Grocery Shopping 101: What You Need to Know

September 24, 2021 7 min read

Grocery Shopping 101: What You Need to Know

Let’s be honest, the grocery store can be a bit overwhelming.  

Should you buy organic and local for everything?  

What’s the difference between cage-free and pasture-raised? 

What should you watch out for on a food label? 

Can we trust food companies to have our best interest and health at hand? 

As always, the easiest advice we can give around food shopping is to buy as many foods without labels and packaging as possible - in other words, buy whole unprocessed foods!  Vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, meat, eggs, seafood, and really anything without an ingredient list tends to be a safe bet.  

This is why, at Top Notch Nutrition, we work really hard to keep our ingredient list as minimal as possible for each of our supplements and get those ingredients from the highest quality sources!

Food companies can be deceiving with their packaging, their wording, and how they market their products, so we decided to break down some of the big points to consider when you are tackling your grocery list each week.  

Should You Buy Organic? 

First of all, we want to address the difference between ‘all-natural’ and ‘organic’, because there is a pretty substantial difference in the regulation between the two.  Then we will address the three big groups that matter when it comes to organic and non-organic: meat/dairy, eggs/poultry, and produce. 

All Natural vs. Organic

All natural means it must contain no artificial ingredients or added color, and must be only minimally processed, according to the USDA. Although the definition of minimally processed is very vague and does not address food processing or manufacturing methods.  It also generally does not require any certifications or inspections.  

Organic is much stricter, for a food label to be organic, it must be produced through approved methods. By general definition, organic foods have not been treated with synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, and animals raised organically are not given hormones or drugs to promote more rapid growth. Also, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are not used on any organic farms.  It should also be noted that organic producers are subject to announced and unannounced certification inspections.  

Meat and Dairy

There is a good reason that grass-fed and pasture-raised animal products are more expensive.  They have less harmful antibiotics and hormones used, they are less inflammatory to our body, and the nutrient availability of the meat is higher.  There are several key differences between grass-fed red meat and non-grass-fed: 

  • Grass-fed meat is higher in Omega-3’s and CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), which both have anti-carcinogenic and anti-inflammatory properties (SOURCE). 
  • Grass-fed is higher in vitamin E, vitamin A, and glutathione (SOURCE).
  • Grass-fed is higher in antioxidants, making it more resistant to oxidative damage when cooking.  The reason is because pasture-raised animals eat fresh grass and wild forage, which produces a much healthier animal and content of meat vs. animals that are conventionally raised. 
  • In turn, we want to also be buying our dairy organic/pasture-raised because it contains 50% more omega 3’s than conventional dairy (SOURCE). 

Eggs and Poultry 

There are quite a few categories when it comes to chicken and eggs.  You have cage-free, free-range, pasture-raised, vegetarian-fed, and hormone-free to name the big ones.  So what do they all mean, and which should we aim to get? 

  • Cage-Free - This is a term regulated by the USDA and it means that hens simply are not caged.  They can roam freely in a building or room with unlimited access to food and water, but they do not have access to the outdoors.  
  • Free-Range - This is another term regulated by the USDA that means hens have some sort of access to the outdoors, but it doesn’t mean they actually go outdoors.  The outdoor space may be a very small, fenced in area, and it really just implies there is a door that may or may not be open to the outside. 
  • Pasture-Raised - This is not regulated by the USDA, but you want to also look for “Certified Humane” and/or “Animal Welfare Approved”.  That is going to mean that each hen is given at least 108 square feet of outdoor space, as well as a barn indoors (SOURCE).  
  • Vegetarian-Fed - This doesn’t mean much, although it may be better than the typical animal byproducts they may otherwise get from conventional handling of poultry/eggs. 
  • Hormone-Free - This doesn’t mean much either since hormones and steroids are already banned by the FDA for animal consumption.  

When it comes to eggs, we recommend going with cartons stamped ‘certified humane’ or ‘animal welfare approved’, since an ‘expensive’ carton of eggs is really only an extra few bucks, and you’re likely getting multiple meals out of it!  Brands like Vital Farms, Happy Egg Co., Pete and Gerry’s, as well as Costco’s Kirkland Organic Eggs are all great options.  

As for poultry,  it should be noted that toxins store and concentrate in the fat of the animals, so meat with higher quantities of fat (i.e. red meat) are where you will be exposed to higher toxic levels and you would benefit more from buying organic and grass-fed to avoid it.  Ideally, if you can afford it, we recommend getting all of your meat sustainably raised, but if you need to choose wisely where to spend your dollar - red meat would be what we recommend. 


