Sustainable at the supermarket?

Easy-to-digest tips on more healthful grocery-shopping and food preparation

Marsha Vernoga is a registered dietician and nutrition-education specialist at Chico State University.

Marsha Vernoga is a registered dietician and nutrition-education specialist at Chico State University.


<style type="text/css"> #temp-table { box-shadow: 0 0 5px #aaa; margin: 10px auto; padding: 10px; } #temp-table th { background-color: #000; color: #fff; text-align: center; } #temp-table td { background-color: #fff; border: 1px solid #ccc; color: #000; padding: 2px 13px; } </style> Big Food’s organics:
Back to NatureMondelez
Bear NakedKellogg
Boca FoodsMondelez
Bolthouse FarmsCampbell
Cascadian FarmGeneral Mills
HorizonDean Foods
Morningstar FarmsKellogg
Naked JuicePepsi
Rice/Soy DreamHain Celestial
Santa Cruz OrganicJ.M.Smucker
Seeds of ChangeM&M Mars
Sweet Leaf TeaNestlé

Source: Prof. Phil Howard, Michigan State University

In an ideal world, every person would eat the most healthful and nutritious meals possible. They’d have organic, local ingredients—sustainably Sourced, from farmers’ markets and natural-food stores, or from their own gardens—carefully prepared in delicious dishes.

We don’t live in an ideal world, of course. In the real world, time crunches and financial pinches affect personal choices. Many Chicoans shop at S&S Organic Produce & Natural Foods, the Chico Natural Foods Cooperative and the Saturday-morning downtown farmers’ market, but many also rely on supermarkets like Safeway or Raley’s for their sustenance.

Is it possible to be sustainable at the supermarket, or are “green” and “grocery store” mutually exclusive?

It’s possible, says Marsha Vernoga, a registered dietician and nutrition-education specialist at Chico State University. However, she concedes, “it is a bit challenging.”

Supermarkets carry thousands of items—many of them processed foods manufactured by national and multinational companies. Even brands that sound local or organic, such as Celestial Seasonings teas and Silk almond/soy/coconut milks, often fall under corporate umbrellas (see accompanying chart for some examples).

“‘Big Food’ is really buying into the organic trend because there’s such an increased demand for organic food,” Vernoga said. “You go to the dairy aisle and see Horizon Organic Milk; it’s produced by the same company that right next to it has regular [nonorganic] milk.

“They still have to abide by organic standards, but as bigger companies start owning these smaller organic or health-food businesses, oftentimes those practices get diluted.”

Even finding the right raw ingredients—sustainable meats and seafood, and non-GM (genetically modified) produce—can be a challenge. You’re typically safe when you see a seal denoting organic certification, Vernoga said; nonetheless, you may need to double-check with the butcher or produce manager to make certain you’re getting what you expect.

“GMOs [genetically modified organisms] are tricky because, really, they’re in everything,” Vernoga said. “[GMO] corn and soy—those are the two foods that are in almost all processed foods, so it’s very hard to get around them. Plus, unless you get organic meat, you are going to get GMO food indirectly from the animal, because that’s what they’re eating.”

Along with corn and soy, other common GMO foods include papaya, summer squash, sugar and canola.

One common conception of healthful eating relates to expense—namely, that good food costs more. A recent assessment from the Harvard School of Public Health found that the average American would need to spend just $1.50 more per day for a more nutritious diet. Researchers came to that conclusion after crunching numbers from 27 studies, evaluating prices of more healthful options for common foods (e.g., lean versus fatty beef) as well as broad habits (e.g., Mediterranean diet versus meat-heavy diet).

This dovetails with Vernoga’s local experience. Organics may cost more, she said; still, depending on what you buy and where you buy it, you can find good deals. She’s particularly fond of farmers’ markets, and even at local health-food stores, “if you buy the right things, often it’s not that expensive.”

By “right things” she means produce, bulk beans, brown rice, oats and other wholesome ingredients, which are available in supermarkets, too.

Processed foods may be more problematic than whole foods (and can actually be more costly than cooking with whole foods), but green-minded consumers don’t have to forgo convenience entirely. Local producers include Lundberg Family Farms (rice products), Maisie Jane’s (nut confections) and Mary’s Gone Crackers (baked goods). Other brands recommended by Vernoga include: Amy’s Kitchen, Blue Diamond, Bob’s Red Mill, Cal-Organic Farms, Clif Bar, Eden Foods and Vitasoy.

Overall, though, she encourages people to take a more hands-on approach to food.

“No matter where you shop, even if you’re shopping mainstream, I think the key is cooking more,” Vernoga said, “because you have more control over the ingredients you’re using.”

Ah, cooking: another concept full of preconceptions. Busy people often shy away from preparing their own meals because of the time and effort they think it takes. Rosemary Febbo, a local cookbook author who hosted a long-running radio show on local FM community radio station KZFR, says the kitchen needn’t intimidate.

“If you approach cooking with the attitude of just getting something on the plate to eat, this can be accomplished in very little time,” she wrote in an email from New York, while on a layover following an extended vacation in Italy. “I’ve developed meals that take maybe 10 minutes to cook, serve and eat when I’m really hungry and in a hurry—and that are all from scratch, healthful and satisfying.

“Quesadillas come to mind: Corn tortillas, good cheese, fresh salsa, maybe some shredded lettuce or cabbage and stuffed with some leftover chicken or meat can make a complete meal in just the time it takes for the cheese to melt. … I think every ethnic cuisine has a traditional healthful dish that can be prepared in no time at all.”

That said, Febbo recommends taking culinary experiments to the next level.

“Taking time to cook a healthful meal is not only therapeutic but the results are [also] far superior to any processed foods,” she wrote. “Healthful meals take time to prepare. Not only do you need to shop for the ingredients, but you [also] do need to develop some techniques that keep the nutrients of the food at the highest levels. Blanching, steaming, roasting, grilling are all cooking techniques that lend themselves to healthier eating.”

Febbo has posted a wide range of recipes on her website (

“For what you spend on processed foods,” she said, “oftentimes you can make two or three meals out of fresh foods.” Plus: “The process of cooking for me is part of the joy of eating.”