In This Article
- Everything you need to know about nutrition labels
- Organic versus conventionally grown foods
- Finding sabotaging ingredients
- Plant-based shopping
Now that you know why and how to eat whole, plant- based foods, it’s time to go shopping. Filling your cart with nutritious choices is the fun part. Plus, shopping brings the theory of healthful eating to life. While at first you may feel intimidated as you carefully consider every purchase, plant-based shopping is like learning a new language. In due time, selecting the most healthful foods becomes second nature, and you’ll toss items into your cart without a second thought.
In this article, you learn what you need to be plant perfect (or just about). Soon you won’t be able to stop talking about how great your new lifestyle is!
Reading Nutrition Labels
What we are about to write might shock you. It goes against everything you may have heard previously. It certainly contradicts what we learned in our nutrition classes (from kindergarten through graduate school). But it will simplify your life more than any other nutrition advice ever has:
Never read the nutrition label on a package!
That’s right! Ignore it entirely! Everything listed there is confusing, misleading, and manipulating.
Focus on the Ingredients
The only section of a food label you should read is the list of ingredients. That’s where the objective truth resides. Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight (from most to least). So those ingredients with the largest weight within the product come first, and those with the least are listed last.
Here are some tips for analyzing food products based on their ingredient lists:
- Be sure you recognize everything on the list.
- Keep it whole. Choose items with the fewest ingredients possible. The label typically shouldn’t list more than a few items. Less means more.
- Watch out for the sneaky ingredients. These include all the antinutrients, artificial anything, and items you can’t pronounce.
- Look for added salt and oils on bulk frozen vegetable packages. Many times, these ingredients are used as part of the blanching process to preserve color and taste.
Ultimately, most of your foods should come without ingredient lists. Vegetables and fruits are sitting out naked on the shelves in the produce section of the market; on the tables at your local farmers’ market; or on the trees, bushes, and vines in your backyard. Whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, herbs, and spices are sold package-free in the bulk sections or in packages with one ingredient listed. And as amazing as it might sound, fresh produce doesn’t have an expiration date; it’s obvious when produce is expired! Real food is really easy to manage.
These whole foods are the staples of your diet. Plus, shopping is faster and easier when you don’t have to analyze labels!
Making Sense of Food Labels
The nutrition facts section on a food label intends to help you make comparisons between the nutrient contents of food products and decisions about your overall diet. The nutrition facts provide information on protein, cholesterol, saturated fat, dietary fiber, and other nutrients that concern your health.
The components of the nutrition panel include both mandatory and voluntary information. Disclosing numbers for calories, total fat, total carbohydrate, and sodium is mandatory, for example. Voluntary dietary disclosures include sugar alcohol, soluble and insoluble fiber, and other essential nutrients. The absolute amount of that nutrient found per serving in the product is listed in grams or milligrams.
The nutrition food label represents nutrition facts mandated by the FDA’s 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act.
Labeling terms like low fat, good source of calcium, reduced sodium, lean, and heart-healthy are claims defined by the FDA, and carefully determined regulations specify when foods can use these statements. The problem is that you have to look up what the terms mean in order for them to make sense. Fat-free, zero fat, no fat, and negligible source of fat doesn’t mean the food is 100 percent free of fat. Instead, the FDA allows the use of fat-free when a single serving has 0.5 grams of fat or less per serving. How much fat you consume depends on how much of the food you eat. Flip over that that spray can of pure olive oil labeled “fat-free cooking,” and you’ll see nothing but zeros in all the fat calorie categories, and yet there is 100 percent fat in the can. How do they pull off that caloric magic? Look at the serving size: spray of a ⅓ second. (For reference, it takes a 1⁄4 second to blink an eye.) They hit their 0.5 gram rounding number, and who among us sprays for less than a ⅓ second? These little fat bombs are hidden all over labels.
The same holds true for trans fats, a compound you should avoid altogether. That means a product can still legally include trans fatty acids without its label reflecting it! Most times, people eat more than one serving per meal, and therefore consume significant amounts of harmful trans fatty acids. This explains why you can see an ingredient like partially hydrogenated oil listed (which is, by definition, trans fat), yet the nutrition facts indicate zero trans fats. This is confusing for anyone, registered dietitians included.
The % Daily Value (%DV) column refers to how much of the specified nutrient you’ll consume per serving relative to a 2,000-calorie diet. So if you’re counting calories and want to be sure you’re getting adequate amounts of each nutrient, you can use this column as a guideline.