Whether or not your produce should be organic depends on who you ask.  There are two sides of the coin - some mainstream media and medical groups believe there is no benefit to eating organic fruits and vegetables vs. conventional produce.  Although there are studies that say otherwise!

A meta-analysis covered by the British Journal of Nutrition looked at the make-up of crops and food, and found that organic crops could provide up to 40% higher antioxidant levels compared to conventional crops (SOURCE).  Antioxidants are pretty beneficial to the body in terms of promoting positive adaptations to make us healthier and stronger, as well as their ability to assist in detoxification processes within the body.  

This study also showed a lower level of cadmium and pesticide levels within organic produce - these levels ranged from 48% lower all the way to 400% lower levels (SOURCE).  This is important because cadmium is a level 1 carcinogenic and it can accumulate in the body, leading to cancer development.  

When it comes to nutrient content, it actually isn’t so important to be organic vs. non-organic, it matters more how ‘in season’ that fruit or vegetable is - or in other words, how long it’s been out of the ground before it was consumed.  For example, if you compare the Vitamin C level of broccoli in May (in season) vs. in the fall (out of season) - you will only find about ½ of the vitamin C level in the out of season broccoli (SOURCE). 

Our recommendation is to, again, get the most bang for your buck when buying produce organically.  There are certain fruits and vegetables that we consume the skin of and that tend to have the worst pesticide exposure - they are known as the Dirty Dozen.  If you decide to buy organic produce, the dirty dozen is where you’d want to grab higher quality organic products compared to the Clean Fifteen produce products where it is less impactful to shell out the extra money for organic. 

Our other recommendation around produce is to buy seasonal!  Check out your local farmers markets, google what is in season at that time of year and in your area, and up your nutrient intake by getting creative with seasonal vegetables! 

You can always up your antioxidant intake and fiber intake with our delicious GREENS powder too for a gut health boost to your day.  

Food Label Deciphering 

The last topic we want to discuss is food labeling and the deceit that food companies create to trick you into buying what seems like a healthy product!  Here are our rules when it comes to reading ingredient lists and deciphering food labels: 

Ingredient Lists

  • 2 Line Rule - Try not to buy many things that have more than two lines of ingredients.  The more ingredients there are, the more likely it’s going to contain things that don’t benefit our bodies. 
  • First 3 Rule - Another great rule to live by is to make sure the first three ingredients are whole foods that you understand and avoid one of those three ingredients being refined grains, a form of sugar, or a variation of seed oils. 

Food Label Tricks

When checking out food labels, these are the tricks that food companies use and what they actually mean:

  • ‘Low-Sodium’ - Usually means added sugar (crackers, bread, etc.) 
  • ‘Low-Fat’ - Usually means added sugar (often in dairy products - yogurt/milk/etc.) 
  • ‘Made With’- Just because something is made with olive oil doesn’t mean it doesn't ALSO have canola, and other seed oils in it. 
  • 'High Protein' - You often see this with protein bars, so we say a good rule of thumb is you want a protein bar to have 10g of protein per 100 calories. 
  • 'Sugar Free' - If something is labeled as sugar free, it has removed actual sugar and added fake/artificial sugars. 
  • 'Vegan' - Just because something is vegan does not mean it is healthier - remember that Oreos are vegan.  For example, vegan butter is made with a ‘blend’ of vegetable oils (palm, canola, soybean, flax, and olive).  Utilizing butter or coconut oil is actually a way better option richer with vitamins. 
  • 'Gluten Free' - Again, just because it’s gluten free doesn't mean it is healthy.  Usually gluten is being replaced with something like rice flour - but rice flour isn’t particularly nutritious.  Gluten free also says nothing about what else might be in food - potato chips are often gluten free, but I think we could agree that they aren’t really that great for us.  

In conclusion, not everything you buy must be organic, grass-fed, free-range, and local - there are tons of great food items you can find at the grocery store that are conventional-based!  The more we know, the better decisions we can make for ourselves and our families.  And at the end of the day, it is better to eat non-organic eggs than organic cereal for breakfast, and it’s better to have a dinner of conventionally raised beef and non-organic roasted vegetables versus a plate of organic mac and cheese.  Do the best you can with what you can afford! 

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