Tips and An Introductory Guide to Produce Shopping

When an illness strikes that limits food options, cooking at home becomes essential.  Until now most of you were able to grab something in any convenience store and eat on the run. Now that you're gluten free and cooking more frequently, you might want a quick guide to healthy choices in the supermarket.  As we're heading into the next lush summer full of locally grown produce and the best of imports, let's review the choices at the store and identify where the best choices are. Some tips for how to navigate the markets, especially if you're shopping for fresh foods for the first time, or adding healthier fruits and vegetables to your cart these days.

Photo by Onlyyouqj - Freepik.com

Categories of Produce:


  • Produce (no special designation) - for most of the produce available (fruits and vegetables) plain is fine and it doesn't automatically mean it's full of pesticides or devoid of vitamins.  On the contrary this is still the best choice for many items because they are perishable, and they sell quicker, so you get a fresher one. Consider the typical customer in a store.  I live in an area that has high diversity in a small area.  If I go to one store, the okra will be old and neglected, but in another part of the city it will be fresh and crisp, based on local preferences.  For vitamins, freshness is more important than one-stop shopping. Shop where people love what you're buying, if you use fresh foods.  
  • If one or two items can't be used, head to the frozen section for another option. Frozen foods are often packed and frozen within hours (usually 8 hours or less) of being picked, so their vitamin content may be higher than foods that have been sitting in a store for a week, after traveling for a couple of weeks. However, I can't say that I've seen a lot of food vitamin content testing that confirms this.  Some foods freeze well, and others not so much. Fruits, especially berries, seem to suffer by freezing.  In general the more perishable the food, the more it suffers from freezing, which is a bit of a shame.  Berries do well when they're freeze dried though. So look in the snack section for freeze dried berries.  Yummy!
  • The canned section is not a nutrition wasteland either. Corn and its many variations are usually gluten free (always check!) and usually undergo canning well.  Canned beets for those who like them, work very well.  Some options do turn mushy and soggy though when canned, so I avoid soft vegetables and mushrooms. During the summer I avoid the canned section but some things don't appear in fresh form or even frozen. I haven't figured out what to do with hearts of palm though...  anyone want to share a recipe?

  • Organic - this means the item was grown not only "without" pesticides or chemical fertilizers, but more importantly, it was grown "with" healthy soil, enriched by compost and natural soil enhancers like bone meal and certain rock dusts to replace minerals lost.It also usually means the planning of the farm includes ideas like crop rotation, intentional flooding, and sometimes heirloom varieties. It's much more than a lack of chemicals, it's a philosophy for healthy food production.  Here's what the USDA has to say about their organic label, although there are others you can research such as Oregon Tilth and National Standards Foundation. Some smaller, local ones also exist in some states.

    • Non-GMO - all organic foods are automatically not GMO (genetically engineered, or Genetically Modified Organisms).  What does that mean?   GMO is different from a planned hybridization of varieties of plants.  But it's not true that only hybridized plants are safe.  People who are gluten free are aware of the debacle of trticale, a variety of wheat that is NOT a GMO, yet manages to be more toxic to people with Celiac disease and NCGS (non-celiac gluten sensitivity). It's a hybrid.

    • The concern many people have about GMOs is the presence of larger than normal amounts of glyphosate in "Roundup Ready" plants.  20 years ago, I hadn't heard a word against soy, now it's one of the major allergens, and there are scores of men,and some women avoiding it because of estrogenic effects and other health concerns.  Now that superweeds are making glyphosate obsolete anyway, it's certain that new GMOs will appear.
    • There is a butterfly designation on non-GMO products (scroll down to Key Principles) which is a certification that the product is not contain any ingredients that came from GMO materials.  It's an excellent standard overall, but it doesn't ensure organic or gluten free of course.
 Much of the backlash against GMOs is due to the agribusiness industry's unwillingness to be transparent about the presence of GMOs in the food supply. They have an absolute notion that all food modifications and all chemistry in general is no different from any other modification, such as hybridizing. They make unreasonable claims like creating a false equivalence between chemical fertilizers and composting. 
It's perhaps unfortunate that they chose a peanut protein in one of the first GMO foods (Soybeans in 1995). Peanuts are a very common allergen that can cause such a severe reaction that it leads to the death of children around the world.  Thus,they scared many families.  But they continued to lobby and fight any regulation of the new crops, even shutting down contact with scientists and researchers who did not share their views.  It's the industry's totalitarian viewpoint that largely fuels the backlash. 
    • In any case as a result, the Organic label has gained even more popularity because nothing GMO can be labeled Organic.  When shopping, remember this list or take it with you.. they are the possible or probable GMOs in the supermarket:  
  • Squash, (yellow and zucchini)
  • Cotton
  • Soybean
  • Corn
  • Papaya (!!)
  • Alfalfa (in supplements too)
  • Sugar beets
  • Canola
  • Potato
  • Apples
    •  Non-browning apples and potatoes tend to be obvious because if you let one sit on your counter, it never browns, and often won't "go bad" for a month or longer, then it will just dry out.  It's eerie. I've had "bad" potatoes that looked perfectly fine but the flavor was horrible.  It had gone bad, but it still looked fine, I suspect that was a GMO.  I first thought that Organic Cotton T-shirts were a fad... but now I realize, the popularity is probably driven by fear of GMOs. 
  •  Locally grown (and Farm to Table programs in restaurants) - This designation doesn't mean it's Organic, but a locally grown vegetable is going to have a much shorter trip from farm to your table. Several healthy eating systems suggest that people should buy seasonally and limit choices.  But I think in this modern era the real question is, how far away did the food come from? The longer the trip from the field to the plate, the fewer vitamins are delivered.  Besides, you'll get a chance to chat with your neighbors.  It's much more fun than the grocery store!

