Good v bad: navigating the supermarket aisle

Natural selection: Fresh, unsweetened foods and liquids should dominate your shopping list.
Natural selection: Fresh, unsweetened foods and liquids should dominate your shopping list. Photo: William Meppem

The modern diet contains far too much sugar and seed oils, and commercially made foods are largely to blame. David Gillespie, best-selling author of Sweet Poison and Toxic Oil, explains why and how these ingredients are damaging our health and how to avoid them.

If I were to lend you a time machine (no, you can't keep it) and send you back two centuries, you'd notice that the food on your plate looked pretty much the same as it does now. But how it looked would be the end of the similarities.

Scratching just below the surface, you would find two significant, but largely invisible, changes. You would discover that almost all the fat used then came from animals and that there was almost no sugar added. Today's meal would have large quantities of added sugar, and almost all the fat will have been extracted from seeds, such as canola, soybeans or cottonseeds (which were once waste products).

A typical modern breakfast of cereal and juice is 30 per cent sugar, but juices and sweetened cereals have only been available since World War II. A typical modern savoury meal is often accompanied by a ladle of barbecue sauce, which is more than half sugar. And typical modern fried food has been boiled in seed oils not in use before 1900 (except to make soap).

Even the sandwich in your kid's lunchbox has undergone invisible changes. The bread (flour, water, salt) now contains seed oil and sugar rather than, well, air. And the sangas are spread with seed oil-based margarine instead of butter.

There is now well-established, scientific evidence that the fructose half of sugar is a lethal addition to our diet. Deleting sugar from my diet resulted in me losing 40 kilograms that I desperately needed to lose and, even better than that, keeping it off effortlessly for the past 10 years. But much worse than making our pants tight, the science says fructose (which occurs naturally in fruit but is one-half of cane sugar - the overwhelming source of fructose in our diet) is the root cause of chronic diseases from type 2 diabetes through to kidney disease, hypertension, depression, dementia and fatty liver disease, just for starters. The good news is that the other half of sugar, glucose, has none of these effects.

Over processed, seed oil- and sugar-loaded treats, conveniences and condiments should be avoided.
Over processed, seed oil- and sugar-loaded treats, conveniences and condiments should be avoided. Photo: William Meppem

We are not adapted to a diet that contains fructose in industrial quantities. And the same can be said for the polyunsaturated fats that dominate the oils extracted from seeds. Our extraordinarily complex biochemistry works on an assumption that our diet will contain only a very small quantity of those fats. It assumes that the fat we consume will come from animals or fruits such as coconuts, avocados and olives. Changing that mix depresses your immune system and increases inflammation, and is likely to be responsible for the enormous increase in diseases as diverse as child allergies and rheumatoid arthritis. The science says it also substantially increases our susceptibility to myriad diseases, including macular degeneration, cancer and heart disease.

If you grow all your own food, you will successfully avoid all added sugar and seed oil. If you can do that, then read no further. But if you are like most of us, you are faced with the daily reality of having to provide food for yourself (and your family) by sifting through aisle after aisle of processed food. Here are 10 tips to help navigate the supermarket minefield:

Buy whole food

You will not go wrong if you buy food with a one-item ingredient list. An apple contains apple, T-bone steaks are made of beef, and a potato contains potato. That's all you need to know. Sure, it would be great if you knew the cow had been grass-fed or you knew that the potato was dug out of the ground by a well-paid farmer named Bob (who had just washed his hands) but that's really just buffing. The critical thing is that your food comes largely in its original packaging and you are well adapted to eating it that way.


Plan your shop

Sugar is an addictive substance but you will be entering its den just by going out to buy food. That's like asking a smoker to quit but insisting he buy his patches from a cigarette vending machine. Plan your meals and know in advance what raw ingredients you will need for the week. It is much easier to go straight to them in the supermarket rather than wander through sugar central thinking about food.

