The grocery store seems so innocent: A cabinet-filling cornucopia of sustenance for you and your family. Turns out, it contains an average soap opera's worth of secrets. As soon as you walk in the door — wait, don't grab that cart before you read this — you're presented with some pretty serious threats to your health, from secretly unhealthy products to marketing gimmicks to the stuff that lurks on the freezer door handles. That's why Eat This, Not That! Health asked top experts to reveal the ways your grocery store can make you sick — so your next shopping trip can be well informed and worry free. Read on to find out more, and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You Have "Long" COVID and May Not Even Know It.
Unhealthy foods aren't the only threat that lurks in the freezer section: Freezer door handles can be breeding grounds for bacteria. One study found that fridge handles at superstores had 33,340 bacteria colonies per square inch — more than 1,235 times the bacteria found on the average cell phone (which are not exactly sterile).
The Rx: That's a good argument for bringing antibacterial wipes or gel along when you grocery shop, and thoroughly wash the produce you probably touched after visiting the freezer aisle.
"Grocery stores don't just place any foods anywhere," says Caleb Backe, a health and wellness expert for Maple Holistics. "You'll often find that the best-smelling foods, such as the baked goods, are placed near the front of the store. This is so that you're drawn to those foods as soon as you walk through the door." What foods smell the best? Cakes, cookies, donuts and breads made from processed white flour and sugar — junky carbs that can wreak havoc on your blood sugar and waistline.
The Rx: Avoid the temptation to let your shopping list follow your nose.
"Packaged meat and poultry can oftentimes contain bacteria such as E.coli on the outside," says Mitra Shir, MSc, RHN, a registered holistic nutritionist in Vancouver. "By touching and placing them in the cart, you can pass on the bacteria to your hands and other items."
The Rx: "Grab a clean produce bag, turn it inside out, pop your hand in, and grab the packaged meat or chicken with it," says Shir. "Place it inside the bag and firmly tie to close and avoid cross-contamination."
In addition to making baked goods prominent, grocery stores put splashy (and often unhealthy) products at the end of aisles and stock sugary children's cereals at their eye level. "The center aisles contain the colorful boxes and packages with health claims plastered on the front to lure you in, and they are best to avoid," says Katie Valley, a certified holistic nutritionist in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
The Rx: Stay on the fringes. "Stick to shopping the perimeter of the store," says Valley. "This is where you will find all of the fresh produce, seafood, meat, and dairy. The other food choices to stick to are the single-ingredient, whole food items, like beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, oats and other whole grains."
"Over 50% of the shopping carts at your grocery store harbor disease-causing bacteria such as E. coli that can cause diarrhea, abdominal pain, nausea, fatigue and fever," says Shir. "The germs — that come from other shoppers who already have the bacteria or have touched contaminated products — can live on the surface for hours."
The Rx: "The good news is you can find antibacterial wipes at most grocery stores to wipe down the handles," says Shir. "Let it dry completely for 20 seconds or so before grabbing."
Added sugar lurks within more grocery store products that you'd believe — including so-called healthy foods like low-fat yogurts and items you'd never suspect, like pasta sauce. Eating too much added sugar is a major risk factor for obesity and Type 2 diabetes.
The Rx: Always check nutrition labels and aim to buy products with little or no added sugar. "Knowing that one teaspoon of sugar is equal to four grams of added sugar lets you easily better understand that in a container of yogurt with 10 grams of added sugar there are 2.5 teaspoons of sugar," says Mindy Haar, Ph.D., RDN, CDN, FAND, a registered dietitian nutritionist and assistant dean of the New York Institute of Technology School of Health Professions.
The American Heart Association recommends that women consume no more than 25 grams (or 6 teaspoons) of added sugar per day, and men no more than 38 grams (or 9 teaspoons).
When you pick up frozen, ready-to-go meals, often you're trading health for convenience. Many are high in sodium and added sugars. For example, PF Chang's Orange Chicken has a reasonable 440 calories in one portion — along with 980 mg of sodium (nearly half your daily recommendation) and 34 grams of sugar (as much as three donuts). Diets high in sodium can lead to high blood pressure and heart disease.
The Rx: When it comes to frozen foods, stick with vegetables (which are just as nutritious as fresh) and skip the pre-prepared meals.
"Fortified" sounded healthy in the '50s — today we know it can be a synonym for "junk." "Fortified foods tend to be highly processed and lacking in nutrients," says Karin Adoni, a certified holistic nutritionist in Los Angeles. "When they try to overly convince you they're healthy, they're most likely not. For instance, the cereal box that promotes it's 'gluten-free' but has tons of sugar."
The Rx: Eating too many processed foods can be a shortcut to weight gain, heart disease and diabetes. Check the nutrition labels on "fortified" foods to ensure they're as nutritious as they claim.
Foods marked "reduced" or "low" in certain categories might be healthier than regular versions — but slightly healthier than "very unhealthy" is still not good. "Some consumers are misled not so much by grocery store marketing but by their own assumptions," says Haar. "One example is not realizing the difference between products marked Low Calorie, Low Cholesterol, or Low Sodium and products marked Reduced Calorie, Reduced Fat or Reduced Sodium. In order for a product qualifying for the designation 'low' it must contain the mentioned nutrient below a set level per serving: not more than 40 calories, not more than 20 milligrams of cholesterol or not more than 140 milligrams of sodium.
"On the other hand, products labeled 'reduced' need to have at least 25% less than the typical product. Regular onion soup may have 1,200 milligrams of sodium, so if a manufacturer wants to make a reduced sodium version, they can market one if it has 800 milligrams of sodium per serving. If we think in the context of keeping our sodium intake under 2,300 milligrams per day, or in the case of someone with high blood pressure who is aiming to keep it below 1,500 milligrams, one cup of reduced-sodium soup is not a great idea."
