The ST Guide To... healthier grocery shopping habits

The best way to better health is to combine good dietary habits with regular exercise. But you can start small just but watching what food items you buy at the supermarkets.

When it comes to cultivating healthier grocery shopping habits, the best rule of thumb is to spend more time in the fresh food sections.

These sections, usually at the outer aisles of a supermarket, are where one finds fruit and vegetable, meat, poultry, seafood, and dairy.

One should limit items from the centre aisles that stock processed foods, confectionery, snacks and sweetened drinks.

Ms Bibi Chia, principal dietitian at the Raffles Diabetes and Endocrine Centre, also recommends that shoppers read the ingredients list on packaged foods and look out for the Health Promotion Board's Healthier Choice Symbol.

She says food items with the symbol, when compared to others in the same category, can be higher in wholegrains and fibre, and lower in sugar, saturated fat, or sodium, depending on the type of food.

1. Beware processed food

A customer checking out a Maling can of luncheon meat. 

Many foods undergo some form of processing, from fermentation and freezing, to the addition of preservatives, colouring and sugar.

Limit and avoid ultra-processed foods which may have excessive sodium, sugar, fat and nitrates. Examples include luncheon meat, hot dogs, canned fruit, salted vegetables, and pop-tarts.

Eating more ultra-processed foods can lead to a greater risk of obesity and hypertension, and in turn, diabetes and heart disease.

If shopping for canned food, Ms Chia says to look out for low sodium and low sugar options.

Sauces should be consumed in moderation as they are often high in sodium, fat and sugar. Opt for herbs and spices to flavour ingredients instead.

2. Do not rule out frozen fruit and vegetables

Shoppers at the vegetables section at Cold Storage supermarket in Great World City, on April 15, 2016. 

Not all processes are necessarily detrimental to fresh ingredients.

In fact, there is no significant difference in nutritional content between fresh and frozen vegetables.

Ms Chia says: "Frozen vegetables may at times be more nutritious than fresh ones because they are at the peak of ripeness."

In many instances, frozen vegetables are first blanched then flash-frozen to seal in nutrients.

Ms Chia says keeping them handy may even "help to increase vegetable consumption" because they have a longer storage life. Fresh vegetables tend to wilt in the refrigerator if not consumed quickly.

Frozen fruit, too, including mango and berries, work just as well in smoothies, for example.

Canned vegetables, on the other hand, are often high in sodium. But they are suitable for those who need a low fibre or potassium diet. Be sure to drain the canned vegetables and rinse with water before eating.

3. Frozen meats and seafood are just as good

Lin Ji Seafood operated by Mr Hong. 

Like frozen fruit and vegetables, frozen seafood, meat and fish can be just as healthy as fresh versions.

However, Ms Chia says it is important to note that thawed fish, seafood or meat may lose some of its water content. This then affects the ingredients' elasticity, tenderness, and texture.

As a general rule, do not refreeze thawed items, as bacteria may multiply.

4. Navigating the dairy section the smart way

Some fermented dairy items including yogurt contain good bacteria which help maintain healthy guts.

Ms Chia says to buy items with live or active bacteria or culture, as well as opt for low-fat, or versions with no added sugar.