25 Instant Supermarket Secrets

If you were Justin Bieber, eating well wouldn’t be nearly as hard. Ditto for Lady Gaga, LeBron James, Ashton Kutcher, Michael Bloomberg, and Derek Jeter. All those folks have one thing in common: vast wealth. And eating well can get really, really expensive.

Over the past few years, the cost of vegetables, meat, fruit, and other high-nutrition, low-calorie foods has increased by an average of 19.5 percent. Junk food, on the other hand, is getting cheaper—down by 1.8 percent. Researchers recently estimated that, on a junk-food diet, you could eat for $3.52 a day. But a healthy diet would cost a whopping $36.32 a day!

Fortunately, in researching our latest book, Eat This, Not That! 2011, we unearthed a slew of smart supermarket shopping tips that can help you navigate the aisles with ease. You’ll save money and calories at the same time. Now that’s a deal.

1. Fewer ingredients = healthier food
Why is food with fewer ingredients healthier? Because additives and preservatives signal added calories, not added nutrition. Real food fills you up with the nutrients that keep you healthy—like protein, fiber, and healthy fats.

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2. “Good source of” may mean “bad for you”
You’ll see the claim “good source of” on cereals, crackers, and Pop-Tarts. The thing is, rarely are these vitamins worth the calories they’re embedded in. They’re usually just run-of-the-mill vitamins that processors are required to add to enriched flour—vitamins that can actually wash off your cereal the minute you add milk to it!

Work the Edges3. Work the edges
When it comes to planning your path through the supermarket, stick to the fringes and venture only strategically into the aisles. The reason: The edges of the supermarket are where you find the healthiest food: dairy, produce, meats, and seafood. The aisles? That’s junk-food haven, the processed-food jungle, the nutritional dead zone.

4. Look high and low
Food vendors pay “slotting fees” to ensure that their most-profitable foods get placed in the most conspicuous spots—meaning eye-level on the supermarket shelf. The problem with this practice is that “most profitable” generally means “cheapest to make” and “nutritionally inferior.” Make your selections from the top and bottom of the shelves, where smaller companies tend to congregate.

5. Beat the breakfast blues
The best breakfasts for all-day productivity are high in protein and low in refined carbohydrates, so even if there were no price difference, eggs would be a much better choice over a bowl of cereal (especially a sickly sweet variety). That said, there is a substantial price difference. Say you can scrounge five bowls from one box—that's 90 cents a meal (without the milk). A dozen eggs, though, makes six meals—each for an average of 31 cents. By eating cereal over eggs, you're spending three times as much money on a meal that’s not as healthy. Easy choice, right?

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Frozen Fruit6. Buy frozen fruit in cold weather
The price of fresh fruits out of season is significantly higher than when they're in season, due to transportation costs. And if you want to get your money's worth, you'll need to eat them within three days of buying, so they don't spoil. One cup of frozen blueberries gives you just as much fiber as the raw variety, and a handful of fewer calories. While fresh blueberries offer 18 percent more vitamin C, that difference isn't worth the extra cost.

7. “Reduced fat” may make you fat
Sometimes, the full fat version of a product is more nutritious. Consider: Cookies and crackers often claim to contain “a third less fat than the original.” But that fat hasn’t just vanished—it’s been replaced by extra doses of sugar, starch, and sodium. They might have dropped the fat from 4 to 3 grams, but they’re hitting you with 2 grams extra sugar and 300 mg extra sodium.

8. Check yourself out
A study from the University of Arizona found that the more exposure a person has to temptation, the more likely he or she is to give in. That means you’re 25 percent more likely to buy a candy bar when you’re stuck in a line flanked by candy racks.

Supermarket Line9. Shop on Wednesday nights
According to Progressive Grocer, only 11 percent of shoppers go to the store on Wednesdays, and only 4 percent of customers shop after 9 p.m. Why does this matter? For the same reason that you should check yourself out—you’ll avoid long lines, which means you’ll spend less time standing in front of calorie-laden impulse indulgences.

10. “Natural” doesn’t mean squat
Outside of meat and seafood, the word “Natural” when applied to foods is completely unregulated. So when you see 7Up Natural, a loaf of “natural” bread, or a product that claims to be “made with natural sugar,” that doesn’t really mean anything. For more outrageous examples of foods that sound healthy, but actually aren’t, be sure to check out—and beware of—these 25 “Healthy” Foods That Aren’t.

11. Bulk up when you can
Discount clubs like Costco and Sam’s Club are great—but only for things that won’t spoil and foods that won’t prove to be too tempting. For instance, toilet paper and frozen chicken are great to buy in bulk. A 15-pound bag of oranges or a pallet of Oreos is not.

12. Don’t buy the hype
Every year the food industry spends $30 billion on advertising, and nearly half of that goes toward convenience foods, candy, soda, and dessert. Make your purchases by comparing ingredient statements and nutrition labels—not by who stuck the cutest cartoon on the front of the box.

