supermarket trolley and food aisles

Navigating supermarket food aisles

1 May 2024
A quick guide to healthy and economical shopping
Our CPC RPA Health for Life Program team offers some tips on navigating supermarket food aisles amid the onslaught of advertising designed to make us buy what we might not need and which may not be healthy.

Grocery shopping for healthy food feels like navigating a minefield, bombarded as we are by advertising and marketing even before entering the supermarket. Advertising across media (print, broadcast, digital, social) can have a big impact on choices once in the supermarket aisles.

Inside, profit-driven decisions shape offerings, directing consumers to palatable, processed items. The layout of the supermarket and its aisles, as well as packaging and promotions, further complicate health-conscious choices.

But how can we tilt the odds in our favour?

Before going to the supermarket

1. Plan your menu

Creating a weekly menu in advance offers several benefits:

  • provides greater control over diet and nutrient intake
  • encourages meal diversity, moving beyond familiar dishes
  • pre-planning meals reduces food waste and facilitates intentional shopping.

2. Write a shopping list

Once you’ve prepared your menu, create a detailed shopping list outlining necessary ingredients and quantities. Include additional items like snacks and pantry staples to avoid last-minute impulse buys.

3. Use online resources

Take advantage of online platforms offered by major supermarkets to thoroughly research products. Whether opting for click-and-collect or browsing items online, compare options, prices, specials, and nutritional information to make informed decisions.

4. Avoid shopping when hungry

Shopping on an empty stomach often leads to regrettable impulse buys. Ensure you are well-fed before heading to the store to stick to your list and making healthier choices.

At the supermarket

1. Packaging inspection

Be cautious with food packaging; terms like "all natural," "energy support” or "no added sugar" can mislead. Disregard them altogether and focus on the nutritional information and ingredient list instead to make informed choices.

2. Health star rating system

The Health Star Rating System assesses packaged food based on nutrition and is endorsed by the Australian and New Zealand Governments. A higher star rating means healthier options, but it may miss factors like artificial sweeteners and additives. We recommend that you use the Health Star Rating System as a guide, but always check the nutritional information label and ingredient list for a complete picture.

Nutrition information graphic example comprising average daily servings reflecting the text under '3.Labelling'. Food label highlights the amount of  saturated fat, sugars, dietary fibre and sodium in product.

3. Labelling

To make healthier shopping choices, master reading and comparing food labels. Consider the following:

  • focus on the 100g column over serving sizes, which can be unrealistically small
  • pay attention to fibre, sugar, salt, and fats, not just calories; nutrient-rich ingredients can be high in calories while low-nutrients ones provide empty calories
  • review ingredient list quantities carefully: despite claims of high-quality ingredients, products may contain minimal amounts. For example, a claim of extra virgin olive oil inclusion may mean only a trace amount is present
  • check the ingredient list for undesirables partially hydrogenated fats, additives, preservatives and artificial sugars. 

4. Organic products

While consuming organic ingredients has not conclusively shown to extend or improve health, some synthetic pesticides and additives in conventional food may pose risks. Exclusively organic purchasing may be costly (~60 percent more expensive). One strategy is to choose packaged products with organic certification to avoid harmful additives and select budget-friendly fresh items. For instance, choose organic sultanas, allowing you to avoid added humectants and high concentrations of residual pesticides.

5. Levels of processing

Not all processing is harmful; techniques like salting fish and aging cheese have been used for millennia. Partial processing helps incorporate nutritious foods into our diets when access is limited. Canned or frozen vegetables wholemeal bread, and low-fat yogurt are beneficial examples. However, ultra-processed foods like cakes and energy drinks lack nutrients and should be avoided due to high levels of unhealthy ingredients such as refined sugar, salt and saturated fats. 

cooking oil bottles

6. Oils

The plethora of available cooking oils on the market in recent years has received significant attention due to confusion around their various defining traits. There is a lot to consider: look for cold pressed oils high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids and omega-3s but low in saturated and trans fats or just use extra virgin olive oil for most applications and canola oil when and if choosing to deep fry.

7. Carbohydrates (carbs)

The outdated belief that all carbs are bad is fading. Ultra-refined carbs like white rice and white flour offer empty calories and a high glycemic index. Starchy vegetables and whole grains provide nutrients and fibre. Including these foods in your diet helps with cholesterol, triglycerides, and insulin regulation, weight management and satiety. Opt for wholemeal and whole grain options for bread, crackers, or grains.

8. Additives

In Australia, over 300 different additives are used in food production, approved by Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ). However, concerns persist regarding potential health risks linked with some additives. These additives, found in a wide range of products including dried fruit, soft drinks, and seasonings, have become pervasive in our diets. Given that many additives have only recently entered common usage, comprehensive long-term studies on their effects are often lacking. Therefore, it's prudent to limit the consumption of foods containing these additives to avoid potential health risks.

What next?

Equipped with this new knowledge, embrace empowerment over anxiety. Perfection isn’t the goal. Rather, it’s about education and addressing what’s within our control.

In our fast-paced, stressful lives, start by slowly incorporating this awareness to create new habits rather than making drastic changes all at once. Over time and practice, a consistent and gradual approach will lead to longer-lasting, positive results.

The CPC RPA Health for Life Program is a partnership between the University of Sydney Charles Perkins Centre and Sydney Local Health District.

Charles Perkins Centre and Sydney Local Health District logos

Mr Marzio Lanzini

Healthy Longevity cheC
CPC RPA Health for Life Program
Visit Chef Lanzini's LinkedIn profile

Contact the CPC RPA Health for Life Program

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