refrigerator is stuffed to the brim but I use everything I buy.

  5. Maria Rose —
    Thanks for sharing with us your strategies. Very good point about only shopping for the things on your list.

    And you threw out in passing a very important tip — the “end caps” are usually “impulse buy” items which may or may not be on sale. They’ll be very visible at the ends of the aisle but only stop at them if the items showcased there are on your hunt list.

    There is so much strategy to shopping for groceries. Do you readers think I should do a piece about some of the hidden tricks and tips to it? I mean, more than those I’ve already shared in other posts?

  6. I vote in favor of you’re doing such a post Bill. Everything we buy these days has some sort of spin attached to it, and the good ones are the ones we don’t even notice. There’s something much deeper going in in grocery stores than most of us even detect. I think that kind of post will be of a lot of value.

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