Nutrition today is extremely confusing. Misinformation is rampant because of the constant barrage of conflicting studies, advertising and health claims made by the top food companies. It seems that everyone has an opinion, and just when you think the last word has been said the publishing industry turns out yet another dietary theory. Hey, we all have to make a living, I guess…
Most people eating the standard American diet (SAD – acronym that makes an unfortunate amount of sense) believe that by eating whole wheat pasta, low fat dairy and a leaf of iceberg lettuce on their burger they are making good food choices. Sadly, the concept of nutritional density is still a novel idea and we continue to expand our waistline and suffer from chronic illnesses which can’t be cured with a magic pill. In my previous post, “Principles on how to eat well and safely”, I wrote my top tips on how to eat right and my hope for it was to dispel some common myths that are still being fed to the public. Today I want to introduce you to three tools that can help you make better food choices while you are at the supermarket.
1. Dirty Dozen vs. Clean Fifteen
The Environmental Group (EWG), a wonderful environmental health research and advocacy organization, analyzed pesticide residue testing data from the USDA and FDA to develop rankings for popular fruits and vegetables. Based on the results, EWG published its Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce which helps consumers determine which fruits and vegetables have the most pesticide residues and thus which are the most important to buy organic. By avoiding the produce on their list, you can lower your pesticide exposure by avoiding the 12 most contaminated fruits and vegetables and choosing the least contaminated produce.
Not surprisingly, the most commonly grown fruits and vegetables, such as apples and celery, are on their dirty list. Since these are the foods some of us feed to our families almost daily, it’s extra important to buy them organic to avoid cumulative exposure.
Note that while not on the Dirty Dozen list, most Hawaiian papayas, some zucchini and sweet corn are genetically modified, so it you want to avoid GMO foods, please consider purchasing these fruits and vegetables organically grown.
2. ANDI Score
ANDI stands for Aggregate Nutrient Density Index and is a reference system which measures the nutrient density of foods and rates the micronutrients-per-calorie on a scale of 1 to 1000, with 1,000 being the most nutrient-dense and 0 being the least nutrient-dense. The ANDI score calculation takes into consideration an extensive range of vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals to provide a more accurate nutritional profile for each food.
The system was developed by Dr. Joel Furhman, who calls himself a “nutritarian”, or “someone whose food choices reflect a high ratio of micronutrients per calorie and a high level of micronutrient variety”. He believes that “adequate consumption of micronutrients – vitamins, minerals, and many other phytochemicals – without overeating on calories, is the key to achieving excellent health. Micronutrients fuel proper functioning of the immune system and enable the detoxification and cellular repair mechanisms that protect us from chronic diseases.”
It was enlightening for me to realize just how nutrient packed the leafy green family (kale, mustard greens, watercress) truly was, while dairy, eggs and meat are at the bottom of the range. How do your food choices stack up?
Click here for a detailed guide.
3. Super Quick Guide to Reading PLU Produce Labels
I love this simple way to quickly distinguish between organic and conventional produce. I am talking about those white stickers affixed to produce in grocery stores with price look-up codes, or PLUs. These are identification numbers to make check-out and inventory control easier and more accurate. While not meant as a communication tool for the consumer, it’s a quick way for you to identify whether that banana or apple is truly organic. Take an apple for example: The industry standard PLU code for Pink Lady apples is 4130. But don’t worry, this doesn’t mean you have to remember a number for everything you buy.
The numbers all mean something and here is how to read that code:
- A 4 digit PLU code starting with the number 3 or 4 indicates that the apple was conventionally grown, meaning it was most likely sprayed with pesticides. Thus the PLU for a conventionally grown Pink Lady apple is 4130.
- A 5 digit PLU code starting with the number 9 indicates that the apple was organically grown. An organically grown Pink Lady Apple would be 94130.
- A 5 digit PLU code starting with the number 8 indicates that the produce was genetically modified (and potentially sprayed with synthetic pesticides). A genetically modified Pink Lady apple would in theory be marked 84130.
HOWEVER, it’s a completely voluntary system and NOT designed to communicate with the consumer. While grocery stores would probably opt to add a 9 in hopes that consumers are willing to pay more for an organic product, retailers are not so keen on adding an 8 since most consumers indicated they would avoid GMO foods if they were labeled as such. So while it is not a perfect system and it most likely won’t help you avoid GMO produce, it does help me to quickly identify organic foods in my supermarket.