Green Grocery Shopping Tips

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Being a Green Grocery Shopper

Love it or hate it, we all have to eat – and that usually means grocery shopping. While you're browsing the aisles and checking items off your list, though, think about a few ways you can be a “green” grocery shopper and, in turn, reduce your footprint on the environment.

*Avoid individually packaged items. We often have options as the supermarket to buy items that are “conveniently” packaged in individual units to make packing lunches and eating-on-the-go easier. Food such as yogurt, pudding, granola bars, soft drinks, juice, cereal, and snack foods may come in packages of multiple single-serving sizes in addition to larger, “bulk” sizes. Even though the individual sizes do seem more convenient, they also produce more waste with their packaging than the larger sizes. You can buy the larger sizes and then divide up the food at home in reusable containers to avoid the excess garbage.

*Bring your own bags Instead of allowing the bagger to bag your groceries in disposable plastic or paper bags, bring your own bags made of cloth, mesh, or other recycled material to reduce the garbage produced by grocery bags. Some specialty grocery stores even offer incentives in the form of discounts to people who bring their own bags.

*Avoid as much packaging as you can In the produce aisle, do you really need to put your bananas, head of lettuce, or bunch of carrots in a plastic bag? You'll probably end up throwing the bag away anyway, so bypass the plastic in the produce aisle and wait until you get home where you can store the food in a reusable container.

*Buy items in recycled packaging Many items today are packaged in recycled paper or plastic, which is labeled on the bag or box. Look for items that are labeled as such, and that have a high percentage of recycled content in their packaging. Also look for items that are packaged in recyclable containers – either ones that you can drop off at a designated point, or ones that you can use yourself at home to reduce your own garbage.


Buying Organic Produce

Many people believe that buying organic produce is essential to their health and well-being – not to mention that organic produce is often tastier than non-organic. Buying organic produce means purchasing fruits and vegetables that are grown with less pesticides and with natural fertilizer (as opposed to synthetic). In America, if produce has a USDA Certified Organic label, consumers can be sure that they are buying fruits or vegetables that are at least 95% organic.

Although buying organic is an excellent idea, much organic produce is more expensive than its non-organic counterpart. If you're interested in saving money at the grocery store, but still want to be as green as possible, it's important to know which fruits and vegetables are most likely to be contaminated by pesticides -- and therefore are more important to buy organic.

The fruits that are most likely to be contaminated are:

• Apples

• Apricots

• Cherries

• Grapes

• Nectarines

• Peaches

• Red raspberries

• Strawberries

The vegetables that are most likely to be contaminated are:

• Celery

• Green beans

• Peppers

• Spinach

Note that most of these are fruits and vegetables whose skin is consumed, and therefore it's important to think about what kinds of pesticides and fertilizer they have been treated with. Remember, always wash your produce before eating it – even if you've bought organic – because even organic fruits and vegetables can have some residual pesticides or fertilizer on their skins.


Buying All Natural -- Is It Worth It?

When you shop in a specialty store, a health food store, or even the organic or “natural” section of your grocery store, you'll be barraged with products that are labeled as “all natural.” What, exactly, does that mean? And are all natural products worth the extra money?

One thing to remember when buying “all natural” is that an all natural label does not automatically mean less calories, fat, or carbs. In fact, often all natural products are laden with sugar (sweeteners like cane sugar and honey are, indeed, all natural) or carbohydrates (whole grain bread, brown rice, and the like may be all natural but still high in carbohydrates). So if you're looking for a reduced-something diet, don't assume that all-natural is automatically the way to go. Even though all natural does not mean reduced fat, calories, or carbs, in general all-natural is a healthier way to go.

All-natural foods are made without traditional preservatives (all those ingredients you can't pronounce on the label) and use “alternative” sweeteners and preservatives that are made from fruit, vegetables, and other natural sources. Some not-so-great things you'll avoid if you stick with all-natural food are trans fats and corn syrup.

Trans fats (anything labeled “partially hydrogenated”) came into being in the 1950s and for a long time were widely used in food as a preservative. Recently, some doctors and nutritionists are reporting alarming side effects of trans fats (among them, a link between trans fats and heart problems), and many people are trying to stay away from them. Corn syrup is another ingredient often found in prepackaged food, and it is usually used as a sweetener. Like with trans fats, many doctors are now warning against excessive consumption of corn syrup, citing a link between corn syrup and a higher risk for diabetes.

One other thing to consider when buying all-natural food is that since they use less preservatives, the shelf life of all-natural foods is often shorter than their non-natural counterparts.


Green in the Cleaning Aisle

If you shop at specialty or health food stores – or even stores that attempt to be environmentally conscious – you may see many products in the cleaning aisle that are different than what you're used to. What is the advantage of green cleaning products? And what should you look for in your cleaning products to be environmentally conscious? Many standard cleaning products have harmful chemicals or toxins that have been associated with everything from cancer to reproductive disorders.