One drawback of using %DV as a guideline is that not everyone eats 2,000 calories per day. Furthermore, the %DV helps only if you calculate every calorie you consume. Not only is this cumbersome and unnecessary, but how do you calculate the calories and other nutrients from, say, the salad you had at lunch? A salad usually doesn’t come with a nutrition label. Technically, you’d need sophisticated nutrient software to calculate your intake accurately. And of course, you’d have to measure or weigh every portion you eat to input the correct data. No wonder diets don’t work!
Nutrition facts labels are superfluous when you eat a whole food, plant-based diet. Your focus is quality not quantity. You eat nutrient-dense foods when you’re hungry and stop when you’re satiated. Simple. No decoding, weighing, measuring, calculating, or counting necessary. Think of all that extra time you can spend being productive—finding new recipes, cooking, exercising, etc.!
Whether and When to Buy Organic
Organic, local, and fresh are all the rage these days at discount and high-end grocery stores alike. Before we dive into organic, there’s one thing you may want to keep in mind: almost all of the amazing, healthful benefits outlined in thousands of journal articles were achieved with normal, everyday vegetables and fruits. They likely weren’t locally fresh, organic, or heirloom. It seems that while we can’t be gamed with nutrition labels on fresh fruits and vegetables, retailers are still within reach of other labeling games. This is not to say that these labels have no meaning, but retailers know that if they toss “organic” or “protein” on the label, more product will leave the shelf.
The terms organic and conventional mostly refer to the way farmers grow and process their products. Loosely, these terms follow what might be called a natural versus an unnatural, or manmade versus artificial, approach to farming. Organic farming generally emphasizes the use of renewable and sustainable resources with the goal of protecting the soil and water for future generations. Organic production abstains from using synthetic fertilizers, bioengineering, or chemical pesticides by relying on crop rotation, biodiversity, and biological controls to manage pests. To be deemed “certified organic,” a government-approved agent must inspect and approve the farm and the protocol used in production there.
In contrast, traditional farming relies on chemical pesticides, biologically superior strains of plants, synthetic fertilizers, and even genetically modified seed crops (GMOs). It all sounds pretty scary and there are economic and health issues associated with these practices. With that said, there are also the tremendous benefits that come with outstanding crop yields and new technologies, such as hydroponically grown vegetables. In the latter case, vegetables are grown with nothing more than water and a mixture of minerals, nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium—it doesn’t get much more artificial or manmade than that; however, these vegetables tend to have incredible flavor and nutrient profiles.
Nonetheless, organic has its drawbacks, too. A natural, organic fertilizer is animal feces. For example, fertilizer from poultry farms contributed to the widespread arsenic contamination of rice crops. Animal feces fertilizer and fecal contamination of irrigation water is also implicated in Salmonella contamination through direct contact of produce or seeds with contaminated manure or animal wastes. Some might equate and promote these practices as part of a natural permaculture approach. The point here is not to cast aspersions on the ideas and notions behind organic; of course, we don’t want pesticide-laden vegetables and fruits or to undermine farmers because their seed crop was contaminated by neighboring patented-GMO pollen. There is a great debate and it can’t be distilled by organic versus traditional produce arguments.
Fruits and vegetables are so powerful with disease-fighting capabilities that a recent toxicology study found an estimated 20,000 cases of cancer per year may be avoided by increasing fruit and vegetable consumption by only one serving of each per day. On the flip side, those pesticide residues people are so concerned about may result in up to 10 additional cancer cases per year.
It’s definitely healthier to consume conventionally grown fruits and vegetables than not to consume them at all. Certain foods are higher in pesticides than others, so you need to prioritize which foods you buy as organic when trying to budget your purchases. If you want to buy all organic—all the better. Wash all produce carefully with a fruit and vegetable wash. Don’t forget that Salmonella is 100 percent natural, organic, and locally fresh, but it will make you sick and may even kill you.
Finding Hidden Ingredients
Ingredients you want to avoid can cleverly be hidden within food products on store shelves. They have fancy names you may not be able to pronounce, or they fall under broad categories on the label that you probably would never think of. It takes a bit of homework and a lot of practice, but soon enough, you’ll be able to smell a sneaky substance from an aisle away.
Products derived from animal fats and proteins are used ubiquitously, in food products, beverages, supplements, perfumes, cosmetics, skin-care products, and medications. They’re even used during the production of certain products, like sugar. Because these components aren’t found in the product itself, they don’t have to appear in the ingredient lists. This is another reason to avoid processed foods.
In addition to animal products, harsh chemicals are sometimes used in the production of food. For example, hydrolyzed vegetable protein is made using hydrochloric acid.
