We’re not talking about whether organic food is worth the money, or how much junk food you should eat. Instead, we’re focusing here on how to best navigate your local supermarket to avoid money traps and unsafe foods.

Our list of fourteen tips for navigating the grocery store will help you know what to watch out for the next time you shop. If nothing else, this list may make you lose your appetite for a while, saving you some money on food this week.

1. Shopping Carts Are Not Clean
What’s dirtier than a public bathroom, and you touch it right before handling your food? Well, I guess the title gives away the answer. Grocery store shopping carts have more germs than public restrooms. Don’t believe us? A 2007 University of Arizona study, “found that shopping carts were loaded with more saliva, bacteria and even fecal matter than escalators, public telephones and even public bathrooms.” So make sure you minimize your direct contact with shopping carts, and if you have to use one, don’t touch your fresh foods directly without sanitizing your hands.

2. Your Children Can Get Sick (Or Get Others Sick)
If you want to take your child with you to the store, consider buying a shopping cart cover to insulate them from the germs and bacteria. It may sound silly, but children with less developed immune systems are even more susceptible to picking up an infection. Plus, they may spread their own cooties onto the shopping cart, too.

3. Healthy Foods Are Hard to Get
Grocery stores want you to buy junk food, so they place more healthful foods in harder to reach spots. The most eye-catching foods—usually candies and other colorful items that are bad for you—are placed in coveted locations at the forefront of each aisle or at eye-level. But this rule extends to all sections in the store. If you want whole wheat pasta, you generally have to dig through the less healthful variety in front. For more tips on finding what you really need in the store, read the next post.

4. Store Layouts Are Designed to Trick You Into Buying More
Have you ever wondered why most grocery stores put milk as far away from the entrance as possible? Supermarkets hope to lure shoppers into buying other goods in the store on the way to the products they really need. That’s why baked goods and meats are usually far away, too. If you don’t want to make impromptu additions to your grocery list, just shop around the edges of the store so you aren’t baited into the candy section.

5. The Salad Bars Are a Germ Buffet
Given all the horror stories that have taken place at salad bars in restaurants across the country, it should come as no surprise that salad bars in grocery stores are disease-ridden places. Still, shoppers buy many of their items in that section each week. Bacteria like e-coli and salmonella are common inhabitants of these high-traffic areas.

6. Dangerous Meat
Unfortunately, even packaged food has its share of risks. In 2006, Dateline reporters used a hidden camera and found meat products that were weeks old and still on the shelves. They even saw fruit flies nesting on the produce. In one chain of Asian stores in Houston, rats had chewed through packaged products, leaving droppings behind.

7. Contaminated Fruit
You’ve probably heard it before, but you should always wash your fruits and vegetables after you buy them because they may be covered in pesticides. Peaches alone may have a combination of up to fifty-three pesticides on them, while apples (supposedly nature’s cure-all) have as many as fifty different pesticides. There are even pesticides in your fruit drinks.

8. Don’t Trust Expiration Dates
We’ve written about this before but it bares repeating. Eggs and other perishables may be good weeks after their expiration dates. This is definitely good news for many shoppers out there. But it’s the sell-by date that matters. If you buy meat in a store with a sell-by date three or four days away, be careful, the meat may stay good for less time in your refrigerator than the heavy duty refrigerators used in super markets.

9. The Dangers of Imported Foods
Approximately 15 percent of all food sold in America is imported. Yet, as of 2007, less than 2 percent of that food was properly inspected for health hazards by the government. We’ll do the math for you here: that means a lot of your food goes unchecked. If you’ve got 10 items in your shopping cart, chances are at least one of them is suspect.

10. Food Gets Sliced Into Pieces and So Does Your Wallet
According to some estimates, you may pay twice as much for meats that are cut up into pieces compared to buying it unprepared. For that much of a price difference, you might as well just buy yourself two full chickens and eat with your hands, barbarian style.

11. Nothing Is Exactly What It Claims to Be
Baked Goods may not really be that fresh. Whole wheat bread may not be entirely made of whole wheat. And bargain items aren’t so much of a bargain. Read product boxes carefully for ingredients, learn to feel fruits and baked goods for freshness and do price comparisons online before you are fooled into buying a crate of so-called bargain goods. Also be sure to look at unit prices (the cost per value), which better represent the real prices of items.

12. Just Because It’s In a Can Doesn’t Mean It’s Safer
We all feel hesitant to eat canned foods that have been sitting in our house for decades, but what about cans you find on store shelves?

Turns out many canned goods (as well as bottled products) contain dangerous amounts of Bisphenol A (better known as BPA), an organic compound found in plastics. BPA is used as lining for cans and bottles, but acts as a hormone and in high quantities is linked to breast, testicular and ovarian cancers. According to a 2007 report from the Environmental Working Group, baby formulas and chicken soup have some of the highest BPA levels. Some companies have since started to produce BPA-free bottles and containers. So rather than keep your goods in cans for years, try storing them in these containers instead.


13. Soda Cans Are Risky Too
BPA is also found in soda cans. But that’s not the only thing you may find. Last month, one customer popped open his can of diet Pepsi, gulped down some of it and started gagging. When he emptied the can down a sink, he noticed something heavy stuck inside. It turned out to be a dead frog. Moral of the story: Don’t scarf down your drink too fast.

As a side note, it’s also not a bad idea to wipe off the top of your can before you drink. Since the tops of the cans are exposed in factories, super markets, soda machines and who knows where else, they often collect dust, dirt and worse (droppings).

14. The Crazy People Who Shop There
As scary as some of the above risks may sound, save some fear for your fellow customers. You’re bound to have some crazy confrontations in the supermarket aisles. Take the example of the child who tagged along with his grandma grocery shopping. The boy started teasing a man’s “helper monkey.” That’s right. There was a guy shopping with a monkey. The monkey could only tolerate so much and eventually attacked the boy.

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