A brief guide to the supermarket
Don’t trust the shelves
Note: I have adapted most of these tips from a book I read by Christophe Brusset, “Vous êtes fous d’avaler ça!”. Christophe is a French food engineer and consultant, who spent many years within the industry. The 2013 horse meat scandal persuaded Christophe to reveal the multiple frauds and scams in the food industry. He has not been taken to court by any food companies since the release of his book, which hopefully implies that his experiences have truth behind it. I have adapted the major points from his book for this article, so all credit should be given to him. This is my first attempt at condensing a book from another language to make the knowledge available to a wider audience, so I would appreciate any feedback.
Food companies have little concern about decreasing our overall consumption and their total volume of sales. We can only rely on ourselves to make the right dietary choices and cannot put the trust in the big corporations. Brands are known to use a variety of tricks to persuade us to buy, such as wooden crates to make fruit and vegetables seem organic to green packaging on the shelves to trick our minds that the food is healthy. The book “Brandwashed” by Martin Lindstrom will provide a bit more of an insight on how companies manipulate us to buy if this is of interest to you.
There are a plethora of additional ingredients present in our products in trace amounts that do not even legally need to figure on the ingredients list, such as solvents (i.e hexane) used in the extraction of flavorings and oils, which many people are severely allergic to. In other words, you can have a reaction to something not even present in the ingredients list. Furthermore, added sugars, such as HFCS (high fructose corn syrup) present in a lot of baked goods are extremely violent on the liver.
The food industry does not have our best welfare at heart, with the majority of companies being solely focused on shaving off a few extra pence from their production costs to get one step ahead of their competitor. The food may look nice on the shelves, but if you visited a vast number of the factories that produce our goods you could have an alternative opinion.
Food companies are quick to identify one or two positives in their product, no matter how abstract they are, such as “natural” or “good for bones”, which they then highlight on their packaging. What does “natural” mean in any case? When I see natural flavoring in the ingredients list I always ask myself what does it actually mean and how can companies have the right to avoid disclosing what these ingredients are. Companies can decide themselves whether an ingredient is natural or not following a vague definition, but it’s not a good decision to leave this in the hands of the profit maximisers. Does one positive element of a food item make up for its other more harmful ingredients which can only be identified in the small print of the ingredients list?
We are currently living in a time where we have no idea what we are eating the majority of the time and how it was produced, so it is useful to have a few rules to follow when shopping to limit exposure to toxic additives present in our food and their effects on the body.
Industrial products are here to stay as part of our daily lives due to their practicality. It is up to us to identify and buy the high quality products to force companies to stop finding unethical ways to cut costs. If we keep on buying the wrong products, if will only just give these companies more of an incentive to use wrong practices in their manufacturing.
Below are the key rules to follow when shopping in the supermarket:
Rule 1: Identify the origins of the product
Prioritise local product when making food choices, then regional, national and finally those which come from abroad from countries with a strict culture of hygiene standards. Although not being perfect, the European System of hygiene standards is the most diligent in the world. Often, new norms and standards (such as the bans of certain additives and sanitary measures) are first applied in the EU before being slowly diffused across the globe.
Avoid all Chinese food products, and if possible Indian, Turkish and those from other similar exotic regions. Even though it is possible to find some products of premium quality in these regions, a vast number have been tampered with, such as ketchup from rotten tomatoes, tea full of pesticides, sugar instead of honey mixed with artificial colours and mushrooms or mussels sold full or dirt and sand, so it’s not worth the risk.
The wealthy in China routinely turn towards European, American and Australian food products due to lost faith following the numerous scandals in their food industry. The 2008 Chinese food scandal involved more than 300,000 victims who ingested milk contaminated with added melamine (a derivative of cyanamide used to increase the apparent protein content of the milk).
A majority of honey produced in China is made from a liquid mixture of sugar, so if you see honey from China raise an eyebrow, not to mention the fact that a vast majority of the pollination in the country is now conducted by hand as the bees have been almost completely wiped out.
Pay attention to detail when reading the labels. If an origin adds value to a product, it is not going to be labelled with “outside EU”, think “New Zealand” Manuka honey instead of “made in Australasia” or Tabasco sauce with the “made in US” in the centre of the label instead of “made in North America”.
Rule 2: Avoid the cheapest prices
Eating good quality food should be a human right, but quality has a cost usually, although you can find the odd bargain with careful research. If you want to eat well, be prepared to put aside a bit of money. and do not stock up on the cheapest products.
The majority of frauds can be found among the cheapest prices, and is it really a waste of money to pay a few pence more for a jar of real honey from France than one from China, which is just in reality a concoction of sugars, colourants and aromas. Buy less, but buy smart.
