The Expat Grocery Shopping Blues: Food Labels

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For many expats language might be the biggest obstacle, but for me the most difficult thing thus far has to be the food shopping experience. I’m familiar with Norwegian food, but when it comes down to what I’m going to make for myself I’ve found that I’m at a total loss. I go to the grocery store and wander around looking at things, completely dumbfounded.

First, it’s difficult to adjust to Norwegian prices. I try not to think about what it costs in dollars when I look at something in the store. If I really thought about how much things cost, I would never buy anything.

Secondly, many grocery stores have a limited selection of brands or items. It’s not just that the American brands you’re used to aren’t there (in fact, many of them are), it’s a much smaller selection overall. For example, I’ve gained a lot of weight in the past month eating all the Norwegian comfort foods I’m used to eating here while on vacation. However, when I wanted to buy salad, I discovered that there are only a handful of salad dressing options. Of the five options, four are heavy, creamy, fat-filled concoctions that nullify the health benefits of eating salad. What you’re left with is balsamic vinegar. I miss Trader Joe’s Champagne-Pear Vinaigrette!

An additional problem with food shopping in Norway is actually getting into the store. Almost all grocery stores in Oslo are closed on Sundays; something I keep forgetting. In the states, Sunday is always a good day to get things done such as food shopping. On Sundays in Oslo, you’re supposed to be at home relaxing or climbing a mountain or something, but you’re definitely not supposed to be in a store because they’re all closed—even the pharmacy. There is ONE pharmacy in the entire capital city open on Sundays.

Lastly, and this little bit of knowledge is something I’d like to share with you fellow expats, the food labels in Norway are completely different from those in the states (I imagine the rest of Europe is similar). Because I’m now trying to watch what I eat, I was very confused by how seemingly high some of the calorie counts were on the food labels. For a comparison, let’s look at an American product, readily available here in Norway.

Heinz Ketchup Label, America

Ketchup isn’t a particularly high calorie food, which is one of the reasons I’m using it as a comparison. On the American label we can clearly see it’s 20 calories, no fat, no saturated fat, no trans fat, no cholesterol, 160 mg of sodium, 5g carbs, no fiber, 4g sugar, and no protein. It even tells you the vitamins and that it’s a gluten-free product.

Now let’s take a look at the Norwegian label.

Norwegian Heinz Ketchup Food Label

The label is made for Scandinavia and Finland, hence the different languages. All we have on this label is Energy, Protein, Carbohydrates, and Fat. Here I am looking at Energy…what the hell is kj and kcal? And what is the difference?? Kj stands for kilojoules and is a measurement of how much energy we get from food, just like calories. 1 kcal = 4.184 kj. If you’re American, you’re probably thinking, what the fuck? Basically, the one that says “kcal” is the one that’s like our calories.

Yet, why does the label say 103kcal instead of 20 calories? Ah, because of the portion size. Norwegian labels automatically count by 100g, even if you’re not going to eat 100g of whatever it is. American nutrition labels of course go by serving sizes of how much they assume you will or should eat. Thus, it seems to me there is more math involved than I would like. This coupled with the fact that I’m really bad at guessing how much of something there is (especially in the metric system), means I’m basically going to do quite a lot of ballpark guessing!

3 Replies to “The Expat Grocery Shopping Blues: Food Labels”

  1. Nice post. You’re making me homesick. I’m having just the opposite situation here in the US. I’m used to reading the Norwegian labels in my local Oslo stores, and now I’m having trouble finding a healthy balanced diet while shopping here. I’m getting lost in the long isles. There are so many things to choose between here, too many. Everything’s smaller in Oslo!

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