Dear Vanessa,

Between the packaging and labels, and health scares and everything else, I’m finding simple trips to the supermarket daunting. Any advice on how to navigate a supermarket?

A: As I began compiling an answer for you, I realized most of what I was suggesting is beautifully fleshed out in Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food, so my advice is to read the book. Here is a rundown of eating guidelines that Pollan suggests:

Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. Pollan’s point is that to be “safe” in our food purchasing, we must go back to a time when food was … food. Leaving food products that our ancestors wouldn’t recognize out of our shopping carts insures that we are avoiding the health and environmental complications of, well, complicated food.

• Shopping with an ancestor’s voice in mind means you’ll push past all the newfangled foods and “avoid food products containing ingredients that are A) unfamiliar, B) unpronounceable, C) more than five in number, or that include D) high-fructose corn syrup.” Pollan notes that these four characteristics are not necessarily harmful but are reliable markers for foods that have been manipulated and processed beyond the realm of being food: they are food products.

Avoid food products that make health claims. For many people who are trying to make conscious purchasing choices, this may be particularly frustrating. The vast majority of product labeling is completely divorced from reality: even FDA-approved health claims are rarely anything more than “pseudoscientific bureaucratese,” an empty language propelled through the FDA by the largest food manufacturers.

Shop the periphery of the supermarket and stay out of the middle. Supermarkets tend to have the same basic layout: fresh (or so-called fresh) foods along the outer walls, and processed and packaged foods in the center aisles.

Get out of the supermarket whenever possible. Skip the supermarket altogether and sign up for a CSA membership or head to the farmers market. Grow your own at home or in a community garden plot, or even learn to forage for your food.

I’d like to add a few pointers and expand on some of the suggestions from In Defense of Food.

Instead of canned and frozen foods, purchase fresh vegetables and fruit, and dried legumes and grains. Processing and transporting frozen or canned foods is energy and resource intensive, and fresh produce retains more nutrients. It is better for both human and planetary health to preserve produce -- by canning, freezing, cold storage, drying or fermentation -- at home. Along the same lines, dry goods require less packaging and energy to transport and store. Buying dried beans, for instance, that you simply soak in water at home avoids canning, transportation of heavy liquids, preservatives, and allows you to buy in bulk and use only as many beans as you need, when you need them.

Avoid dairy and meat products because they require immense amounts of water, land and energy to produce. Animal products also create tons of solid waste, and ruminants produce methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas. (Learn more about the environmental impacts of buying animal products in two previous columns: How is eating meat bad for the environment? )

Apply food purchasing guidelines to other supermarket purchases. Cleaning products that claim to be natural have no more -- indeed, less -- legitimacy than food products that claim to be healthy. “Earth Friendly,” “All Natural,” or “Green” doesn’t mean anything. If you are shopping with the health of your family and the Earth in mind, buy products as you would food. Dry goods (powdered detergents) are a better buy than liquids. Cleaning products should include ingredients you recognize and can pronounce.

Go to the market with a list, and stick to that list. As much as 50 percent of food in the U.S. goes to waste. The Department of Agriculture estimates that just 5 percent of the food wasted could feed 4 million people a day. According to CNN, disposing of food waste costs the U.S. $1 billion a year, a cost that does not begin to factor in the environmental impact of methane gas emitted by decomposing food waste. Good luck navigating that.


P.S. Here’s some food-labeling for thought:

Smart Choices, a new food-labeling campaign backed by most of the nation’s largest food manufacturers, is “designed to help shoppers easily identify smarter food and beverage choices,” says Eileen T. Kennedy, president of the Smart Choices board. “You’re rushing around, you’re trying to think about healthy eating for your kids and you have a choice between a doughnut and a cereal … So Fruit Loops is a better choice.”

And doughnuts get Smart Choices’ green check symbol because they are better than, say, crack? Maybe.

That’s food labeling for you.

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Photo: Olgutza/iStockphoto

What's the best way to navigate the supermarket?
Cut through all the labels and find the healthiest, safest food in the grocery store.