How to Avoid Big Food Marketing Pitfalls: Grocery Shopping Shortcuts

After my last post discussing the reality of food marketing, reader The Job Hunter asked a great question about whether there were any short cuts to analyzing products in the grocery store (especially once you are exhausted from a long day at work.)

Hey, I hear you. I have a crazy one year old will sit still for exactly 11 seconds (yes, we’ve counted.) And I used to grocery shop after work too, so I know that the decrease in mental capacity is exactly proportional to the increase in cravings after 5 o’clock.

Over the years, I’ve come up with a series of shortcuts to help cut down on the analyzing and scanning time at the grocery store and still make the best choices at the shelf. Here are my top guidelines:

Always choose the less flavoured option.

If there is one thing I can guarantee, it’s that the more ingredients a product has, the higher the probability that many of those ingredients are crap. This is especially true with flavoured products; for example, pomegranate-blueberry yogourt likely has very little pomegranate or blueberry in it (it’s probably mostly juice and artificial flavours.) Ditto for the Choco Banana O’s – likely full of fake chocolate and banana flavouring. By choosing plain yogurt or plain cereal, you avoid most of these ‘fake’ ingredients. I know they sound way more boring than the exciting flavours, but you can make them exciting at home with a lot less chemicals.

Ignore any claims that require a question.

Sometimes, when a company can’t make a specific claim about a product, they will dial it back to a much softer claim that makes the consumer think it is good, but doesn’t actually say anything. For example, instead of making a ‘100% Whole Wheat’ claim, they may say ‘Made with the Goodness of Whole Wheat.’ This sounds just as good, but really doesn’t mean anything at all. How much whole wheat is in it? Odds are the first ingredient is likely white flour.

You can spot these claims because they are usually ambiguous, unmeasurable, and lead to another question. For example, if it says ‘Made with whole grain’, it would lead you to ask, ‘how much whole grain?’ Probably not a lot, if they don’t specify on the box. (In fact, most ‘Made with’ claims are in this same category.)

And same for ‘Multigrain.’ What kind of grain? How much of it is used? If they don’t specify, then think of multigrain as a flavour, not a health benefit.

This approach requires a bit of critical thinking at first, but remember: most claims are basically the same. So once you do it a couple of times, it will be easy to weed out the fake claims from the real ones.

Be wary of the flashy aisles.

When my husband and I were house hunting in a trendy up-and-coming area just outside of downtown, we were always suspicious of the beautifully renovated houses, the ones with the new hardwood floors and the fancy backsplashes. With a broken down, sagging old house, at least you know what you are getting. But put a little bit of spit and polish on it and you never know what’s lurking inside.

This is exactly the same way I feel about supermarket aisles. The ‘unsexy’ sections – beans, bulk nuts, grains, canned goods – are usually pretty ho-hum. There’s not a lot of flash there, and you generally know what you’re getting. But once you go into those inviting aisles with the cheery colours, the beautiful food photography and the cursive fonts, it’s all spit and polish again. So if you can’t look at the back of every product, then make sure you look at the ones in the ‘flashy’ aisles (for example, cereal, granola bars/snacks, yogurt.) A good way to tell if an aisle is flashy is to remember if you’ve seen a TV commercial for it lately – if companies are investing in TV ads, you can bet they’re investing a lot of dollars to appeal to consumers.

Shop the perimeter.

One of the best ways to cut down on label-reading time and still make simple choices is to buy most of your groceries from the perimeter of the grocery store. this is where the fresh food is kept – produce, dairy, eggs, etc. Now, you won’t avoid all the flashy aisles (yogurt has become a big one), but you will cut down on them considerably.

These guidelines help me stay on track at the grocery store and still get out in a reasonable amount of time. What about you? Are there any tips and tricks you have learned to simplify your grocery shopping and still make the best choices?

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