Supermarket confessions

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

My supermarket buys show that I do not eat very healthily but I am taking baby steps to change that

It is a Saturday morning at a huge double-storey supermarket in Marine Parade.

The checkouts and trolleys are jam-packed.

Not literally of course, I think, as I look at the man in front of me unloading his purchases on the cashier's conveyor belt.

Whole wheat bread, beep.

Whole grain cereal, beep.

Low-fat milk, low-fat yogurt, zero-fat mayonnaise, bottled mineral water, sliced ham, skinless chicken breasts.

Then comes the fruits and vegetables - fresh carrots, tomatoes, leafy greens, bananas, apples, oranges, kiwi fruit, seedless grapes, dried apricots and cranberries, walnuts. (Wait, do walnuts count?)

At some point, the man's son comes up to him and hugs him in an affectionate cloying way that tells you it is the weekend and he is happy to be with his dad - despite the obvious dourness of what is being fed to him daily.

I must have been staring too hard at the checkout items and the father and son because, all of a sudden, the older man notices and starts looking at me and what I have in my trolley.

It's apt that before this place became a supermarket, it was for many years a public library. I imagine people also spent up to an hour each weekend perusing the new arrivals in the long aisles.

There must have been similarly long lines at the checkout too, where people eyed each other's selections - less obviously perhaps - and silently judged.

Deep in the queue after 20 minutes of waiting, I feel that I have nowhere to hide as the man casts his eye over my purchases.

In my household, we don't cook very much, preferring to go out for lunch or dinner.

Weekly supermarket trips, therefore, are for us to stock up on things that we eat when we are home - in-between meals or late at night after work - and hungry for a snack.

So nestled in my trolley among the bottles of flavoured teas, Orangina and IBC root beer are potato and tortilla chips, cheese and salsa dips, ice cream, biscuits (yes, the sinful Japanese kind) and packets upon packets of instant noodles.

It's no fun eating these noodles plain, of course, so we load up on mostly frozen foods that we can fry up fast - crispy chicken, crispy chicken with lemon, crispy chicken with beancurd wrappings... you get the idea.

Ten bottles of Yakult are just about the healthiest thing I have in my cart because I cannot count the cans of unsalted light tuna chunks in mineral water which are actually for my dogs.

I wait for the inevitable sign of disapproval - a furrowing of the brows, a wrinkling of the nose - but the man just looks at me and smiles. Perhaps my trolley represents a life that he used to lead but has happily left behind.

He turns back to his young son after he pays for his items and they both leave through the wide open doors, excitedly chatting about their day ahead.

When I told this story to a friend, she declared that if she were that man, she would have definitely have been less charitable and admonished me with at least a small pitying smirk.

"You totally deserve it," she said. "You are past 40 and have a nice house and a fairly respectable job - yet you shop like a frat boy."

It's true. I have shopped in many supermarkets around the island and I have become self-conscious about the items in my supermarket trolley.

I never felt as comfortable as I did one afternoon in the Cold Storage supermarket at Pomo, the old Paradiz Centre along Selegie Road, queuing with dormitory students from Singapore Management University.

But of course, I also exaggerate. It's not true that I buy only junk food.

Recently, I came across a list of the 99 healthiest foods that should be staples in a shopping cart, compiled by none other than cardiothoracic surgeon and daytime television host Dr Mahmet Oz.

I actually consistently buy as many as 10 of them - apples, steak, chicken, fresh sliced meats, eggs, parmesan cheese, raw sugar, honey, balsamic vinegar and butter.

And my hit rate should really be higher. I mean, who in his right mind eats soya hot dogs and artichoke pasta? Or quinoa? Or chia seeds?

My problem, I figure, is that even as I bought an air-fryer and made the difficult switch from fully salted and buttered potato wedges to zero transfat shoestring fries, the goalposts around me shifted even more.

It's no longer good enough now to simply follow the good old "food pyramid" and stack one's diet with the right proportions of carbohydrates, fibre, protein, sugar and fat.

Now you have to go for organic produce, unprocessed foods and whole grains.

You are told that your shopping bag should be bright with the antioxidant- filled colours of the rainbow - blueberries, cherries, purple grapes, red cabbage, yellow peppers and the deep dark green of spinach and broccoli.

Against these new stratospheric standards, I cannot help but wallow in inadequacy. Though on some days, I am strangely proud that I have not jumped on the bandwagon and that my politically- incorrect shopping basket is filled with brown, brown and more brown.

As technology allows quicker and more open sharing of information across the world, there has been, in the last 10 years or so, an almost mindless push towards healthier and healthier diets.

At one point, "superfoods" in supermarkets became so popular and widely accepted that the European Union had to enact laws to prevent mislabelling of products that did not have the advertised health benefits. Now, people are saying that they are not strictly necessary and that a typically varied diet provides all the supplements and nutrients a person needs.

Ultimately, however, these are just excuses.

I know that my refusal to grow up and eat more responsibly is hubris and my reckless supermarket buys will one day catch up with me.

One step at a time, I think to myself, as I pick up that bag of unsalted, oven-baked potato chips and look longingly at its sour cream and onion cousin nearby.

Even if it doesn't taste as good, I'll feel better about myself - at least at checkout.

ignatius@sph.com.sg

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