Milk products are hidden in places where they really shouldn’t be. Soy, almond, and rice cheeses commonly contain casein (a milk protein). This is strange, considering most people buy a cheese made from plant ingredients when they’re avoiding dairy. Also, many brands of bread contain whey. Milk-containing products live under the following guises: whey, whey protein hydrolysate, casein, caseinate, butter, butter fat, cream, curds, custard, ghee, ammonium/calcium/magnesium/potassium/sodium caseinate, lactalbumin (phosphate), lactulose, lactose, milk protein hydrolysates, protein hydrolysates, nougat, and rennet.
Because of the surge in people experiencing allergies, certain foods with high allergy-causing potential have been mandated to be included at the end of the ingredient lists. This helps you easily identify certain ingredients. Milk, nuts, wheat, egg, fish, shellfish, soybeans, and peanuts are all required listings.
Gelatin, or gel, is a protein made by boiling skin, tendons, ligaments, and/or bones with water. Used as a thickener, gelatin can be found in fruit gelatin, pudding, candies, marshmallows, ice cream, cakes, and yogurts; it can also be found in the capsule holding together medication. In addition, gelatin can be used in the processing of wine. If the product says “vegan,” you can be sure there’s no gelatin in the product.
Glycerin, a byproduct of soap manufacture, is normally made using animal fat. It can be found in foods and other products labeled as glycerin, glycerol, glycerides, glyceryls, glycreth-26, and polyglycol.
The terms natural flavors and natural flavoring can contain hundreds of different not-so-natural ingredients. They are defined by Title 21, Section 101, Part 22 of the Code of Federal Regulations as …
the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.
With such a broad umbrella of “natural,” you can’t tell from which of the sources a natural flavor is derived. And because the word has no government-related regulation for use, food companies can use the term however they like. It’s best to avoid products with “natural” ingredients.
Ultimately, the more processed the food, the more potential for hidden ingredients. Try to avoid processed foods as often as possible, relying more on whole, simple ingredients.
Plant-Based Supermarket Shopping
The secret to successful supermarket shopping is to focus on the perimeter of the store. If you picture the store where you usually shop, you’ll notice produce is on the outside and processed foods are toward the center. Of course, this is an oversimplification because other foods you need are found in those center aisles, too. But the take-home message is to emphasize the fresh foods. Let’s tour the market together, one aisle at a time.
To be efficient and cost effective, write a list before you hit the store so that you know exactly what items you need. Remembering everything if you just wing it is impossible (unless you have a super memory). Before you leave, decide which recipes you’re going to make in the next two or three days. Then write down all the ingredients you need to purchase to prepare those recipes specifically. On the list, include staples you may be running out of. Check your pantry and refrigerator to take inventory. Got your list? Now you’re ready to hit the store!
Picking Your Produce
First stop, the produce section. Stock up on any and all fresh vegetables and fruits that look appealing and fresh or that you need for a planned recipe.
The produce department is where you should indulge and experiment. If you see a food that sparks your curiosity, take it home and try it! Most everyone settles into a food comfort zone, maintaining a stable of favorites. A plant-based diet is an opportunity to explore new, previously untried foods. Challenge yourself to step outside your comfort zone. Try a new vegetable every week. Pick out a different recipe. Soak and cook dried beans just to see how easy it can be. The more open your mind, the more you’ll discover and broaden your knowledge base.
Plan to spend some time in the greens section, and your cart should end up bursting with green leaves. These superfoods have a shorter lifespan than some other vegetables, so be sure to pick them up at least once a week. Then you’ll have them on hand for whenever you get the craving.
After the greens, find your other veggies. Good ones to keep stocked up on are baby carrots, mushrooms, onions, bell peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, squash, celery, garlic, ginger, and potatoes of all varieties.
Find your fruits based on what you enjoy and what’s available. Melons, berries, pears, pineapples, and oranges add color to your cart. Stock up on the seasonal options you look forward to all year, like figs, persimmons, and pumpkins in the fall and peaches, nectarines, and plums in the summer. The flavors of these special treats become a large part of the experience of the seasons.
Also visit the year-round regulars with permanent locations in the produce section, like bananas, apples, lettuce, cucumbers, and grapes. Don’t forget your lemons and limes, which are hugely useful in so many recipes.
Farmers’ markets are excellent places to frequent once a week. You can buy large amounts of the freshest produce for really good bargains. The produce is usually picked within the past 24 hours, so it’s higher in nutrient content than supermarket produce, which is driven to the store and spends time in the back of the store before hitting the shelves. By buying at farmers’ markets, you can eat produce with peak nutrition while supporting local businesses.
