Navigating supermarket shelves can be overwhelming due to the increasing variety and confusing messages in packaging, including health claims. Below is some advice on how to choose between food products.
How to choose between food products
The triangle paradigm
There is a paradigm used to illustrate the fact that there are trade-offs every time you choose one service or product over another. The way I learned it: if you want a service or product you can have it fast, cheap or good. These 3 characteristics are the vertices of a triangle. You can have 2 of the vertices but not all 3. So you can have something done fast and cheap but it won’t be good, or cheap and good but it won’t be fast. You get the idea.
When it comes to choosing food products, there many factors to consider. More than choosing from a triangle, I think it more resembles juggling balls. At any given moment, you will have some balls in your hands and some in the air. You need to sacrifice some factors in lieu of others based on your individual needs, values and preferences.
Price is important for most people, but ranges are individual. The only rule of thumb is that you should allocate most of your budget to what means most to you. For example, if eating organic is the most important thing for you, then spend more money in buying organic food. In many instances, it makes more sense to look at the price per unit rather than the total price.
If price is something you care about, you want to keep your eyes peeled for specials and sales.
You should focus on which nutrients make sense for you. E.g. if you have diabetes, you should focus on sugar and fibre, if you are an athlete you should focus on carbohydrate and protein, if you are following a keto diet you should focus on fat and carbohydrate, etc.
You should make a habit of reading ingredients lists before buying packaged food. The following are ingredients you may want to avoid:
- Ingredients you are allergic/intolerant to. Pay attention to the “contains” and “may contain” statements in the label
- Ingredients you should limit to prevent or manage chronic health conditions, such as sugar-containing ingredients
- Ingredients you choose not to have, e.g. if you are vegan you want to avoid all ingredients of animal origin
- Additives that may cause health issues when taken in large quantities, if this is a food product you consume on a regular basis
- Ingredients that indicate this is an ultra-processed food
Place of origin
If you care about sustainability, place of origin is absolutely a factor you should take into consideration. It takes a lot of resources to ship produce or manufactured food products from overseas or interstate to your location. If you are highly invested in sustainability, choose local (from your country as a minimum of from your state/city if you can).
Taste and texture
It doesn’t matter how healthy, sustainable of “virtuous” a product is, if you don’t like it, you won’t eat it. It is not worth developing palate fatigue in order to meet your macros. A sensible way to go about this factor is to try different products that meet your priory criteria and decide which one you like the most and are most likely to eat without it feeling like a sacrifice.
The difference between 2 products with similar nutritional profiles may lie on the quality of the ingredients used in them. The following foods tend to have better quality: grass-fed or pastured meat and dairy, wild fish, organic or pesticide-free produce. Unfortunately, better quality ingredients usually cost more.
Sometimes you wouldn’t choose a product if it was not for the fact that the product sales support a cause you really care about. You might choose to prefer/avoid products that are halal, kosher or certified organic. Especially with this factor, there is no right or wrong, it depends on what matters to you the most.
Sometimes size matters. For example, if you live by yourself you might prefer to buy smaller packages of food to prevent spoilage. Similarly, buying products that come in single serve packages is a good strategy if portion control is an issue for you.