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Supermarket cheat sheet

With a few simple tricks and tips, you can make your next trip to the supermarket a healthy one. Here are must-have, must-know tips and tricks.

Before you go

When and where you shop can make a difference in what you bring home. Be smart with the following suggestions:

  • Make a list. You'll avoid unhealthy impulse buys, save money and won't forget the must-have ingredient for tonight's dinner. But try to be a little flexible, especially if the store is out of the item you want or if a similar item looks fresher.
  • Pick the right supermarket. Whether it's convenient or offers what you like (vegetarian, ethnic cuisine, seafood or butcher counter), stick to a store that makes it easy for you to get home with foods you enjoy.
  • Pick the right time. Avoid crowds (and long waits at check out) by shopping early in the morning or on weekend evenings. Or ask your cashier about the best times to shop there.
  • Eat first. A healthy snack or meal will ensure your grumbling tummy won't let unhealthy cravings decide what goes in your cart.

In the store

Your list probably includes a combination of both fresh and packaged foods. Packaged foods will contain a nutrition labels that includes Nutrition Facts (which gives info on serving size, calories and 13 nutrients) and a list of ingredients. Here's an example, what it all means and some helpful recommendations.

The number of calories listed is per amount of food specified — not for the entire package and not for a Canada’s Food Guide serving. This is important to know because the amount of calories can be for a much smaller amount of food than we think.

So, in this example, if the entire package is 250 ml and you eat it all, you just had 160 calories.

Here is the amount and percentage of the daily value of nutrients per amount of food specified. The % daily value is useful when you’re watching what you eat and when comparing one packaged food to another.

For example, the Dietitians of Canada and the Canadian Diabetes Association recommend that we eat less fat, saturated fat and trans fat, cholesterol and sodium; but we should get more carbohydrate, fibre, vitamins A and C, calcium and iron.

A good rule of thumb to follow:

  • Less than 5% daily value means that serving size contains a little bit of that nutrient.
  • More than 15% daily value means a serving contains a lot of it.

The ingredients list will tell you a lot about what you’re buying

Ingredients are listed from most to least according to weight. This means the product contains more of the ingredients listed at the beginning of the list and less of those at the end.

Unfortunately, some of the things you’re trying to avoid are listed under a different name. For example, these common items go by the following “codenames”:

If you’re trying to avoid…

…Watch for these common ingredients







Saturated fat



Cocoa butter


Coconut oil

Hydrogenated fats and oils



Palm or palm kernel oil

Powdered whole milk solids



Trans fat

Hard margarine

Hydrogenated fats and oils

Partially hydrogenated fats and oils



Salt (sodium)

Baking powder / soda


Disodium phosphate

Monosodium glutamate (MSG)

Sodium alginate / benzoate / bisulfate / proprionate

Soy salt



Note: Words that end in “ose” indicate a sugar; “ol” indicates a sugar alcohol.

Cane juice extract


Corn syrup




High fructose corn syrup














Guide to smarter choices

Now that you understand food labels, % daily values and ingredient lists better, use your skills to make healthier choices. Here are some helpful tips and tricks for each of the four food groups:

Food group

Go with

Pass on

Fruits and vegetables

  • Dark green (arugula, broccoli, spinach, salad greens) and orange vegetables (carrots, squash, sweet potatoes) — have each every day to get enough vitamin A and folate
  • Fresh, frozen and canned veggies are all nutritious
  • Lower sodium (salt) canned vegetables and vegetable juices.
  • Fresh or unsweetened frozen or canned fruit
  • 100% fruit juice
  • Veggies with breading or are in rich sauces
  • Sweetened frozen or canned fruit
  • Fruit in syrup
  • Punch, cocktail or fruit flavoured drinks
  • Concentrated juices

Grain products

  • Whole grains: brown or wild rice, oats, quinoa, whole-wheat pasta, barley
  • Breads and cereals made from whole grain, brown or wild rice, barley or bulgur
  • First ingredient will have "whole" or "whole grain" plus the name of the grain; for example, whole grain whole wheat, whole grain oats, whole rye
  • Multi-grain or pumpernickel varieties of breads (including bagels, pita and tortillas)
  • High fibre cereals containing 4g of fibre per serving or more
  • Low-sodium varieties of packaged grain products (e.g. crackers)
  • Don't rely on the colour of bread; molasses can be used to make white bread darker.
  • White stuff: bread, rice, pasta
  • Baked goods, cookies and crackers made with hydrogenated and trans fats

Milk and alternatives

  • Skim, 1% or 2% milk
  • Soy beverages that are fortified with calcium and vitamin D
  • Yogurt with 2% milk fat (MF) or less
  • Low fat cheeses (less than 20% MF)
  • High fat, high calorie options including cream cheese, ice cream, coffee cream, whipping cream, sour cream

Meat and alternatives

  • Lean meat: beef, pork, veal, lamb and game
  • Lean or extra lean cuts: inside and outside round roast, strip loin steak, sirloin steak, rump roast
  • Lean or extra lean ground meat or poultry
  • Meal with fat trimmed (or trim before cooking)
  • Poultry without skin (or remove before cooking)
  • Sodium and lower fat pre-packaged meats, luncheon meats and sausages
  • Beans and lentils (reduced sodium if canned)
  • Tofu
  • Unsalted dry roasted nuts and seeds
  • Fish high in omega 3 fatty acids: char, herring, mackerel, salmon, sardines, trout
  • Breaded fresh or frozen meat, poultry or fish
  • Meat, poultry or fish in heavy sauces
  • Added oil and salt on nuts and seeds

Looking for recipes? Check out our recipes for delicious and nutritious meals and snacks.

Supermarket cheat sheet