There was a time in the not too distant past when I did all my grocery shopping at Walmart. The reasons were twofold: first, Walmart was the closest grocery store to my house, so convenience played a big role; second, saving money was my main motivator, and no other store could beat their prices.

But, as the saying goes, that was then, and this is now. And now, I’m far less concerned with saving money while grocery shopping, and far more interesting in eating healthy. It seems like every day, I see a new headline about the dangers in our food system: antibiotics used in chickens are leading to resistance; hormones added to everything from beef to dairy products causing early puberty in girls; artificial colors increasing allergy risks. The list is endless, and although I’ve never been a hypochondriac, I’d be lying if I didn’t say the constant barrage of negative health headlines weren’t making me paranoid.

So a few weeks ago, I decided to do an about-face with my grocery shopping. I left the kids at home with my husband, and headed to our local store – no longer the big box chain – where I spent the better part of two hours reading labels, scanning ingredient lists, and asking the guys in the meat and produce departments where the food actually came from.

What I learned was shocking.

The “honey wheat” bread I’d been feeding my family had “enriched wheat flour” as its first ingredient. Ideally, you want to see “whole wheat flour” be listed first, not “enriched wheat flour,” which is just another way of saying most of the nutrients have already been pulverized out of it. The second ingredient was high fructose corn syrup. In BREAD.

I asked the butcher about the use of hormones and antibiotics in the chicken and beef I usually buy. He told me that most chicken farms use antibiotics freely, as it helps prevent the spread of disease when the animals live in such close quarters. He added that most feed lots – where cows are fed grain, rather than grass – use hormones to help boost the size of the cattle and ensure that farmers get the most bang for their buck.

I looked at the label for the cheese sticks my kids love; they included artificial colors to give the mild cheddar its yellow color. Real cheese isn’t yellow, of course; it’s white.

I’d been buying my kids yogurt packs that claimed to be “all natural” – only to really spend some time looking at the ingredients list to see that it was full of “natural colors” and “natural flavors,” which were (naturally) made in a laboratory from “natural” ingredients. So much for coming straight from the Mother Nature.

When it was all said and done, I realized that most of the processed foods I’d been buying for my family – and even some of those I didn’t realize were so highly processed – had processed anything healthy right out of them. Everything was enriched, blanched, or preserved to the nines; nothing was natural.

So I started buying new products.

Instead of the $1.25 loaf of honey wheat bread, I purchased the $2.49 loaf that had 100% whole wheat flour as its first ingredient; high fructose corn syrup wasn’t listed anywhere on the nutrition label.

Instead of the $1.99/lb chicken breast that had been exposed to antibiotics, I bought chicken for $2.99/lb that came from an Amish farm about 50 miles from my home – one that doesn’t use antibiotics.

Instead of buying any type of yellow cheese for my kids, I sought out white cheese sticks that had the organic seal on them, just like I’d been doing for my milk (previously the only item in my kitchen that was truly natural). I did the same for my kids’ yogurt cups.

Of course, when I went to check out, I was in for another shock. Eating healthy was going to cost us a pretty penny – I spent about 25-30% more for the organic, non-antibiotic, hormone- and dye-free foods than I had for my typical shopping list. I did some quick math, and realized that over the course of a year, that would probably cost me an additional $2000. It seems like a lot of money, especially if you’re grocery shopping on a tight budget, as I was back in my Walmart days. But I’m hoping that it will help my family in other ways that will save us far more down the road – by keeping us healthier.

Libby Balke

Libby Balke