Phosphates (in dishwashing detergent), flammable toxins like nitrobenzene (in wood polish), and bleach (in laundry detergent) can all cause harm to our home and local environments. Many toxins also irritate the skin, eyes, and lungs. By switching to cleaning products with low toxicity or biodegradable ingredients, you can reduce your exposure to harmful chemicals and lower your risk for chemical-related sicknesses.

Look for detergent without phosphates and bleach, both of which irritate and pollute groundwater. If you aren't sure about the “green” products offered in the cleaning aisle, there are simple home remedies for cleaning that are completely safe and nontoxic. For example, if you pour a quarter cup of baking soda down a clogged drain, follow with a half of a cup of vinegar, and then flush the mixture with boiling water after it has stopped fizzing, the remedy should do the job of a normal, toxic drain cleaner. Baking soda and corn starch can safely deodorize carpet, and lemon juice or white vinegar and salt will take care of mildew.

By sticking with green cleaning products or making your own, you avoid the pollutants common to most households and eliminate the storage issues that many parents face for hazardous cleaning products.


Buying Local

Most of us today run into the Super-Mega Amazingly Comprehensive Supermarket – one of which is most likely conveniently located on each corner on our way home from work – to buy our fruits and vegetables. But how long has that food been sitting there? Where was it grown? Under what conditions? One of the problems with produce from supermarkets – even produce labeled organic – is that you have no idea how old it is.

Where it was grown, how long it took to get to the store you're shopping at, and then how long it has been on display all add to the age of the fruit or vegetable you may be purchasing. And the longer a piece of fruit or vegetable sits, the less nutritious is becomes.

Although supermarkets are convenient, there is a better way to be a green shopper. That way is to buy your produce locally. Farmer's markets are perhaps the best-known, and the best, way to be a local shopper. Usually held on weekends, farmer's markets bring together local growers and producers to sell their wares and chat with customers. You can buy produce that was harvested as recently as a day before; what's even better, you can ask the vendor how fresh the items are and about his farming methods, so you can be “in the know” about what you're going to be eating.

Another benefit to buying local is the reduced need for packaging; since the food is only traveling a short way, and since it is going to be sold much sooner than food in a supermarket, the need for extensive packaging is gone. Lastly, when you buy from local growers, you are supporting people right in your own back yard. This support helps the local economy and will be a benefit to your community.


Beyond Food Shopping for Green Health and Beauty Products

Many specialty stores that focus on healthy living and wholesome foods have extensive health, beauty, and spa sections with tons of products for you to peruse. Often, these sections, often called “Healthy Living” or “Holistic Health” sections of the store, focus on environmental- and body-friendly products with only natural ingredients and recycled or recyclable packing, and beauty products that avoid animal testing. These sections are wonderful resources for health and beauty products, but can be somewhat daunting if you don't know what you're looking for. Use these guides to determine what you'd like to put in your cart.

• Hair Care Products: When shopping for environmental- and health- friendly hair care products, look for shampoo and conditioner that have all natural ingredients, rather than ingredients you can't pronounce. Essential oils of plants such as chamomile, mint, honeysuckle, and lavender; lemon, sunflower, and marigold extract; and other botanical ingredients usually mean not only a great-working shampoo or conditioner, but also a great scent as well. When buying hair styling products, avoid aerosol containers, products made with animal ingredients, artificial colors, and parabens (synthetic preservatives).

• Vitamins and Supplements: Most “healthy living” sections of specialty stores have a variety of vitamins and supplements to choose from to help you do everything from remember better to get rid of your cold. While there are way too many supplements to discuss each one in-depth individually, the most important point to remember about buying supplements is to do your homework. Many vitamins and supplements are not regulated by the FDA, meaning they are not subject to the same strict regulations that prescription and over-the-counter drugs are. Make sure you know what the supplement is for and what supplements you should avoid, based on your health; for example, if you are on an anticoagulant, you should avoid ginseng supplements, and if you are pregnant you should not take evening primrose supplements.

• Beauty Products: When shopping for ecologically sound beauty products, look for makeup, face, and body care products that use only natural scents (nothing artificial), natural colors, and ingredients you recognize. Rose water, beeswax, mint, tea tree oil, almond milk, and avocado all have documented properties that will soothe and cleanse your skin and make it glow. As a rule, products with fewer ingredients are usually more earth-friendly.


What is "Organic?"

Part of green living, to many people, is the purchase and consumption of organic produce, dairy products, eggs, and meat. But what exactly does “organic” mean? And how do you know that the products you're buying are, indeed, organic? According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), organic meats, dairy products, and eggs come from animals that are not given growth hormones or antibiotics; organic produce is grown without the use of most pesticides and is free of ionizing radiation and is not bioengineered.

