Guide to the healthiest supermarket picks

20 April 2017 by
First published: 13 August 2016

Going food shopping? Don’t lace up your shoes without reading this guide to the healthiest supermarket picks. 

We all know that shopping smart will help you eat smart, but what are the healthiest supermarket picks? Food shopping can sometimes be a bit of a minefield, and with growing – and often conflicting – research released every day, it’s hard to know how to make the best choice. Everywhere we turn there are new foods, ingredients and meals all proclaiming to be low-fat, low-carb, low-sugar, or altogether better for you. How do we know what is actually good for us? We decided to speak to the experts to bust the myths once and for all.

Skimmed milk vs. whole milk

While we know that whole milk contains a higher fat content than skimmed, the latter isn’t necessarily always the best option. ‘For years we have been told that whole milk is a less healthy choice than skimmed milk: whole milk may contain more fat and therefore seem the unhealthy option,’ explains Shona Wilkinson, nutritionist at – the online shopping destination for health and wellbeing. ‘In fact, the fat can actually help us to absorb certain vitamins – such as vitamin A and vitamin D – that are found in (or added to) milk. These vitamins are fat-soluble, so if there are only very small levels of fat in what we are eating, they won’t be absorbed as well as they can be when consumed with higher-fat foods.’

But won’t adding more fat into our diet make us put on weight? Shona disagrees. ‘Contrary to popular belief, eating fat is often not the main reason for putting on weight; eating high amounts of sugary foods and starchy foods are more often to blame.’ Why? ‘Fat helps to make us feel fuller and more satisfied after eating, so we may not actually consume any more calories than when we choose skimmed milk,’ she continues. ‘Drinking full fat milk is therefore not necessarily a less healthy choice than skimmed milk.’

Sweetener vs. sugar
As more and more fat myths are busted, sugar has increasingly become our new diet foe. ‘Sugar is a problem because it can make you gain weight, which then increases oestrogen production and creates hormone imbalance,’ explains Dr. Marilyn Glenville, leading nutritionist and author of //Natural Alternatives to Sugar//. ‘The more sugar you eat, the more insulin your body releases and the more you crave it – it is a ‘catch 22’. Sugar is also ‘empty calories’ – it doesn’t give you any nutritional value.’

So are sweeteners the way to go? ‘You may be tempted to substitute sugar with artificial sweeteners in order to cut calories,’ says Marilyn. ‘Don’t. If a food or drink is described as ‘low sugar’, ‘slim line’ or ‘diet’, it will usually contain an artificial sweetener. These sweeteners have been linked to mood swings and depression, and it has been found that people who regularly use artificial sweeteners tend to gain weight because they can slow down the digestive process and increase appetite.’ So what can we do? ‘If you are really craving something sweet, try adding cinnamon to your natural yoghurt or porridge,’ Marilyn adds.

Canned food vs. frozen food

While in an ideal world, the majority of our supermarket shop would be filled with fresh food, sometimes it’s not always viable. Being on-the-go or in a rush, or having to cater for the whole family means frozen or canned food is sometimes easier and more reliable. But which one’s best? ‘Usually I would suggest frozen food rather than canned, when fresh food is not an option,’ maintains Martina Della Vedova, nutritionist at Nature’s Plus. ‘Canned foods can undergo different processes for preservation, which will have consequences on their nutritional values, as well as their pureness.’ According to Martina, frozen food also shouldn’t always be viewed as the second option to fresh. ‘Very often fresh food spends up to a few weeks with producers, wholesalers and retailers, until customers can buy it. That’s why frozen food can often be as good as fresh. If you are a savvy shopper – just make sure you chose organic products. If you are in a rush and need a quick fix for your dinner, steam or stir fry frozen vegetables to retain key nutrients.’

Probiotic yoghurt vs. probiotic supplement

While we all probably have an understanding that probiotics are good for us, many of us probably couldn’t actually explain why. Adrienne Benjamin, Nutritional Therapist at Pro-Ven Probiotics, breaks it down for us. ‘The bacteria in our bodies outnumber our cells by about 10 to one. There are both beneficial and harmful bacteria and the ideal balance for our bodies is around 85 per cent good bacteria and 15 per cent bad. The purpose of probiotics is to help to maintain this ratio.’ And while you may think this is just another health trend, probiotics have actually been used for a very long time. ‘Probiotics are not a new concept, as historically mankind has consumed large amounts of probiotics in the form of fermented and cultured foods, which aided food preservation prior to refrigeration,’ explains Adrienne. ‘What is new is the use of probiotic supplements.’

