Are you a smart food shopper?
Or do you find yourself giving in to temptation half way into a grocery trip; grabbing foods on impulse because they just looked so irresistible?
If you fall into the latter category, you are in good company. Most Americans want to shop healthy and be in control of what they eat, but much of our food decisions are out of our control.
I recently presented a webinar with my fellow health coach and good friend, Mary Ellen Zung. In our presentation we talked about the dangers of sugar and how it can negatively affect our bodies. If you are interested in hearing more on the topic, you can listen to it here.
One of topics we touched upon was how companies influence our food buying decisions. Of course they do, they want us to buy their products! They spend a lot of time and money on developing products made with very specific combination of ingredients that are meant to achieve the perfect “bliss point.” Bliss point is a term that was coined by Howard Moskowitz, who was trained in high math at Queens College and experimental psychology at Harvard, to refer to “that perfect amount of sweetness that would send us over the moon, [and companies’] products flying off the shelf.” 1
According to NPR news, in his "creation of a new soda flavor for Dr. Pepper, ... [Mr. Moskowitz] started with no less than 59 variations of sweetness, each one slightly different than the next, subjected those to 3,000 taste tests around the country, did his high math regression analysis thing, put the data in the computer. And out [came] this bell-shaped curve where the perfect amount of sweetness — not too little, not too much — [was] at the very top of the curve.”1
This bliss point has created an expectation in consumers that all foods should be sweet. For instance, sugar is currently added to foods, such as bread and yogurt that normally might not have contained sweeteners. A ½ cup serving of some pasta sauces can contain as much sugar as 2 Oreo cookies. http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/12/16/459981099/how-the-food-industry-helps-engineer-our-cravings
This added sweetness creates an expectation that everything needs to be sweet in order to taste good! And our taste buds have become accustomed to higher and higher levels of sweetness.
And as a result, less and less people find the other flavors of foods appealing. This is especially true when it comes to naturally bitter foods. It’s no wonder broccoli and Brussels sprouts get such a bad rap. But, we need a variety of foods in a healthy diet. Bitter foods actually keep us healthy by stimulating the liver to produce bile. Bile allows us to digest fats and utilize fat-soluble vitamins.
And, there are an overwhelming number of these sweetened products to choose from. Just visit your local grocery store and you will see aisles upon aisles of packaged foods that scream for our attention with slogans such as “New and Improved,” “Healthy,” “Low Fat,” in bold, brightly colored letters. But one look at the nutrition labels will show you that they may also contain high levels of sugar.
“We think that our choices of what to buy and eat are thoughtful and deliberate, and that we know what we’re doing,” says Deborah Cohen, a physician and senior natural scientist at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization. “But it’s just too difficult for most people to defend themselves against the ubiquitous cues that make us eat too much.” 2
According to Ms. Cohen, we have a limited capacity to think. The more we need to use our brains to calculate and analyze, the less capable we are to make decisions. Instead, we start making decisions based on superficial visual cues.
Decision-making wears us down as we shop.
“We have a limited thinking capacity, so as we use our brains more and more, our ability to think carefully and calculate and analyze is worn down,” Cohen explains.
This makes sense to me. Many times I begin my grocery-shopping trip, analyzing and making thoughtful decisions about the foods I am choosing. But as time goes on, I am tired and find myself thinking more about getting home than I am about making a thoughtful selection!
Stores take advantage of this indecision by strategically placing “impulse items” where they are easily seen by the customer waiting to check out. Usually these items are sweets or salty snacks that are formulated with that “bliss point” we mentioned earlier.
Healthy Shopping Tips
So what is a shopper to do?
- One strategy is never to go food shopping on an empty stomach. You are more likely to be tempted into making poor decisions when you are hungry.
- Make a shopping list before you leave the house and stick to it! Don’t be tempted by foods located at the endcap, those displays at the end of an aisle of the aisle, if you don’t need them. They are purposely located there to get your attention and get you to buy.
- Shop the perimeter of the store. That’s where your nutrient dense foods are located. These are foods that don’t come in a container or box. They tend to be high in nutrition and low in calories (think produce department!)
- If and when you do venture into the inner aisles, don’t be fooled by packaging and marketing slogans. Look at the nutrition labels and compare ingredients. For instance, many “energy bars” give you energy by adding sugars. Look instead for ones that offer more protein and fiber than sugar.
Yours in Health,