Chicken Leg13. Choose chicken leg over breast
The chicken breast is the healthiest cut of meat you can buy. But the dark-meat chicken leg is almost equally healthy, will save you 89 cents a pound, and scores higher in nutritional value than all cuts of beef except for kidney and liver.

14. Ask when the next shipment arrives
Most restaurants receive shipments of fish or meat on certain days of the week, which means you don’t want to buy the fish the day before the next shipment arrives. The same might hold true for your own butcher or fish monger. Ask him when the shipment comes in, and buy on that day for the freshest product.

15. Look in unlikely places
Walmart has traditionally been considered a price leader in groceries, but only recently has the retailer started taking produce seriously. Now the chain is a great place to buy organic produce and dairy. According to a recent article in The Atlantic, Walmart's entry into the organic game may be a major factor in the dropping prices of organic foods. And of course, farmer's markets are still the best place for unique local foods and small-batch artisan products.

16. “Lightly sweetened” could mean “sugar overload”
This is another term that’s completely unregulated, so processors use it however they please. In Smart Start, that means 14 grams of sugar per cup. That’s more than Froot Loops.

Bonus Tip: For a list of other foods you should avoid at all costs, check out our shocking list of The NEW 20 Worst Foods in America.

Diet Drinks17. Don’t fall for diet drinks
Here’s the thing about diet soda: It’s great if you’re using it as a stepping stone from full-sugar soda to water. But it’s counterproductive if you drink it every single day. That’s because research has found that artificial sweeteners make you crave real sugar—so drinking diet soda makes resisting super-sweetened foods and drinks that much harder.

18. Buy real juice
Most fruit drinks are made from only a fraction of real juice, and the rest is some unholy combination of sugar and water. What you want from a fruit juice is 100 percent juice—and no added sugar. That way you know that you’re getting as many nutrients from the drink as you possibly can, and none of the garbage. But, along those lines . . .

19. Don’t be 100 percent misled
Drinks may be labeled 100 percent pure juice, but that doesn't mean they're made exclusively with the advertised juice. Take Tropicana Pure 100% Juice Pomegranate Blueberry, for example. Pomegranate and blueberry get top billing here, even though the ingredient list reveals that pear, apple, and grape juices are among the first four ingredients. These juices are used because they're cheap to produce and they're very sweet—which means you're likely to come back for more. (To see more proof of how wayward beverages can utterly destroy your diet, check out the 20 Worst Drinks in America. Many of these drinks contain more than a day's worth of calories, sugar, and fat!)

20. “Zero grams of trans fat” may include trans fat!
Some products carry the “Zero grams of trans fat” claim when they do, in fact, contain trans fats. The FDA allows this claim as long as the food contains less than half a gram per serving. But serving size is whatever the food marketer wants it to be. So if the processor claims that, say, a serving is one cookie, you could easily get 3 full grams of trans fats by eating 6 “no trans fat” cookies. If you see “partially hydrogenated oil” on the ingredient statement, rest assured that it contains trans fat. 

21. Compare the front label with the back
If all the previous tips about the importance of good ingredients hasn’t convinced you to do this, maybe Dean’s Guacamole will. Guacamole is good for you because it’s made from avocados, right? But look at Dean’s label: Whatever this “guacamole dip” is, it ain’t guacamole. Avocado makes up less than 2 percent of the food! Always read the ingredients list.

22. Steer clear of 100-calorie packs
In a 2007 study, Brown University researchers found that people ate the same amount of cookies and chips regardless of whether they ate from a large, multiserving bag or single-serving packs. The key factor: The actual amount of cookies and chips people kept in their homes.

Smaller Plates23. Invest in smaller plates and bowls
Researchers have found that people will generally eat whatever food is in front of them—relying on environmental cues to know when to stop eating, rather than internal triggers of fullness. The average American plate has increased in diameter in the past 20 years—battle the bulge by buying (or using) smaller plates. Try 8- instead of 12-inch plates.

24. Consider canola oil
Save the pricey olive oil for dressing salads or drizzling lightly over grilled vegetables. Canola's neutral flavor is great for cooking, and it happens to have an even better ratio of monounsaturated to saturated fat than the vaunted extra virgin. Olive oil can cost as much as a dollar per ounce, while high-end canola costs about 25 cents.

25. Learn to love lentils
When going for grains, choose lentils over brown rice to save money. A pound-size bag has 11 grams of fiber and 10 grams of protein in each of its 13 servings. It's also one of the world's richest sources of folate, a B vitamin that helps form oxygen-carrying red blood cells and promotes communication between nerves cells. You'll gain all that good stuff, while saving an average of 41 cents per pound if you choose lentils over brown rice.

Bonus Tip: Don't let all of your hard work go down the drain. Avoid this shocking list of the Scariest Food Creations of 2010!

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