Ever been overwhelmed by the sheer variety of products crammed into the health food aisle? Dietitian Liz Munn provides a useful guide.
These days, the health food aisle can either be a one-stop shop or a price trap for the uninitiated. Supermarkets treat all sorts of grocery items as ‘health foods’ – special foods for people with allergies and intolerances sit beside organic foods, unusual seeds and grains, ‘superfoods’, and lots of healthy-sounding options that may not be healthy at all. To navigate the health food aisle, keep your wits about you to sort the wheat from the chaff.
Gluten is found in the majority of cereal grains, so gluten-free products tend to be cereal-based foods – breakfast cereal, bread and cake mixes and pastas, for example.
Are they any more healthy than the products you’ll find elsewhere in the store? Not always. They make it into the aisle because they’re important to people with coeliac disease and others who can’t tolerate gluten. Whether you can eat gluten or not, check the ingredients and nutrition panels. watch the salt, sugar and kilojoules too, and make sure you’re not selling yourself short fibre-wise.
As with gluten-free products, dairy-free products are great for those who are lactose intolerant or have a milk allergy – but just being dairy-free doesn’t make them inherently healthy! Biscuits, desserts and confectionery that are dairy-free should still be ‘extras’ in your diet. Regardless of whether you need dairy-free products or not, check the labels for sugar and kilojoule content – and don’t buy products from the health food aisle if you’d put them back on the shelf elsewhere in the supermarket.
The health food aisle is also where you’ll find shelf-stable, non-dairy milks. Many are based on cereal grains (oats and rice), so are usually lower in protein than dairy milks, or even soy milk (which you’ll also find in this aisle). For this reason, the Australian food regulator (FSANZ) advises that cereal-based milks are not suitable as a complete milk replacement for children under five.
No matter which milk substitute you buy, be sure to look for one that’s calcium fortified, as milk is an important source of calcium in most people’s diets.
Nuts and seeds
The mainstay of the health food aisle, the nuts and seeds you’ll find here are generally unsalted. Whether you prefer dry-roasted or natural (raw), a handful of nuts each day is a healthy snack option that can reduce your risk of heart disease and assist with weight management. They’re an important source of healthy fats, as well as a wide variety of other important nutrients. But compare prices: unsalted nuts from the fruit and vegetable aisles or the bulk food section may be cheaper than those in the health food aisle.
Dried fruit is an easy-to-carry snack with plenty of fibre and other nutrients. But portion size is important – a small serve of dried fruit (1 1/2 tablespoons sultanas or four dried apricot halves) is equivalent to a medium piece of fresh fruit, so it can be easy to overdo it.
There are a variety of dried fruits available around the supermarket. Those in the health food section are more likely to be ‘natural’ – that is, dried without the use of preservatives. Prices can be higher in the health food aisle, so it might be better comparing prices in the baking aisle or the bulk food bins.
Dried fruit and nut products
These abound in the health food aisle, and include products like fruit & nut mixes, yoghurt-coated raisins/nuts and ‘natural’ fruit & nut bars. The same nutrition concerns apply to these products as to confectionery and muesli bars in other aisles – just because it sounds healthy or natural doesn’t mean it is, so check the labels. In particular, look out for ingredients that are simply other ways to describe added sugar – such as fructose, maltose, honey, cane juice and concentrated fruit pastes.
Added fats can be an issue here, too – look out for palm oil in particular, which is mainly saturated fat and can be an environmental concern due to the impact on rainforest sustainability.
Finally, don’t be fooled by yoghurt coating – it’s not yoghurt, though it contains yoghurt powder, and it’s not much better than choc coating.
Brans and LSA
Wheat bran and psyllium are useful ways to add fibre to your diet, and oat bran is a great way of upping your intake of cholesterol-lowering soluble fibre.
LSA is a combination of ground linseed, sunflower seeds and almonds and can be used to boost nutrients such as healthy fats (including omega-3s), phytochemicals and fibre. Add it to baked goods or sprinkle it over cereal. Keep LSA in the freezer so it doesn’t go rancid quickly.
The health food aisle is where you’ll find a range of ‘unusual’ grains, such as quinoa, spelt, chia, teff and buckwheat. They’re unrefined grains, which means they boost your wholegrain intake – increasing not only your fibre, but also vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals.
Quinoa and chia both contain protein, with all the essential amino acids present, and are gluten- free. Chia also gives an Omega-3 boost. Quinoa and buckwheat are great alternatives to rice and porridge, while teff can be used to bulk up soups and casseroles or as an ingredient in vegie burgers.
Spreads (nut and nut-free) and tahini
Natural nut butters generally have no added sugar, fats or additives. There’s a good variety available – including macadamia, almond and cashew butters – and they are a great way to get your daily serve of nuts and healthy fats (just remember that a tablespoon equals one serve). For children who aren’t allowed to take nuts to school, or who are allergic, sunflower seed butter is a great nut-free alternative.
Tahini is a traditional sesame seed paste used in many Lebanese dishes and can be used to make salad dressing, hommous and other spreads.
Some juices, such as pomegranate and blueberry, are promoted for their antioxidant properties. While they’re a useful source of antioxidants, getting a variety of fruits in your diet is more important. All juices contain kilojoules (without the fibre found in fresh fruit), so limit your intake to 125ml per day. Prune juice can be useful for its laxative properties, but be conscious of its energy content (50ml morning and night is normally enough).
The health food aisle is where most supermarkets stock their organic pantry items. These are often more expensive than non-organic alternatives, but the question of whether they’re more nutritious hasn’t been settled yet. If you’re shopping for organic foods, look for those carrying a certification mark from a reputable organisation – it’s the only way to be sure you’re getting what you’re paying for.
Some healthy food products worth trying
Chia seeds Average per 15g serve: 3g protein, 3g omega-3s Sprinkle over cereal, salads, or add to your baking for a wholegrain, omega-3 and fibre boost.
Mixed raw nuts Average per 30g serve: 4.5g protein, 16g unsaturated fats Add healthy fats to your diet and feel more satisfied by adding a 30g serve to salads or stir-fries.
Psyllium Per serve (2 teaspoons): 80kJ, kg fibre Great for digestive health. Add to a glass of water or sprinkle over your cereal in the morning.
Quinoa Average per cup, cooked: 8g protein, 5g fibre Use instead of rice for a high-quality protein boost in wholegrain form. See 10 ways with quinoa for other ideas.
LSA Average per 50g serve: 18g unsaturated fats, 4g omega-3s, 8.5g fibre Boost your healthy fat, omega-3, fibre and phytonutrient intake by adding LSA to cereal, baked goods or smoothies.
Spelt Average per 25g serve of rolled grain: 350kJ, 3.7g protein, 2.4g fibre Looks similar to oats, but has a nutty flavour. Spelt flour is also available.
Mrs May's Almond Crunch Per 30g serve: 3.3g sugars, 3.3g fibre, 40mg sodium Mrs May's Almond Crunch bags have less than half the sugar than many other nut bars. For a nut-free option, try their Pumpkin Crunch.
Eskal Freenut Butter Per serve (1 tablespoon): 4.5g protein, 19mg sodium, 8.7g unsaturated fats This ha a similar nutritional profile and taste to peanut butter, but it's made from sunflower seeds (and it's gluten free).