General Tips:

  • Beware of too much absolutism.  That goes double for food fashions.  Even if I lived surrounded by 6 farms and 3 ranches, I still wouldn't limit my food to only those sources.  The reason is that it's a huge risk to do so today (the same risk didn't exist when farm inputs were mostly from natural materials instead of purified chemicals).  Farmlands have been used and reused for generations now, with only NPK being replaced (nitrogen, phosphate and potassium).  Not many of them have been Organic until recently.  The soils are depleted.  If the local soil was missing something like Zinc, I'd be in trouble, since I have immune related illness. The same goes for other illnesses that have a nutritional component.
  • Remember the one food almost everyone forgets:  Seaweed.  Iodized salt has lost its fashionable glow, and that's partly because the iodine in it has been lowered, and partly because it always contains additives that are worrisome.  But before iodized salt, we had more birth defects and more mothers who couldn't bear a second child because the first baby had taken all her iodine, and back then they didn't know how to fix the thyroid if that happened. Iodine is a huge big deal, and the safest source is seaweed.  You can read more about the modern iodine deficiency here:  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2957951/   The simplest way to begin here is either to eat more sushi, wrapped in Nori, or use a sprinkle of dulse flakes (from the spice section of the store). Here are some more sources of dietary iodine.
  •  The best food in the world can still be cooked to death, or stored too long, or otherwise made unhealthful.  Take a look at what the NIH has to say about loss of vitamin C due to storage:  https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminC-HealthProfessional/#h3 " The vitamin C content of food may be reduced by prolonged storage and by cooking because ascorbic acid is water soluble and is destroyed by heat "  This is also true for many other vitamins.  Eat them fast, if you're going to cook them, be gentle and quick, then freeze or eat the results in a week's time. 
  • To reduce waste, buy what you will cook within two days.  If it's salad, expect to buy it three times a week, and buy small amounts.  One of the most disheartening things about trying to eat healthier is having to throw out things you forgot where there.  
  •  My advice is, make a big stew/sauce in a large pot, and freeze 80% of it in smaller containers.  That way you always have some precooked veggies to add to whatever tonight's meal is.  A good recipe to learn is Ratatouille. It will also force you to learn your knife skills, which are essential if you're making homemade fresh foods. I've spent tons of money on kitchen doodads, and they're all worthless except the rotary cheese grater (which has a special use if you like walnuts, but "that's another show").  Trust me, knife skills are the way to go. 
    •  If you can't stand up in the kitchen long enough to chop everything.  That's ok... put a small table in there and a chair and sit down.  My grandmother cooked like that until she was in her 90s! Actually she started cooking that way in her 60s. Remembering that made me feel better when I started being unable to stand up for long periods of time. 
  •  Beware of poison mushrooms!  No, I don't mean the kind you find in the woods, although, yes, you shouldn't go picking mushrooms without an expert at your elbow.  I mean, most mushrooms are grown on gluten filled media today!!  Sometimes shiitake mushrooms are grown on natural logs and if so they are safe, otherwise, who knows?  Try to locate a local mushroom grower and quiz them about their mushroom media.  Or seek out a local mushroom expert who sells picked wild mushrooms.  On rare occasions, supermarkets will carry wild mushroom assortments.  They may be safe, but double check with the produce manager.

Finally, ask your family for family recipes.  You will be drawn farther into cooking if it feels like a tradition to you.  Dig out ethnic cookbooks.  I'm a bit closer to my ethnic roots, but every American I've ever met tells me they are "Irish" or "German" or "French" or "Welsh" or "Jewish"  etc...  Dig into those foods and see if they suit you. Or find books on "All American" cooking if you prefer not to label yourself.  Chili started here, and so did the American version of Goulash.  Casseroles may have roots elsewhere but they're easy to make, cheap and nutritious.  This summer, find your fresh food passions, the more the better!

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