Generally, the supermarket own labels in France are worse than in the UK. The UK has been known for having bargains in its supermarket own brand foods, because they are often produced in the same factories as the branded labels.
Beware of products, which seem too cheap to be true. This includes promotions or ones with nearby expiry dates. Why would a seller want to get rid of a high quality product at a low price? A lot of us have a limited food budget and turn towards the cheapest products out of need. However, our spending on food only makes up about 15 % of our expenditure from the average citizen (France). This is the least that we have paid throughout history, so the majority of us could afford to pay a fair price for a product of quality, instead of a compulsive buy on a new sweatshirt or pair of trainers. So force yourself to reconsider your priorities in terms of expenditure.
Rule 3: Prefer the bigger brands
For any food item in France, there is generally the choice between entry label, supermarket own label and a luxury or premium brand, in increasing order of price. The entry level products generally belong to the distributors, who do not want to associate themselves with a product of low quality. The products from big labels are generally of better quality. The supermarket labels are generally copies and clones at poorer quality. To allow for a lower price, the ingredients are less rich, the process less precise and the additives more plentiful. Although, not being definitive, if you have the means, pay for the bigger brands.
Rule 4: Avoid powders, purées, and canned sauces
It is extremely easy to hide the imperfections of a product by converting it into a powder or a spread. Spices of poor quality, and rotten fruit and vegetables, can be converted into powders and purees and then made to look good through the addition of colours and aromas.
When you can’t see the raw product, you can hide its imperfections, as with the horses transformed into beef steaks and sold in Europe. As a priority, buy whole foods where the defaults of the product are visible and the purity can be observed. When you have the choice, first aim for the whole product, then pieces, with powders and purees in last place. Choose pepper in grain instead of powder and whole apples instead of compote. This simple advice would have protected you from eating horse lasagne. Indian spices contaminated with rat droppings have been even known to be transformed into powdered form in the industry.
Rule 5: Avoid breadcrumbs
Avoid products covered with breadcrumbs, such as fried fish or chicken nuggets. They contain large amounts of saturated fat and are not nutritionally comparable to a pure fish fillet or slice of meat, as well as the fact we do not know what else is hidden beneath the crumbs.
Rule 6: Beware of the ingredients
Ignore the myths and misinformation on the front of the packaging and instead focus on the product within and it’s list of ingredients. A biscuit will always be a processed industrial product, and a yoghurt is just fermented milk. What counts for the consumer, is the quality of the ingredients in the recipe and nothing else.
Anyone concerned about their health should know how to read an ingredients list, at the very least know what to look out for. Avoid products which offer no nutritionally benefits, and may cause problems in the long term.
Here are the following ingredients to avoid. They have been proven to be toxic to the human body:
Hydrogenated oils (or partially hydrogenated oils) often found in quiches, baked products and biscuits contain trans fats which increase LDL cholesterol. Hydrogenated oils are oils that have been converted from liquids to solids (or partially solidified) and are often used to increase texture and conserve industrial products. The Food and Drug Administration has ruled that partially hydrogenated oils are no longer “generally recognized as safe”. In the UK, there is no ban on trans fats, just a limit, whilst some countries such as the US have totally banned them. Denmark was the first country in the EU to ban trans fats, although there are currently not enough EU wide initiatives to curb their consumption. A fully hydrogenated oil contains very little trans fat, mostly saturated fat, so should still be avoided.
Artificial colours (in the E100 family): have a negative effect on attention and can increase hyperactivity in children. These colours must carry the following warning “may have adverse effect on activity and attention in children” in the UK and Europe.
- E102: tartrazine
- E104: quinoline yellow
- E110: sunset yellow FCF
- E122: carmoisine
- E124: ponceau 4R (banned in the US for many years because considered dangerous)
- E129: allura red
Chemical preservatives (essentially the E200 family, including sorbic acid), have been shown to cause side effects in some, including dizziness, headaches and rashes in people.
Aluminium (in all forms) is a neurotoxin and has adverse effects on the body, including the brain. Aluminium is commonly used as a colorant (E173) or as a firming agent (E520–523).
In addition, the following compounds have no nutritional value and could cause problems in the long run:
MSG (Monosodium Glutamate) is a common food additive used to enhance flavour. MSG may increase levels of glutamic acid in the brain, which is a neurotransmitter.
Artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame (E951) which is made from the feces of E.coli bacteria.
Left-over products following the extraction of essential oils, such as vanilla pods, which contain traces of carcinogenic solvents.
