There are a lot of choices when it comes to options in the grocery store. But how do you know which ones are actually better for you and which ones big companies promote as better for you? That might not be the same for every family, especially considering budgets. Below I break down some common choices so you can decide what works best in your weekly meal plans.
White VS Wheat/Brown
When it comes to: Rice and bread.
Whole wheat is higher in fiber and folic acid than white varieties. If a product (commonly cereal or bread) claims to be “enriched” that means that 30 nutrients may have been removed, but only 5 are required to be put back (“enriched”), so it still has less nutrients than naturally occur in the grain. White rice is ranked higher on the glycemic index than brown because it raises your blood sugar levels faster, but there is no phytate. If you are diabetic or on a diet watching your sugars, brown rice might be the better option. If you are an athlete or just finished a super intense workout, white rice might be a better option to replace those stores. Phytate is an antioxidant, but also slows the absorption of a lot of minerals. Brown rice has more fiber and protein, but also more arsenic. Arsenic is found in lots of foods in low quantities, and as more and more research is being done considering low exposures over a long period of time, it is being related to certain cancers.
When it comes to bread, whole wheat bread is considered healthier because it contains the entire grain of wheat and thus more nutrients. However, white bread usually is enriched with nutrients in the processing, so that point can be argued. All bread in general uses yeast in production. With advances in technology bread can now be raised relatively fast compared to the entire day it used to take. This type of fast acting yeast can prevent the body from absorbing vitamins and minerals, which is why I limit bread as much as possible. No use in eating something with few nutrients for your body!
Grass-Fed VS Conventional/Grain Fed
When it comes to: Beef, Butter, Milk
Just because something is labeled “grass-fed” does not mean that is the case 100% of the time. The cows may have been allowed to graze for only a portion of the day and then fed in the barn later to fatten them up, versus truly grass-fed animals that are allowed to graze all day long and eat to their hearts content without being overfed. But why does it matter? Cows stomachs are designed to eat fresh grass, not soy or corn grain-based feeds. And just like humans, their bodies do not function well if they aren’t eating right, which in turn makes food products (beef, butter, milk) for us to consume that do not work well in our bodies either. On top of not eating well, most cows are also fed drugs like antibiotics and growth hormones to maximize their profit. Grass fed beef contains up to 5 times as much omega-3’s than its grain-fed counterparts. This is important because in our body, omega-3’s and omega-6’s need to be in an optimal ratio. Too much omega-6 in your system can cause blood clots, stroke, high blood pressure, heart attack and water retention. An American diet has a far higher consumption of omega-6 fatty acids that needs to be balanced by consuming omega-3’s. Another fatty acid that is higher in grass-fed beef is Conjugated Linoleic Acid, which is naturally occurring unlike the kind you buy from the supplement store. CLA in the body can help fight cancer, cause fat loss, increase muscle mass, and increases blood flow to the brain. Grass fed beef is loaded with extra vitamins and minerals, including antioxidants.
Grass-fed beef has been the most studied, but a lot of these same benefits apply to the other products we consume from cows: Butter and Milk. Grass-fed butter is a good option to cook with, and it can most likely be found from European sources right in your local grocery store (we like Kerrygold brand). Grass-fed milk is becoming a little more common, but remember what I mentioned above…something can be marketed as grass-fed just because the cows were out to pasture for a bit, but still fed soy products or drugs. Look for American Grass Fed Association Seal of approval, as they have stricter standards than the FDA.
Organic VS Non-Organic
When it comes to: Vegetables, Fruits, Meats
We’ve all heard about organic produce, but what does it really mean? According to the FDA, organic products must be grown without pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, Sewage sludge, GMOs or Radiation. In “organic” animals, they cannot take antibiotics or growth hormones. Just like in the grass and grain-fed debate above, the types of things animals are exposed to directly affect how their body functions which directly affects our food supply and how our body functions. When it comes to vegetables and fruit, I usually follow the Environmental Working Group’s yearly “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen” list, as pictured above. They put a lot of research into this and come out with a list of 12 items that have the highest contamination levels and 15 items that contain the fewest amount of pesticides. When shopping off this list, it would be best to choose organic options from the dirty dozen list, reducing your chances of exposure to these high pesticides. Clean Fifteen produce is often regarded as safe to eat “conventional” versions.
Farm Raised VS Wild Caught
When it comes to: Seafood
You may think fish raised in a controlled environment like the farm would be more healthy, but read on. Across the board, you will find mercury in any type of fish (whether wild caught or farm raised). Farm raised have higher rates of disease and contaminants from pollution but also slightly higher rates of the good omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Fish from the United States is the best because of our stricter regulations compared to other countries. This goes for farm raised or wild caught, as both our food industry and environment is better regulated than other countries. We tend to go for wild-caught varieties to avoid the risk of contaminants, and usually look for something from the states (think “Alaskan Salmon” or “Maine Lobsters”).
Egg VS Cage-Free VS Free Range
When it comes to: Eggs
I am sure you have heard of the horrors of the chicken industry. If you haven’t, go ahead and watch any food documentary on Netflix and I am sure you will be enlightened. Here I want to break down the difference in labeling of eggs, which is not as clear as you might think.
Cage-free means just that, the hens are not kept in cages. However, this does not mean that the hens are not still housed in overcrowded conditions with no grazing or light of day. Free-range eggs mean the hens have access to the outdoors. This could look like being inside most of the day and allowed out at only certain hours. They do eat some natural things like insects, but are often fed the majority of their diet by means of feed. Organic free range means the chickens were fed 100% organic food. Pasture Raised is not a regulated term by the industry, so essentially anyone can claim it. Overall, most of these chickens are being fed food that has pesticides and other contaminants and are given drugs like growth hormones.
When choosing eggs from the grocery store, it can be easy to overpay for essentially the same quality of egg. It is best to meet a local farmer who actually does let their chickens free range and consume their natural diet. Happier chickens make happier eggs, so truly free range chickens will produce an egg with more choline for brain health, less cholesterol, more vitamin D for mood support and strong bones, and a balanced nutrient profile.
And what about those grades of eggs? Those are just cosmetic ratings based on uniformity and have nothing to do with safety or nutrient value of the egg itself.
Which changes will you make this week?
We don’t have it in our budget to make all these changes, so what would you choose? When it comes to white or wheat, the price is nearly the same. For Grass Fed meats, we choose one meal a week to splurge on the better quality. We buy grass-fed butter often, for both cooking and baking. In the organic section, as talked about above, we tend to choose organic when it comes to the dirty dozen foods. We always choose wild caught fish as the price is usually comparable to farm-raised. For eggs, we generally get regular ones from the grocery store but do splurge every now and then at the farmer’s market for some truly free range eggs! I hope these tips help you in choosing the best option for your family.