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How to shop like a health expert

Man shopping at a supermarket

Healthy Food Guide shares advice from leading health experts on simple ways that you can enjoy a healthier shopping trolley.

You’re standing in the supermarket aisle. You’re exhausted, you have a million things on your mind, and to top it off there are 16 types of muesli in front of you and you don’t know which one to choose. Sound familiar?

When you’re feeling like this, it can really seem one demand too many to read all the labels and make the most nutritious choice. And yet, you know being a discerning shopper ensures you and your family enjoy the best, most healthy food.

A major US study suggests that reading food labels may even be linked to having a lower BMI. The study found women who read food labels weighed the equivalent of almost 4kg, on average, less than those who didn’t.

Together with leading health experts, we’ve created this smart shopping guide to help you make healthy supermarket choices quick, smart and simple.

Healthy shopping starts with a plan

Decide on a meal plan

Planning ahead saves you time in the supermarket and ensures your pantry is stocked with the right ingredients, helping you avoid last-minute, unhealthy dinner choices.

How to do it

Jot down healthy recipes you’d like to cook during the week as you see or think of them, so you won’t forget.

Set aside a quiet time to write out your weekly meal plan with all the meals you wish to cook that week.  Or use our meal planning tool to save collections of recipes to your ‘Favourites’ and print out a shopping list. Or, if you prefer, use some of our curated meal plans.

For busy families, create a column for each member of the household and jot down the nights each of them is out, or needs an early or late dinner, suggests nutritionist Catherine Saxelby.

For extra-busy weeks, make double portions and keep them in the freezer so you can grab them when you’ve got no time to shop or cook, recommends Accredited Practising Dietitian Nicole Senior.

For fussy young eaters, paediatric dietitian Debbie Iles suggests: “Let them choose a meal each for the week, or give them a choice of two options.”

Write a grocery list

A major US study of 3600 people found 77 per cent of shoppers entered the store without a detailed list and 73 per cent made at least one impulse purchase of food or drink per trip.

“If you shop with a list tied to meals you intend to eat, it helps resist impulse purchases and helps you to eat according to your plan rather than to boost supermarket profits,” says Senior.

How to do it

Having created your meal plan, list the items you need, naming the brand, if nutritionally relevant, and the quantity.

Write down what you need in categories that mirror your supermarket aisles – for example, cereal and oats; then canned corn and canned tomatoes; then milk, cheese and yoghurt, suggests Saxelby.

This saves you time in the store, and keeps you out of aisles you don’t need to visit.

Aim for a rainbow of veggies across your weekly meals. Right now, you’ll find delicious spring and early summer produce such as artichokes, peas, asparagus, cauliflower and beetroot, plus strawberries, grapefruit, and apricots. Seasonal produce is more affordable too, making it a great time to try different things.

Work the aisles like a health pro

Stress-free supermarket shopping requires good timing. Try to pick a quieter time than the after-school and after-work rush hours. Most major supermarkets are open from 6am to anywhere between 9pm and midnight.

“Personally I like first thing Sunday morning when the shop is quiet,” says Senior.

Picking a time of day when you’re less likely to feel rushed or tired will help you concentrate on making better choices.

“The golden rule is not to shop when you’re hungry, as research shows you’ll end up buying more, and buying things you don’t need,” says Saxelby.

A small study in 2011 found that when participants’ blood glucose levels were manipulated to be lower (similar to having not eaten), they found images of junk food more appealing than when their blood glucose levels were normal (similar to having had a recent meal). When they had normal blood glucose levels, the subjects showed more activity in the part of the brain associated with logic, planning and reasoning – making them more able to resist the temptation in front of them.

Get to grips with the layout

Ever noticed the real essentials like bread, milk, eggs and fresh produce just happen to be spread out all over the store? The idea is the longer you’re in there, the more you’ll buy. You’ll often find non-essential (usually unhealthy) options in the aisles right next to each other in the hope you’ll pick up both: think soft drink and chips; cheese and dips; or chocolate and lollies.

How to do it

Buy most of your grocery items from the perimeter of the store, where you’ll find fresh produce, meat, dairy and bread. The more of these there are in your basket, compared to processed foods in packages, the healthier your shopping basket will be.

If you’re in an unfamiliar supermarket, or you’re in a hurry and trying to make a healthier choice, try using the Heart Foundation Tick as a quick way to spot healthier products, suggests Senior.

While it’s good to be disciplined with your shopping list, a bit of flexibility is okay, especially in places like the veggie section. “Use colour as a guide to buying veggies, and buy whatever is in season,” says Senior.

And if what you’re after is out of stock, simply swap it for another vegetable of the same colour, for example swap pumpkin for carrots, or broccoli for spinach.

