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Food Shopping in America: A Survival Guide

This week, we are happy to host a guest blog by Deena Barselah , a Holistic Health and Wellness Coach, on a topic that is important to anyone who goes to study in another country – maintaining a healthy nutrition while you are abroad. Today’s blog provides useful information and survival tips for food shopping in the United States of America.

Everything is big in America and one of the places that can be most overwhelming is a supermarket. You’ll see aisles upon aisles of products with flashy colors, health claims, advertisements and marketing. The most seasoned shopper can find this dizzying, but for anyone new to this country, it can be downright overwhelming and intimidating.

The reality is that with so many food buzzwords, it’s hard to know the difference between good marketing and meaningful information. Some of these health claims have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA - a governmental body in the United States that regulates human and veterinary drugs, biological products, medical devices, food supply, cosmetics, and products that emit radiation), while others are simply at the discretion of the individual company. You’ll encounter many of the terms I outline here and I want to set you straight right from the start.


The FDA says, “From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, the FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term “natural” or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances.”

By the above definition (or non-definition), high fructose corn syrup is natural.

Other claims that sound meaningful but are not at all regulated:
· “Doctor recommended”

· “Heart healthy”

· “Green”

· “Eco-friendly”

· “Sustainable”

· “Strengthens immune system”

· “Guilt-free”

“Made with whole grains”

You might think that all of the grains in the food are whole grains, but there’s no rule about what percentage of the food is actually made with whole grains. And, by the way, when “wheat flour” is listed in the ingredients, that’s just flour. Plain old refined, white, and refined flour.

Now onto animal foods… America is really into factory farming and so it is especially important to know where your animal foods are coming from to avoid these bad practices.

“Free range” or “free roaming”

This term usually applies to chickens. According to the USDA, these claims merely mean that “producers must demonstrate to the agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.” This leaves it up to the individual farmer to decide how much access the animals receive. The USDA considers 5 minutes of open air access each day to be adequate to approve the use of a “free range” claim on a poultry product.

“Cage free”

Implies that the egg-laying hens don’t live in cages. What it really means is that they can walk around, but they can also be fed, raised and slaughtered like any other chicken and there’s no official regulation for this term.

“Real fruit”

This is often listed on sweetened products and those marketed to parents and children. This term can be used when the amount of fruit is almost non-existent and can come from juice concentrate. These products can be mostly refined sugar with a small amount of actual fruit or fruit juice.

“Enriched” or “Fortified”

This is a personal favorite of mine. Whenever you see these words on your food (commonly on milk, boxed cereals, and milk alternatives like soy and almond milk), read this as “depleted.” A manufacturer adds these synthetic vitamins and minerals back into the food because they were lost in the processing of the food. A boxed breakfast cereal goes through very high processing to form a flake, O, square, etc and most of the nutrients are lost in that process. Milk loses most of its nutrients in the pasteurization process, so they add back in the vitamin A and D in synthetic form.


Poultry and pigs are not commonly given hormones (factory farmed often receive antibiotics, but that’s another story). It’s the cattle that get the hormones so they can grow big and fat and be slaughtered earlier than if nature took its course. The problem here is that it is impossible to show that hormones were not used for beef, so the designation comes entirely from the individual company. You are simply taking their word for it.

“Whole wheat”

This means that there is some amount of whole wheat in the product. If you’re looking for a food to be 100% whole wheat, check the ingredients. Make sure whole-wheat flour is the first ingredient and no other flours are present.

I’ve just listed a few here, but you get the idea. Investigating these claims is essential so that you don’t fall for a company’s marketing.

You are exposed to marketing and advertising everywhere. Your best bet is to buy food that doesn’t even have a label… like a carrot or lettuce or fish or cheese from a cheese counter. These are all real foods and always your most nutritious choice rather than things that come in a package.

Tips for Success:

Head to the periphery of the market rather than down the aisles. The produce section is a safe place. The coolers, for the most part, are better than the aisles. It’s around the periphery of the market that you’ll find meat, fish, poultry, dairy, produce and other food that can spoil. You don’t want to load up on food that has an indefinite shelf-life like chips, soda, salad dressings and other packaged and processed foods. Know that if a food has a health claim, there is a reason; the company is spending money on marketing. Remember, a carrot does not have a health claim for a reason! It's a whole food and it needs no marketing. You know it's good for you.
Deena Barselah is a Holistic Health & Wellness Coach.

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