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Navigating Natural Food Markets

Natural and organic food markets have sprouted up everywhere, offering shoppers an alternative to conventional supermarkets. Health-conscious consumers now have a nearby source for “natural” foods, such as organic produce and other foods that are free of antibiotics, preservatives, growth hormones and trans fats.

But natural food markets can still pose challenges for shoppers. As in larger chain supermarkets, floor layouts in natural food markets are designed to get you to fill your cart with the most tempting and not always healthiest items. Even the best stores use covert tactics and strategic diversions to entice unsuspecting shoppers to bulk up on unnecessary and fat-laden treats. Healthy items are within your grasp in natural food markets, but it takes a steady eye and a solid plan to resist temptation while in the throes of food shopping.

Danger Signs to Avoid While Shopping
The layout of a natural food store can be challenging for even the smartest shoppers. Learn how to spot and navigate around the danger signs in store aisles before your next visit to the market.

Organic Labels
The term “organic” means that the food is more than 70% free of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, growth hormones, antibiotics, irradiation and genetic modification. Organic does not mean the product is low fat, low sodium, fat free, low calorie, nutrient dense, rich in phytochemicals or even plain old healthy. It simply means it has been certified “organic” by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Gourmet Food Section
Part of the lure of a natural market is the delicious, gourmet cuisine that often greets you when you come in the door. This strategically placed array of pre-made wraps, focaccia bread sandwiches, spinach lasagna, wasabi-sesame-crusted tuna, grilled veggies and tofu meatloaf all conspire to defeat your best intentions–especially if you arrive hungry to shop! The good news is that those shiny cases do contain some healthy and fabulous choices; you just need to find them!

When in doubt, go for the greens, says Kyle Shadix, MS, RD, chef and director of Nutrition and Culinary Consultants in New York City. “The more veggies, the better,” he says. “Shy away from cream-based soups and sauces. Look for foods that aren’t marinated or swimming in oil.”

Steer clear of any food that is breaded or fried, advises Connie Guttersen, PhD, RD, author of The Sonoma Diet (Meredith 2005) and The Sonoma Diet Cookbook (Meredith 2006). “When looking at prepared dishes, pay attention to the type of ingredients listed,” she says. “If it is a grain dish, [pick one with] whole grains, beans, legumes and lean proteins.” Guttersen also cautions that a “meatless [entrée] is not always lighter or healthier” than one that contains meat and that it is important to check the label for oil, whole-fat cheese or cream.

The Designer Cheeses
Traditional, specialty, farmhouse or “artisan” cheese: no matter what designer label you put on them, these creamy blocks of love can make your head spin and your waistline expand if you overindulge. While cheese does contain protein, calcium and riboflavin, less is more when it comes to even designer varieties.

When selecting cheese, remember that the harder varieties typically have more fat and calories,” says Shadix. Per ounce, gourmet cheeses that are lowest in calories and fat are your best bets. Opt for goat cheese, Camembert or Brie. If you are craving less healthy cheeses such as Havarti, Pecorino Romano or blue cheese, make sure you keep your slices thin or simply pass on the cheese, please.

Bins of Bulk Foods Many health food markets greet customers with bins and bins of basic fare, such as pasta, nuts and flours. Keep in mind that these are not sampling troughs for your eating enjoyment&mdashyou may find yourself overbuying products because the bins seem bottomless. Experts say you can and should buy in bulk to save some money and to help the environment, but remember to purchase only what you need.

“The bins are always fresh, involve little packaging waste and give customers the option to choose a handful or a barrel-full,” says Vanessa Abel, community marketing coordinator for a health food market in Columbus, Ohio. Fortunately for shoppers, food labels providing nutritional breakdowns are usually stamped right on the bins, so you can make informed decisions.

Frozen & Faux Foods
More and more natural food markets are stocking up on frozen and “faux-meat” entrées to attract harried health-conscious shoppers. Stamped “organic” or “natural,” these products are convenient, but they can pack a lot of calories and fat into a serving size.

Occasionally indulging in a frozen pizza from one of these stores is probably not a problem if your overall diet is healthy. But don’t assume that a slice of pizza is low fat simply because you bought it at a natural food market. Some varieties can dish up a generous amount of total fat, so always scan the nutrition facts panels.

The wide variety of meat alternatives now on display can also push the fat envelope. Although they may offer less fat and fewer calories than the “real thing,” faux products can still provide more than a nugget of fat, some of which may be saturated. Flip the boxes and choose a meat substitute that provides the taste you are looking for with the least amount of fat. Pay close attention to the grams of saturated fat.

Dressings & Condiments
More and more health-conscious consumers are buying fancy, expensive leafy greens to liven up their salads. Right next to the pricey plastic bags of baby spinach, you may spot an array of creamy, oily, spicy, garlicky, cheesy dressings. The problem is that many of these special sauces are loaded with fat, even if the labels boast that the dressings are free of trans fats and the ingredients are certified organic. Look for the “light” salad toppers that are now available in a cornucopia of flavors. You can also add flavor without adding calories by topping salads with wine- or herb-infused vinegars and Meyer lemon- or blood orange-infused olive oil.

Another way to spice up your food is to use tasty and healthy condiments and herbs. “There are many delicious and interesting spice rubs, featuring the flavors of North Africa, Latin America, Asia and the Mediterranean,” says Guttersen. “Try using sea salt [instead of] regular salt. It comes in different varieties&mdashsuch as pink Persian, smoked and even black&mdashand adds an interesting flavor.” A modest amount of sea salt goes a long way, she adds.

The Checkout Counter
The most important thing when shopping at any health food market is to enjoy yourself. The purveyors of these alternative food stores have gone to great lengths to provide you with a unique experience, so sample what they offer and make smart choices. Just look out for the danger signs in order to stay on the healthiest course!

Jenna A. Bell-Wilson, PhD, RD, CSSD, is a nutrition consultant and writer in the Greater Boston Area.

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