Supermarket sleuth: Your guide to the health food aisle
If it’s in the health food aisle, it’s healthy, right? Not always, as HFG dietitian Melissa Meier explains.
Marketing buzzwords like ‘natural’, ‘organic’ and ‘no refined sugar’ make it easy to yield to the subtle allure of the health food aisle. The truth is, however, many products in the health food aisle can be teeming with just as much sugar, sodium and kilojoules as those in the regular aisles— except they come with a heftier price tag.
It’s not all bad news, however. Some packaged products are super convenient and provide a raft of nutrients. You just need to know what to look for, and what to leave behind. Let’s take a walk down the health food aisle and check it out …
‘Free-from’ products are just that: free from additions like gluten, wheat or dairy. These products come in handy for those who have been diagnosed with allergies or intolerances, or with medical conditions like coeliac disease. In fact, spotting gluten-free or low-FODMAP products has never been easier, thanks to the gluten-free Crossed Grain logo and the FODMAP Friendly logo (see below). Keep an eye out for these next time you shop.
Free-from labels, however, do not automatically make products healthy. After all, a biscuit is still a biscuit, gluten free or not! You might be surprised to learn that many free-from products are actually higher in added fat and sugar, and lack gut-healthy fibre compared with regular versions, as they make use of more refined ingredients. So, if you don’t need to eat free-from foods, it’s best to leave them on the shelf.
Nut & seed spreads
Nut and seed spreads are a group of nutritional superstars that provide gut-loving fibre, protein to build muscle, and heart-healthy fats.
One thing to watch out for, however, is spreads that have added salt and fat. Read the ingredients list and find a spread that’s 100 per cent nuts or seeds.
Peanut butter usually grabs the limelight in the world of nut butters, but rising stars include almond and cashew spreads — delicious on toast or swirled through homemade banana bread.
Another hero to look for in the health food aisle is tahini, a paste made from ground sesame seeds — and a central ingredient in our hoummos.
Unprocessed nuts, seeds & grains
Now we’re talking! Unprocessed nuts and seeds offer some real nutritional perks. They’re packed with fibre for a healthy gut, plus protein to keep you feeling full, and healthy fats to support your heart.
Opt for unsalted varieties and you’re onto a winner. Buy the nuts in bulk packs, then divide them into 30g portions in zip-lock bags to snack on.
Grains are also vital for overall health — their smart carbs give lasting energy and lots of micronutrients. In the health food aisle you’ll find some more exotic varieties such as quinoa, buckwheat and teff, but don’t be fooled into thinking that these trendy versions are superior to the mainstream (and more affordable) options like rolled oats, microwaveable brown rice or wholemeal pasta.
Our advice is to mix it up! Breakfast on a bowl of oats or muesli, add cooked quinoa to lunch-time salads, and serve quick-cups of brown rice with a vegie-packed curry for dinner.
Organic vs regular
You might be a bit surprised to learn there’s little nutritional difference between organic and conventional produce.
Yet when you enter the health food aisle, you’re likely to see product after product spruiking their organic credentials — from breakfast cereals through to bags of corn chips.
If your personal preference is to buy organic, look for foods carrying a certification mark from a reputable organisation — it’s the only way you can be sure you're getting what you pay for.
These foods belong out of the health food aisle!
1 Processed snacks
Whether they’re in the health food aisle or not, processed foods are usually high in sodium, sugar and fat and lack important fibre. Chips, biscuits and most snack bars should be thought of as occasional treats, rather than everyday staples.
2 Superfood supplements
Cacao, matcha and acai are just some of the new powders that promise everything from weight loss to glowing skin, but the jury’s very much out. Instead, opt for whole foods like fruit and veg for your vitamins and minerals fix.
3 Vegie chips
While the name can be deceiving, vegie chips often arrive in the health aisle high in salt, fat and kilojoules — just like regular old potato chips, in fact. They are certainly not a replacement for vegetables. Check the label, choose the brand that’s lowest in sodium —and enjoy them as an occasional treat!
4 Protein bars & shakes
Protein is vital for muscle growth and development, but you’re most probably already getting far more than you need. Unless you’re elderly, ill or an elite athlete, you can get more than enough protein from real food.
5 Coconut oil
This trendy oil is over 90 per cent saturated fat, and eating too much of this type of fat can raise your level of LDL, or ‘bad’, cholesterol. There just isn’t enough scientific evidence to support the use of coconut oil in place of the old faithful — extra-virgin olive oil.
Have you ever noticed that staples such as breakfast cereals, nuts and grains in the health food aisle are more expensive than equivalent products elsewhere? Get into the habit of comparing prices to make sure you’re not paying a premium for these ‘healthier’ items.
Next time you’re perusing the supermarket, consider adding one of these nutritional stars to your basket.
They might be small, but they are brimming with omega-3fats, fibre and key proteins.
How to use it:
Whip up a chia pudding with fruit and milk, or sprinkle seeds over a salad.
This ‘pseudo grain’ is gluten free, high in protein and has a low Glycaemic Index. It’s riding a wave at present.
How to use it:
Try it in place of rice or couscous, or to help bulk up homemade fritters and frittatas.
Made from ground sesame seeds, tahini is also a source of good fats, protein and gut-friendly fibre.
How to use it:
Whisk it into a salad dressing with yoghurt and lemon, or drizzle it over toast.
These are rich in beta-glucan, a type of fibre that works to help lower your cholesterol.
How to use it:
Sprinkle it over your morning cereal, or add it to baked goods like fruity muffins.
A combination of linseeds, almonds and sunflower seeds, LSA offers protein, fibre and healthy fats.
How to use it:
Blend it into smoothies, or enjoy it as a crunchy topping for yoghurt.
Did you know?
Studies show we associate green packaging with nature
Melissa is an Accredited Practising Dietitian with a love of healthy, delicious food. She is passionate about helping others to lead healthier lives and teaching people to use nutrition to better their health.