Solvents are used in the food industry to extract the essential oils and flavours from nuts, seeds and other raw materials.Common solvents used in the food industry, water, organic solvents, such as hexane, methylene chloride, ethyl acetate, alcohol and supercritical CO2.
Hexane is used widely in the extraction of vegetable oil from seeds such as soybeans, corn, canola, safflower, sunflower, cotton and flax, and is a neurotoxin. In addition, hexane solvent can be used to extract fish protein, shea butter and a variety of flavor extracts.
Organic solvents are derived from crude oil and can be carcinogenic depending on the solvent used, such as hexane. Aim to avoid foods that are obtained by solvent extraction as the solvent may be a neurotoxin and the solvent may also be contaminated with a carcinogenic solvent. For example, aim for products derived from whole soybeans instead of soy grit or soy oil.
Prioritise natural extracts instead of artificial molecules, and avoid substances “identical to nature”, which attempt to make you believe that synthetic molecules are identical to those found in nature. This is not true because even if the chemical formulae between the molecules are the same, there are differences in the spatial arrangements of the molecules (known as isomers), purity and their breakdown by the organism.
For example, industrially produced vitamin E contains a cocktail of eight chemically identical molecules with different structural formulae, whilst the vitamin E found in grains and dry fruit in nature exists only in one form. Our body is adapted to this one form of vitamin E as it uses it since millions of years. This is why vitamin E in nature is two to three times more active in our organism and better tolerated than synthetic vitamin E. So privilege products that have a simple composition filled with natural ingredients and few additives.
Rule 7: Check the packaging
Focus on the the contents and not the packaging. Your attention needs to be on what you are going to consume and not what you are going to throw in the bin. Do not let yourself be exploited by bold colours, golden print and appealing photos. As Balzac said, “the bottle does not matter as much as the drunkenness”. Beware of unverifiable affirmations, vague comments which add value or pseudo-labels (stickers with marks of quality) that don’t stick to strict certification requirements as well as scientific evidence used to prove the quality of the product.
Do not buy dry products, such as lentils, cereals and pasta in recycled carton packaging. This is because the mineral oils present in the cardboard seep into the food. It may be good for the planet, but especially not for your health. Even if the packaging is non-recycled, there is no guarantee of its origin, do don’t take the risk when in direct contact.
Equally, do not buy products with packaging pretending to be eco-friendly without being it, such as colored kraft paper with a film of plastic. Plastic coatings or layers make paper non-recyclable. Avoid packaging labelled as oxo-biodegradable. They are not really biodegradable and instead fragment into microplastics based on synthetic polymers.
Jars or tins? The contents of jars are visible so the producers will be forced to place their most appealing products in jars, whilst cans allow a bit more freedom to place poor quality products. Varnish covers the internal structure of tins (drink cans included), but is absent in jars. Bisphenol-A, an endocrine disruptor, in varnishes and coatings can leach into food from the protective internal epoxy resin coatings of canned foods, and from consumer products such as polycarbonate tableware, food storage containers, water bottles, and baby bottles. Bisphenol-A has been banned in France since 2015, but nowhere else. So always buy glass, either jars or bottles.
Rule 8: Keep on eye out for expiry dates
Expiration dates tell consumers the last day a product is safe to consume. Best before date (sometimes BBE- best before end) on the other hand tells you that the food is no longer in its perfect shape from that date. It may just lose its freshness, taste, aroma or nutrients. It does not necessarily mean that the food is no longer safe to eat. Best before date is basically a quality indicator. Another term that gets mixed up with this is the ‘use by’ date which applies only to perishable goods such as fresh fish or meat. Dispose them off immediately once they have passed the ‘use by’ date. Best before does not necessarily mean that the food is no longer safe to eat. In order to decide whether the food is still edible, one should rely on sight, smell and taste.
However, the best before day and expiry dates are not reliable because companies are under pressure to sell as much as possible and thus extend these dates to the maximum, sometimes beyond reasonable. Very few products, apart from wine, get better with time. Vitamins, glucides, proteins and other beneficial molecules degrade with time, whatever the mode of conservation, even the packaging degrades, adding a further risk to your food, particularly pasta in recycled carton. It’s for this reason why dates are imposed.
So what is the advice with expiry dates? Do not buy products when the date is close to their expiration or best before date. Stay within two thirds of the life of the product and you will avoid any complications generally. Equally, do not let “anti-waste” campaigns make you feel guilty and force you to eat beyond the expiry date. If the supermarkets produce too much and stock for a prolonged duration, it is to maximise their economies of scale and it is not your problem. However, to avoid waste, please do not forget to manage your purchases. Buy based on need and do not forget products, such as yoghurts in the back of your fridge or oil on the top shelf of your storage cupboard.