There are national organic standards that a product must meet in order to be worthy of the “organic” label, and in 2002 the USDA developed additional labeling rules that a product must meet in order to be able to sport the official USDA organic seal. (See a picture of the seal here: If a product is labeled with the seal, American consumers can be sure that it is at least 95% organic. European organic suppliers must conform to European Community regulations that were established in 1993. While the USDA makes no official claim regarding the health benefits of organic produce, meat, eggs, and dairy products, common sense dictates that eating less pesticides on fruits and vegetables and less hormone-altered beef and chicken can only be good for one's body. Many proponents of organic products also claim they taste better, with more a more “authentic” taste than the products' non-organic counterparts.


Paper or Plastic?

Almost everyone has heard that to help the environment at the grocery store you need to choose paper bags over plastic. But why is this? And with new manufacturing technology, does that adage still hold true?

In a study done in 1990, paper and plastic bags were assessed based on both the energy used to produce the bags and the pollutants produced from the bags. The study had interesting results. Researchers found that products of two plastic bags used only 87% of the energy used to produce one paper bag. To produce a paper bag, high amounts of coal, wood, and petroleum are used, resulting in a total energy usage of 1,680 kilojules (kj). Plastic bags, on the other hand, use petroleum and natural gas, and use only 1,470 kj to produce two.

In looking at the pollutants generated by both plastic bags and paper, plastic bags again came out the winner. Researchers divided the pollutants into three different waste categories: solid, atmospheric, and waterborne. In every category, two plastic bags produced less pollution than did one paper bag. There are flip sides to the argument, however.

While plastic takes less energy to produce than paper, and produces less pollutants, paper can be composted, while plastic cannot. Also, a common energy source to produce plastic bags is nuclear fission, which results in radioactive waste – a potentially harmful pollutant in its own right. So what is the right answer? Unfortunately, there is no clear cut winner. If you really want to be as contentious as possible when bagging your groceries, bring your own string or cloth bags that can be reused.


Health Food Stores

While most of us duck into the local chain supermarket to buy most of our groceries, there may be a healthier alternative right around the corner: a health food store. Health food stores are not dark little holes-in-the-wall only for strict vegetarians or people with “crazy” eating habits – they can be a great location for anyone to shop for healthier foods than what you may find in the local supermarket.

In fact, some health food and specialty stores today are positively upscale, selling not only organic produce, meat, and dairy products, but with a plethora of baked goods, scrumptious ready-to-eat meals at to-go counters, and posh bath and spa sections with a variety of health and beauty products.

At health food or specialty stores, you also may be able to find items that you may not be able to locate in the grocery section of the Super Wal-Mart. For example, many specialty stores sell myriad gluten-free products, unusual produce, all-natural pet food, homeopathic remedies, specialty juices and coffee, and “alternative” baking supplies such as spelt, rice, and potato flower and carob.

Some items at health food stores may seem more pricey than similar items at the grocery store, but health food and specialty stores are committed to a high level of quality and to providing healthy and wholesome alternatives to “regular” grocery items. You can be sure that your money is going towards a better lifestyle. To find a health food store near you, consult your phone book or do a Google search on “health food stores your city”.


To Buy or Not to Buy – Items with Trans Fats

You may have recently heard about the dangers of trans fats, and how avoiding them in your diet will help you lead a healthier lifestyle. But what are trans fats? What foods contain them? And why are they so bad?

Trans fats – denoted by kind of oil labeled “partially hydrogenated” in an ingredient list – are used in many different kinds of foods primarily as preservatives. Trans fats were developed to keep products like margarine in a semi-soft state.

Through a chemical process, the molecular makeup of corn, vegetable, soy, or other oil is altered to keep it firm rather than reverting to its original liquid form. Trans fats are found in virtually any kind of processed food, from snack foods (like potato chips, tortilla chips, snack cakes, and cookies) to vegetable shortening to margarine.

Whenever an ingredient label contains an oil labeled “partially hydrogenated,” the food contains trans fats. So what's wrong with trans fats? When they were developed, they revolutionized the food packaging industry and caused much excitement. With the escalation of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity, however, many doctors and nutritionists have turned to our diets to try to figure out what we're eating that is causing the problem – and the finger is continually pointed to trans fats.

Consumption of trans fats are linked to high cholesterol. In fact, many anti-trans fat crusaders cite trans fats as the cause of everything from obesity to cancer. While researchers are still establishing conclusive link between trans fats and various problems, we do know that trans-fats are not natural, and that other, all-natural preservative options are better than partially hydrogenated oils. Interestingly, many European countries have banned trans fats completely from packaged foods, and America has recently changed its labeling requirements for foods with trans fats.

Now, all foods with trans fats must add the percentage/volume directly to the label, so consumers can see what, exactly, they're buying.

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PJ Campbell