So what’s the best way to go? Are we better off getting the nutrients from our food or from a supplement? ‘While fermented foods can provide a wide variety of beneficial bacteria, supplements are developed specifically to support health and clearly list the specific strains contained in the product,’ says Adrienne. ‘Good quality probiotic supplements, such as Pro-Vens’ Adult Probiotic 25 Billion (£13.95, available from Boots) is safe to use and convenient, as the capsules simply need to be taken with any meal as an addition to a healthy diet (which might contain probiotic foods such as yoghurt, kefir and sauerkraut), and not a substitute.’

Multivitamin vs. individual vitamins

Despite the wealth of superfoods and access to ingredients from all around the world, many nutritionists still maintain that we still cannot get all the nutrients we need from our diet alone. The introduction of the multivitamin certainly made things easier – numerous pills and bottles were suddenly condensed into one smart little capsule – but are they actually better for us? ‘It depends on what you are dealing with,’ explains Martina. ‘Usually, multivitamins are good for general wellbeing, energy and hydration. If you chose a good quality supplement, like Natures Plus Source of Life Gold Liquid (£15.45,, you can be sure that not only your levels of vitamins (B, C, D) and amino acids are sufficient, but you are also supporting your gut with probiotics.’

However, Martina maintains that single supplements still have a purpose. ‘I choose single vitamins and minerals when I am following a specific protocol – it makes it possible to address an exact nutritional deficiency,’ she says. ‘Have your blood test first and then discuss your vitamin and mineral levels it with your doctor or nutritionist, as some of the supplements – unless in deficiency – can actually cause harm (iron, for example).’

Low fat vs. low carb

These days all foods seem to be low in something, but which ones should we actually be taking note of? ‘Sugar, rather than fat, is the main substance linked to obesity, as well as diabetes. It can also be addictive, making people want more and more of it; and can be linked to physical poor health problems and also mood and behavioural problems,’ explains Shona. ‘Closely linked to this food group are those foods high in refined carbohydrates – this means white bread, standard ‘white’ pasta and other foods made with white flour. These refined foods have had the nutrients stripped out of them so provide little in terms of nutritional benefit; and they are also low in fibre, so the carbohydrates they contain are quickly broken down into glucose and absorbed into the bloodstream, having a very similar effect to eating sugar.’

So going low-carb may actually be a good thing, however, the same cannot be said for low-fat items. ‘When food companies create low fat food what they normally do is remove the fat and replace it with sweeteners, artificial flavourings and additives to replace the creaminess and flavour you lose from removing the fat,’ says Sharon Morey, nutritionist at Quest Vitamins. ‘This may allow them to claim that it is low fat, which many people prefer to buy, but it does not necessarily make the food healthier.’

Margarine vs. butter

We all like something to spread on our toast, but what is the healthiest option? ‘Hydrogenated vegetable oil is listed in the ingredients of most margarines and also many fast foods, crisps, biscuits and crackers,’ says Marilyn. ‘The process of hydrogenation (which makes a fat more solid and spreadable) changes the essential unsaturated fats contained in the food into trans fatty acids – linked to increased rate of heart attack. For this reason, I recommend using butter in moderation.’

Breakfast vs. brunch

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but whether for a social occasion or convenience, sometimes we hold out a little longer and combine the meal with lunch. But is this wise? ‘If you were to go six to nine hours during the day without eating you would be feeling very hungry but if you think about it, this is what you do during the night,’ says Shona. ‘If you don’t have breakfast then this ‘fast’ may continue for several hours longer. Although this rest from food gives your digestion a well-deserved rest, delaying food for so long may lead to overeating when you do decide to eat and cause you to choose sugary foods instead of more balanced options to give you that instant energy hit.’

And it isn’t just the risk of bad food choices. ‘You may also find you play ‘catch up’ with your calories leaving you eating far more than you should late at night, when it is more likely to be stored as fat then used for energy,’ adds Shona. ‘Remember – research shows that people who eat breakfast are more likely to maintain a healthy weight than those that don’t. The brain in particular may perform better with the instant source of energy it gets from food (eating), so if you want to be working at your full potential then eat breakfast!’