Rule 9: Do not trust food certification
Food certificates are numerous, including kosher, halal, organic, fairtrade, product of the year, guaranteed quality etc, and more are being invented every day. Some are official, whilst others are products of marketing or pure in-house inventions.
In France, one of the rare labels which is serious and can be trusted is AG (Agriculture Biologique), as it is managed by certification agencies managed by the INAO (Institut national de l’origine et de la qualité), and is guarantee to minimise your pesticide and genetically modified(GM) food intake.
Certifications guaranteeing equitable trade often just provide a reason for sellers to increase their prices and margin. The most trustworthy is Fairtrade, even if a lot of suppliers who deserve to be it deserve to be labelled. Be careful of Fairtrade copies put in place by the big corporations, which is just an outright scam and avoids all constraints tight to a independent certification
Promotion labels have nothing official and often indicate that a product would be chosen in front of others as the best, such as the product of the year. Often these labels are financed by the industrial companies who provide only a select number of products to a panel of consumers, and they can only choose among the products in front of them. Hence, the intrinsic value of the product is not taken into account. Any product can be chosen with their existing a sufficient number of categories.
Rule 10: Verify the product labels
According to an Oceana Study in 2013, 30 % of fish are incorrectly labelled in the United States. Many intensively farmed fish, such as tilapia and panga, are often labelled as more premium fish such as atlantic cod. Evidence that the US eats everything in any way possible.
Even France, of which is its cuisine is on the UNESCO World Heritage list, mislabels one label out of five. Very often “wild fish” are actually raised in giant marine farms full of antibiotics. However, the fisherman does not forget to triple the price. How many common longfin tuna (albacore) are mislabelled as bluefin tuna using a opportunistic label? How many scallops full of water are renamed as the Saint James escallop and sold in Europe? Or how many bass just leaving their cage are rebaptised as European sea bass? Sea bass are only found in the ocean. Several types of “bass,” such as Chilean sea bass, are not actally bass, but just fish renamed to increase profits. In any case, we will never know the true number to these questions.
Food labels, whether on bread, fruit or meat are a professional obligation and when it is not done correctly, complain and get your money back. Too much abuse of labels continues to exist because the majority of clients do not see the mislabels and those who do, don’t have the courage to say anything.
Rule 11: The ultimate weapon of marketing is “us”
Two main rules about marketing food products is that the idea that the product generates in the consumers mind is more important than the product itself and then also that everyone believes what is written on the packaging. However, the most important rule of marketing is that the we, the clients, are in charge.
If we do not inform ourselves adequately, question everything that people tell us, do not complain or create outrage when necessary and do not search elsewhere for products when required. If we privilege price, design and practicality over quality. Then we are just as responsible for this disaster and the big corporations will continue to exploit us.
It’s a lot easier just to put our trust in the industry, buy with our eyes closes, keep habits going and let us be lulled by the big businesses with their reassuring promises. Our worst enemy is not the marketing which lies to us, or the industry which creates poor quality products, nor the supermarkets which distribute the products or the public authorities incapable of protecting the population from diabetes or obesity. Our worst enemy is us.
We have more power than we imagine. It is our money that interests the big supermarkets and merchandisers. If we give our money to those who encourage quality, then this will lead to more quality production across the industry and our shelves on the supermarkets will be stocked with a greater range of healthy items.
Support organisations, such as foodwatch, who act in the interest of consumers to expose malpractice in industry. These organisations have more power to create change than a single individual.
Hippocratus, who is often considered as the father of modern medicine, is credited with saying “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”. Similarly, Dr. Linus Pauling is known for saying “Optimum nutrition is the medicine of tomorrow”. Although, well-being is determined by a mixture of factors, having a good diet is no-doubt critical to preventing the onset of illness.
Eat well and live long in good health.
Guide to E numbers
To finish off, here is a summary of E numbers to help you with your purchases in the supermarket.
The E-numbers E700-E799 are antibiotics and are to look out for.
Antioxidants slow down the oxidation (or spoilage) of foods.
An anti-caking agent is an additive placed in powdered products to prevent the formulation of lumps in the product.
Gelling agents, thickeners and stabilisers are food additives used to thicken various foods, like jellies, desserts and candies.
Emulsifiers are used to help two liquids mix, such as oily substances, and prevents them from separating out.
Acidity regulators are used to maintain or change the pH of the product.
The E-numbers E700-E799 are antibiotics and are to look out for.