And don’t forget the fresh herbs. Are you making Italian? Grab some basil, rosemary, and oregano. Mexican? Cilantro makes all the difference. It’s good to have these and any other herbs you like on hand in the fridge because they can spice up any recipe.
In the spice aisle, pick up what you’re out of. An exotic collection of spices can help you experiment in the kitchen. Plain salt and pepper is so passé! It’s true, hot sauce—chipotle, Tabasco, Sriracha—should be its own food group. Smoked paprika, chipotle, cayenne, and various heat chili powders are amazing additions to sauces, dressings, or steamed vegetables.
From basics to blends, a shake of this or that can take your meal from blasé to fancy. A standard spice rack should contain any flavors you enjoy.
Bring on the Beans and Grains
While in the aisle with grains and legumes, have some fun. Notice how many different types of lentils you see. Pick a new one each time. Also grab some brown rice, brown jasmine rice, or wild rice. Have you discovered teff yet? Yum! Amaranth, barley, polenta, quinoa, and millet are other exotic grains.
You can find tons of recipes for these foods if you want or need them, or you can get creative and play with these foods on your own. As you experiment with new foods, the plant-based world will explode in front of you. Nothing about plants is boring. You’ll enjoy more variety here than in the old-fashioned, dreary carnivorous realm.
Buy in bulk whenever possible to increase your options and save money. Specialty markets sell unusual foods (usually culture specific) at bargain prices and tend to have more bulk-buying options.
How many beans do you use on a regular basis? Have you noticed the vast selection in the bean section? Canned beans are fine to use if you don’t have time to cook them from scratch. Try to find the salt-free options or, if you can’t, drain and rinse them well before using.
Fun with Frozen Foods
The frozen-food section is filled with healthy, longer-lasting options ideal for a busy household. Frozen fruits and vegetables are usually flash-frozen, meaning they’re frozen as soon as they’re picked.
Frozen foods retain their nutrients and might even be a better choice than fresh sometimes in terms of convenience. Frozen veggies are already washed and chopped, making for easy additions to dishes. If you are new to plant-based cuisine and aren’t yet familiar with recipes or various fresh green fare, then frozen vegetables are the training wheels of your new veggie bike. They are easy to steam or to toss into a large wok and can go from the freezer to the table in under 10 minutes. Frozen vegetables have come a long way since the bland TV dinners of the 70s.
Frozen fruits are perfect for smoothies and save the washing and chopping phase normally required. Plus, they give a frosty, ice-cream effect when used in a green smoothie.
Other items you can pick up in your supermarket include raw nuts, raw seeds (especially hempseeds, flaxseeds, and sesame seeds), dates, 100 percent pure maple syrup, corn or sprouted-grain tortillas, plant-based milks, sun-dried tomatoes, olives, tofu, tempeh, nutritional yeast, tamari, miso, vinegars (rice, balsamic, and apple cider), mustard, low-sodium vegetable broth, tea, coffee, cocoa powder, and raw cacao nibs.
Plant-based milks are made from soy, almonds, rice, hemp, flax, vegetables, or oats and can be fortified with calcium, vitamin B12, and vitamin D. Use them in the same fashion as cow’s milk but without the health disadvantages.
Today, the large membership discount stores are an affordable, quick, and often overlooked option for eating green. Much of the produce is from the same sources as local grocery stores at a fraction of the price. The inventory rotates fast and large packages of leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, mushrooms, peppers, onions, potatoes, and even exotic fruits abound! This takes most of the prep time out of large salads. (Discard the added dressing and toppings included in the package.). And don’t forget those large bags of romaine lettuce hearts—they should be in every refrigerator. It may not be the latest trendy green, but it’s packed with nutrition and the crunchy, sweet flavor is an outstanding start to any salad bowl. Your secret health weapon, as everyone else is buying that gallon jar of mustard they’ve been dreaming about, will be dashing in and out the produce section of these membership discount stores with a bountiful, fresh, colorful veggie haul.
With a bit of planning and some experience, plant-based shopping will become natural and simple. You’ll find your rhythm and pick your preferences in time. Before you know it, you might even find yourself plant-perfect!
The Least You Need to Know
- Ignore the nutrition facts label, and instead focus on the ingredients. Choose products with the fewest items on the list and all ones you recognize.
- Choose organic whenever possible because organic is healthier for your body and the environment. (Plus, the difference in price grows smaller with increased demand.)
- While selecting foods with minimal ingredients is easiest, you should become acquainted with some of the names you need to avoid. Manufacturers find so many ways to sneak sketchy ingredients into food items.
- The majority of your shopping cart items should come from the perimeter of the store. Think colorful produce, whole grains, legumes, raw nuts, and raw seeds.