If you only need fresh produce, why not skip the supermarket altogether and support your local greengrocer or butcher?

You could try doing the majority of your shopping online, and then do a smaller fruit and veg, or meat, shop with the kids to get them interested in healthy food without the temptations of the supermarket.

“Online shopping is a fabulous way for families to stick to their list, buy their basics and get it done quickly and stress-free,” says Iles.

Beware of other sales traps

Discounts, two-for-one deals and pester power – every parent’s nightmare – can all encourage you to make unhealthy choices while you’re in the store.

How to do it

If you see an enticing offer, “ask yourself if you were going to buy those chips before you saw the ‘50% off’ sign,” says Iles.

“I like to say about two-for-one offers – if it doesn’t go to waste, it will end up around your waist!” says Saxelby.

When it comes to pester power, “I am a firm believer in [the] division of responsibility – parents choose the food they want their children to eat, the child chooses how much of it they want to eat,” says Iles, who is “ultra-tough” now, “given that I have three small kids under five and know what it is like first hand to deal with tantrums, pester power, and fussy eating.”

Her tactics include reward stickers for being good at the shops, and avoiding going when the kids are likely to be tired.

Save time by brand hunting at home

Check the nutrition information of products online at manufacturer’s websites or try your local food composition database:

How to read a food label

To make healthier choices, it’s important to learn what to look out for on food labels. There are two important lists on product packaging:

Nutrition information panel

The most important column is ‘per 100g’. Why? Serving sizes vary dramatically between brands of the same product, meaning you aren’t comparing apples with apples if you only use the ‘per serve’ column.

A 2011 study of 1,130 food products sold in supermarkets found significant inconsistencies in serving sizes in every category: mueslis ranged in serving size from 25–80g; potato chips ranged from 19–50g; and one brand of the same vanilla yoghurt even had a serving size that was 100g for its 1kg tub and 200g for its single tubs!

List of ingredients

Watch out for the first three ingredients. The list is prioritised in proportion, from the largest amount to the smallest. So if sugar is the first ingredient on the list, there’s more sugar in the product than any other ingredient. If the first few ingredients include fat, sugar or salt, it’s probably best to look for an alternative. Other guises these ingredients can appear
under include:

  • Sugar: Sucrose, fructose, maltose, glucose, syrup, molasses, malt extract or honey.
  • Salt: Sodium, MSG, booster, stock, vegetable salt.
  • Fat: Oil, shortening, dripping, cream, butter, milk solids, monoglycerides, diglycerides.

What is % daily intake?

The front of the packet often has thumbnails (see above) that show how much of the average daily intake (DI) for key nutrients are in a serve. These values are based on what would be a balanced diet of 8700kJ for the average adult.

It’s worth noting the DI is an acceptable intake, rather than being the ideal intake. And it has been criticized by some, including consumer advocacy group Choice, as being flawed because it relies on serving sizes, which can vary widely.

It’s also worth parents noting children’s nutritional needs and ideal kilojoule intake may differ from the average DI that is on the front of the pack, depending on their age and activity levels. So, it’s good to take this into account when making a choice.

Health claims

The number of health claims on packaged foods seems to be constantly expanding (see box, right), so our experts recommend you always check the nutrition information on the back of the pack to get the real story. Ask yourself whether the claims are relevant to the food and to you,” suggests Senior.

“Don’t be sucked in by meaningless claims like “natural” or “cholesterol-free” on plant foods that don’t contain cholesterol!” she says.

Adds Saxelby: “Be wary. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

6 health claims to be wary of:

  1. ‘% fat-free’ If a yoghurt claims to be ‘94% fat-free’, it still contains 6% fat, which is not that low for a yoghurt. Plus, some reduced-fat products have lots of sugar added to them, effectively cancelling out the benefit.
  2. ‘Light or lite’ H4 Sometimes doesn’t refer to being lighter in kilojoules, but simply colour or flavour. ‘Light olive oil’ is one example.
  3. ‘Source of…’ If the claim is on a food that should be a source of that nutrient in the first place, such as breakfast cereal containing fibre, then be wary, because if it was a very good source it would carry the claim ‘good source’ or ‘high in fibre’ instead.
  4. ‘Fruit’ products Fruit bars, sticks and juices do count towards your two serves of fruit a day – but they’re lower in fibre and other nutrients than the real thing.
  5. Products with ‘health’ in their name This can be a sneaky way of getting you to assume a product is inherently healthy.
  6. ‘With antioxidants’ A chocolate bar rich in antioxidants will still carry with it a whack of fat, sugar and kilojoules, so it doesn’t really match the health benefits of fresh fruit and veggies.
First published: Nov 2012
Last updated: November 30, 2021