Water: the only drink you need

If you were stranded in the Sahara and I offered you cold water, would you knock it back because it wasn't sweet? I didn't think so. If water isn't an appealing option then, let's face it, we're not really thirsty. Most of the time, we're drinking for some other reason. That's not to say there aren't other options. Milk is good if you are lactose tolerant and our kids love their water with fizz (soda or mineral water). Avoid soft drinks, cordials and sugar-enhanced juices altogether. If you can't live without a sweet fizzy treat then go for Lucozade (original flavour only). It is sweetened only with the non-addictive, safe half of sugar, glucose. Alcohol is made by fermenting sugar and many of the diseases of overconsumption of alcohol are the same as those associated with sugar consumption. But most people don't drink alcohol at the rate they consume sugar (which would be about 20 drinks a day), but it's important not to add sugar by mixing booze with soft drinks. Most wines and beers are largely sugar-free.

Look for grass-fed meat

If meat is your thing, then look for grass-fed rather than lot- or grain-fed meat. Grain-fed animals accumulate fats similar to those in seed oils in their meat. Grass-fed animals don't. If the label doesn't say, then it is probably grain-fed (or at least finished on grain, because it's cheaper to produce). It matters much less with ruminants (such as cattle and sheep) than it does with omnivores (such as pigs) because ruminants have a built-in upper limit on the amount of polyunsaturated fat they will produce.

'There is no such thing as a good condiment.'
'There is no such thing as a good condiment.' 

Don't buy lite/light anything

Low-fat foods are usually high-sugar foods. When they remove the fat, they replace it with sugar (and salt so it's not too sweet). For example, one popular light peanut butter contains 23 per cent more sugar and 12.5 per cent more salt than its full-fat cousin.

Yoghurt isn't sweet

You wouldn't know it from the contents of the average dairy cabinet, but yoghurt is sour. If your yoghurt isn't, then it has added sugar. The only good choices are Greek or natural yoghurt. If natural yoghurt is too much of a shock to the system, you can soften the blow with a little dextrose and vanilla essence. Adding fresh or frozen berries is also a great way to ease into sugar-free yoghurt.

Breakfast cereal is not food

Most breakfast cereals are a quarter to a third sugar and some have a good whack of seed oils, too. If cereal is what gets your motor started, then go for unflavoured porridge, puffed grains or rice (from the health food aisle) or wheat biscuits that don't list sugar as an ingredient. Under no circumstances should you buy a liquid breakfast in a box. These abominable concoctions often contain a great big dollop of seed oil and sugar.

Adding berries or vanilla essence is a great way to ease into sugar-free yoghurt.
Adding berries or vanilla essence is a great way to ease into sugar-free yoghurt. 

And neither is margarine

Margarine is made from seed oils (usually sunflower, safflower and canola) and this is true even if it has pictures of olives on the pack. If you want something on your daily bread, use what we've used for the past 10,000 years - butter - or cream cheese or avocado.

There's no such thing as a good condiment

All commercial mayonnaises, dressings and pestos are made with seed oil. All tomato sauces have added sugar (usually quite a lot). And most other sauces are high in sugar or seed oil or both. You will need to get well acquainted with a food blender, olive oil and some herbs if you don't want to live without condiments.

Just remember a simple number: 1.5

If you absolutely must have something from the centre of the supermarket then use this simple rule of thumb: If the ingredients list sugar then make sure the amount on the label is less than three grams per 100g (1.5g of fructose). If it lists a seed oil (such as sunflower, safflower, canola, rice bran or soybean) then make sure the polyunsaturated fat is less than 1.5g per 100g.

Gillespie suggests using butter instead of margarine.
Gillespie suggests using butter instead of margarine. 

Good fats vs bad fats


■ Animal fats (eg Supafry, lard, duck fat or goose fat)

■ Butter and ghee

■ Olive oil

■ Coconut oil

■ Avocado oil

■ Macadamia nut oil


■ Seed oils such as canola, sunflower, cottonseed, soybean, safflower or grapeseed

■ Blended ''vegetable oil'' (just a blend of seed oils)

■ Margarine (solidified seed oils - even the ones with olives pictured on the front - olive oil is a very small component of the product)

■ All nut oils except macadamia nut oil and some varieties of peanut oil

■ Rice bran oil

Of course, the quick way of saying this is the way Michael Pollan did: ''Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognise as food.'' Do that and you will live a long and happy life.

David Gillespie's books, Sweet Poison: Why Sugar Makes Us Fat and Toxic Oil: Why Vegetable Oil Will Kill You and How to Save Yourself, are published by Penguin.