Navigating the Supermarket: Understanding Four Foods on the Shelf

The supermarket aisles can be a scary place. Unless you have five spare hours up your sleeve, Google plus plenty of data on your phone, and an encyclopaedia, you can be forgiven for being confused by the continuous revolving door of food products being created, reformulated, relabelled and discontinued. Whilst only making a small dint in this knowledge, let’s explore four relatively new foods that may currently have you scratching your head about… 

Ancient Grain oats

There’s been an interesting evolution over the decades- over the past couple of generations we’ve seen a move from mum’s home cooked meat and three veg to the expansion of supermarket shelves with countless brightly coloured packages with even more claims- claims that they will improve all aspects our health. Sugar-free, dairy free, wheat free- why are food products now making us fear foods? With their long lists of additives, preservatives, and ingredients you’d need a chemistry degree to understand, I consider many foods on supermarket shelves to be food-like products- distant relatives of the foods that once filled grandma's pantry. Recently, though, with the explosion of social media, the internet and (rightly or wrongly) celebrity nutrition gurus, there has been a movement back to “clean eating”- avoiding very processed, unnatural foods. Great for our health, not so great for the food industry. The more unprocessed foods we buy, the less of their specially created processed foods the industry has to sell. So they’re funking up “clean foods” to make them “cleaner”. For example, rice is no longer rice- it’s pre-cooked rice and quinoa combinations, whilst nuts now come ‘pre-activated’. As winter approaches, I’ve noticed a recent addition to the shelves- Uncle Toby’s Ancient Grains. Being “Ancient”, it is following the Paleo trend and delivering us a product that ironically our ancestors never ate. A step up from standard oats, it aims to enhance the nutrition of your morning porridge by promising “you can feel good that you are getting the nutrition from 4 different grains”. Personally, when I first saw this product I was excited, and despite being FOUR TIMES the prices of standard oats, I was going to give it a try (that’s saying something, considering my price conscious ways). That was until I flipped the packet over and read the ingredient list: Rolled oats (95%), Rye(4%) (Lupin), Quinoa (0.5%), Millet (0.5%).

That’s right. You’re paying quadruple the price for 95% plain old oats. In a recommended 40g serve, this equates to approximately 1.6g of rye, 0.2g of quinoa, 0.2g of millet and virtually no difference in the nutrition information panel compared to traditional rolled oats. That’s hardly going to give you the array of micronutrients these ancient grains contain. My advice: buy the cheap rolled oats, top them with some nuts and seeds, and you’ll be getting significantly more nutrients at a significantly lower price. And avoid the “clean” in “clean eating” to mean “let me clean out your wallet”. 

Delites

Putting the word “Lite” into any food will have you thinking it’s healthy, that it too will make you “Lite”. However, words can be deceiving. “Lite/Light” olive oil, for example, relates to the colour and flavour only, not the calories. Any oil is pure fat so therefore, all carry the same caloric density of 37kJ/gram. Delites are a rice cracker and their box wants you to think they’re nutritionally superior to chips, Shapes and wheat crackers, with words like “baked not fried” and “gluten free” on the box. However, lets do a basic comparison:

Compared to their counterparts, they do stack up slightly better in terms of caloric density and fat content, but they have even more salt to get us reaching for more (it’s proven that salt makes people eat significantly more of a food than if there was no salt in the food). However, when compared to a standard rice cracker, you can see their fat content is over 4 times that of Sakata and sodium more than double. So sure, they can call themselves a “baked, gluten free rice cracker” but that does not make them a healthier alternative. Flip over the box and do a simple comparison of energy, fat, salt and sugar using the per 100g column and be led by more than the front of box claims.

Coconut yoghurt

You’d be forgiven for thinking the coconut craze of late has limited avenues to explore. Once you’ve exhausted coconut milk, cream, water, oil and flesh you’d be finished, right? Wrong. There’s also coconut sugar, rice, chips, and coconut yoghurt. Yoghurt has long been a food dietitians promote as healthy- a good source of calcium, protein, probiotics and riboflavin. However recently the sugar content of these have left people feeling confused- superfood, or superbad? (the short answer is, there are yoghurts out there that tick every box, others that I’d treat as a dessert, and everything in between). Enter coconut yoghurt, often a simple combination of coconut, water, cornflour & cultures, which despite being tasty, is lacking most of the nutritional benefits of traditional yoghurt. It is SIGNIFICANTLY higher in energy/kilojoules (and considering more Australians than not are overweight, this is not beneficial for the majority of people who are already exceeding their energy requirements). It is also much lower in protein, much higher in fat, has no calcium, and is not regulated in terms of the probiotics added (hence may or may not be a source of these). The verdict: ignore the claims like “dairy free” and “gluten free” implying gluten or dairy are evil (only in allergies or intolerances do these need to be avoided), and be aware these are not nutritionally superior to their dairy counterparts.

Almond/ Rice/ Oat milk

The previously discussed fear of dairy foods provides a nice segue into this food category. Along with the Paleo diet which bans dairy, the dairy industry itself has added fuel to the fire by plastering “permeate free” on their bottles. Who knows what this permeate is, but whatever it is, it’s gotta be bad if industry is advertising it’s not in their milk. And if it doesn’t have this label, does that mean it has permeate? Will it kill me????? To quote the classic musical Jesus Christ Superstar: “Everything's alright, yes, everything's fine, and I want you to sleep well tonight”- so let me calm your fears: “Permeate is the collective term for the milk-sugar (lactose), vitamins and minerals components of milk and is a valuable part of fresh milk. The addition of milk permeate to milk is one way of standardising the protein and fat content to a constant value throughout the year. Most countries of the world have standards that allow the fat and protein of milk to be standardised.” It’s actually a good thing! Regardless, this has helped fuel the increased demand in cafes and supermarkets for non-dairy milks such as rice, almond and oat milk. It’s great having lactose free alternatives for those who do not like, or cannot have cows milk. However if you fit into either category, please keep in mind the following: these milks can have as low as 1.3% of the key ingredient (eg almond or rice) in their products, with the most common content 2.5%- making it very expensive “flavoured water”. This, along with the fact rice and oats are naturally low in protein, means that these milks are often low in protein- a nutrient important in making us feel satisfied. Furthermore, they do not need to have calcium added to them, meaning it may be difficult to be meeting your calcium requirements by relying on these as a milk alternative. So if you do choose one of these milks, I recommend you check the label to ensure you’re getting one with added calcium (check for calcium phosphate or tricalcium phosphate in the ingredients) and compare products to ensure you’re getting the one with the highest proportion of the key ingredient in it.

Now full of knowledge me introduce a cake that was inspired by the recent change of seasons- as it’s become porridge weather I have a reinvigorated love for the combination of oats and honey. Honey works well with lemon and apple works well with oats, so these flavours have been combined in this Whole Lemon, Apple and Oat Cake. It is a perfect way to use up the flesh of lemons when you’ve had to use the zest for another recipe, and if your cakes come from your oven, not the supermarket shelf, you won’t need to be navigating through labels and tables and misleading slogans. Enjoy!