The Rx: Don't take the manufacturer's word for it — see how their "reduced" or "low" product stacks up to your daily recommended values of ingredients like fat, sodium and added sugar.
"Fruits and vegetables are handled and touched by plenty of people before they show up on your table," says Shir. "So make sure to wash them properly before consuming, even if you're not eating the skin. Bacteria can be transferred from the outside to the inside by a knife or your hands."
The Rx: "Most fruits and vegetables can be cleaned by running under cold water for a minute," says Shir. "Others such as kale, chard and lettuce are better soaked in a cold water and vinegar solution for about 20 minutes before rinsing and drying."
"Whole grain" is another deceptive label — it can literally be used on junk food. "The 'whole grain' label can be used on grain products that are highly processed and only have 51% whole grains by weight, thus lacking the fiber and nutrients a true whole grain, like black rice, would offer," says Mark Hyman, MD, author of Food Fix. "Things labeled 'whole grain' are often loaded with sugar and other unhealthy ingredients — think of all those colors in kids' cereals. People think they're buying something healthy, while they're really getting something that will spike their blood sugar and lead to weight gain and overall poorer health."
The Rx: "Examining the food label under 'Carbohydrates' to check the number of grams of fiber can help," says Haar. "Products containing at least 3 grams per serving should be selected." Experts recommend that women consume 28 grams of fiber daily and men 35.
A study at Purdue University found that 10 percent of samples taken from the deli area, like the industrial slicers used to cut meat and cheese, tested positive for listeria, a bacterium that can cause flu-like symptoms and even miscarriages and meningitis.
The Rx: Stick to pre-packaged shrink-wrapped deli meats.
To meet grocery store deadlines, growers often pick fruits and vegetables before they're fully ripened. For example: Farmers pick green tomatoes, and distributors turn them reddish with ethylene gas as they sit in the warehouse. "In addition, all fruits and vegetables begin to lose nutrition as soon as they are harvested," says Elizabeth Warburton-Smith, executive director of the Community Gardens of Tucson. "There is a very short period of time after harvesting when it is ideal to consume."
The Rx: When you can, look for locally grown produce. "If you want to stay well, avoid processed and non-organic foods at grocery stores, grow your own produce or buy your food at local farmers' markets," says Warburton-Smith. "If enough informed consumers switch to healthier options, it will get the message out and eventually set the bar higher for grocery stores and big conglomerates."
"Labels such as "all-natural" are often misleading, with the buyer assuming its a healthy purchase, when in fact, it means nothing," says Valley. "There is no clear meaning, and it does not indicate the food's nutritional content, ingredients, safety or health effects. In fact, it may contain GMOs, preservatives, added sugar, pesticides and more."
The Rx: Don't add products labeled "all natural" to your cart without checking the Nutrition Facts label to ensure they're low in (or lack) added sugar and if your other assumptions match reality: For example, when you pick up "all natural" bread assuming it's high in fiber, is that true?
If you always bring reusable shopping bags to the grocery store, congratulations for being environmentally conscious. But this may catch you unaware: A 2011 study by the University of Arizona found bacteria in 99% of reusable bags they tested. And eight percent carried E. coli, which can indicate fecal contamination.
The Rx: The same study found that only 3 percent of people who owned reusable bags said they washed them regularly. Don't be part of the other 97 percent; wash your multi-use bags with hot water and disinfectant weekly.
"Being free of gluten doesn't necessarily mean a food is healthy," says Lauren Micchelli, a certified nutrition consultant in New York. "Gluten-free food can still be processed and contain sugar or additives — gluten-free cookies are a good example."
The Rx: Don't add products labeled "gluten free" to your cart without checking the Nutrition Facts label.
"Most wheat, corn, and oats are sprayed with the herbicide Roundup, whose principal ingredient is glyphosate, so most whole grain cereals, breads, energy bars, and granola are severely contaminated with this agent which has been implicated in promoting cancer and leaky gut," says Steven Gundry, MD, author of The Plant Paradox Family Cookbook.
The Rx: Opt for organic grain and oat products whenever possible.
With its high sugar content, fruit juice is far from a health food. "Fruit juice is almost pure fructose, which promotes weight gain, fatty liver, and insulin resistance," says Gundry. Obesity and insulin resistance are major risk factors for Type 2 diabetes.
The Rx: Buy and enjoy whole fruits. Skip their watered-down, highly processed relatives. "Fruit juice has no place in a healthy diet, particularly in children," says Gundry.
"Low-Fat" is the Trojan horse of nutrition labels. Often, when manufacturers remove fat from a product, they replace it with unhealthy additives like sugar and salt for flavor. "Low-fat labels on foods like salad dressings usually means the product is very high in sodium," says Dr. Allen Conrad, DC, CSCS of Montgomery County Chiropractic Center.
The Rx: Instead of eating foods labeled "low-fat," eat heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, like those found in olive oil, nuts and whole foods like avocados. When it comes to something like a salad dressing or mayonnaise, "it's usually healthier to get the regular version," says Conrad. "Just eat smaller amounts."
Another source of bacteria at the grocery store: Conveyor belts at the checkout. A Michigan State University study found bacteria on 100 percent of belts that researchers tested. Checkout belts are made from PVC, a type of plastic that's very porous. As such, it's a breeding ground for germs, yeast and mold.
The Rx: When you get home, be sure to thoroughly wash anything that comes in contact with the checkout conveyor that will later touch your lips. And to get through life at your healthiest, don't miss these First Signs You Have a Serious Illness.