6 Secrets About Shopping “Healthy” At The Grocery Store

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Caveat Emptor… let the buyer beware.

“The food you eat,” healthy eating and raw food guru Ann Wigmore once wrote, “can be either the safest and most powerful form of medicine or the slowest form of poison.”

While Wigmore’s holistic approach to health and food lifestyle may not be for the masses, there is little doubt that the general public is increasingly craving the healthiest food they can get their hands on.

Whether it’s from a wave of easily streamable food documentaries or ubiquitous good-eating information on the web, consumers are as hungry as ever for healthier food items. Neilsen’s “Healthy Eating Trends Around the World” study reported that all-natural, non-GMO (genetically modified organisms) foods were important to 43 percent of its global respondents. In short, the report noted, people around the world are eager for food that is “fresh, natural and minimally processed.”

To get these delicious, nutritious, and not genetically suspicious food items, many consumers have turned to their local healthy grocery store chains to offer them a hallowed sanctuary of food safe from the perceived evils of GMOs and Big Agribusiness.

But while nationwide chains like Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and others do offer plenty of healthy and organic options for shoppers, they’re not always the perfect shopping utopias consumers may imagine them to be.

Behind the truly impressive local murals and friendly employee faces, these companies obfuscate a sprawling corporate network that contains more than a few startling secrets.

1. Not everything is organic.

“You have to be a very conscientious consumer,” Kastel says, to know what you’re buying at a health-focused grocery store.

According to Neilsen’s study, 33 percent of global consumers say that organic ingredients are “very important” in their purchasing decisions. These preferences are pretty well-justified: organic crops, on average, enjoy higher antioxidants and lower pesticide residue than non-organic, according to a study from The British Journal of Nutrition.

Anyone with a high interest in procuring organic ingredients would no doubt flock to healthy grocery chains to pick up cart-loads of organic food, but the truth is that despite heavy “organic” signage, these stores sell plenty of non-organic food as well, says Mark Kastel, cofounder of the Cornucopia Institute, an organic agriculture research group.

Kastel himself observed that “half or more of the food at Whole Foods is not organic,” though we could find no detailed research to corroborate that number. Whole Foods does make it clear than not all of their items are organic on its website (though every product must adhere to their quality standards).

“You have to be a very conscientious consumer,” Kastel says, to know what you’re buying at a health-focused grocery store.

For a food item to be “organic” it must meet certain USDA Certification standards and will always be accompanied by a distinctive “USDA Organic” sticker or label. This stamp of approval affirms that the food content is 95 percent organic material: that means no artificial additives, pesticides, genetic modification, or irradiation.

It’s not that these stores are untruthful about what is or isn’t organic, it simply means that shoppers should be aware that just because Whole Foods sells something does not mean it’s organic. Consumers should do a little extra homework and investigating to make sure that they’re getting certified organic food items.

2. Their produce isn’t particularly unique.

There’s a good chance many consumers prefer shopping at healthy chains strictly for what is perceived as better quality produce. Whole Foods, especially, is a company that prides itself on its produce, lauding it as “a sight to behold” on its website.

And while there is definitely nothing bad about the organic produce at Whole Foods or similar grocers, it’s increasingly likely you could get the same quality organic produce from your local regional chain supermarket.

Fruits in grocery store sections
Jakub Kapusnak on Unsplash

“Whole Foods produce can often be the same kind of produce you’d find at Kroger or Jewel,” says Kastel, Jewel being an Illinois grocery chain. See, in response to the increased desire for organic produce, other supermarket chains have stepped up their organic game while maintaining competitive prices.

Kastel points to a Massachusetts Whole Foods he found selling local conventional produce—“That means it could have been sprayed by a toxic pesticide, even if it’s local.” He says that the only difference between a lot of organic produce found at a “healthy grocer” and other chains is that it “costs more.” So while you’re still likely getting great produce from Whole Foods, it’s possible you’re not getting the best bang for your buck.

3. You can get great meat anywhere—if you know what you’re looking for.

Similar to produce, meat—especially red meat—is an item that many shoppers may think is of as much higher quality at health-focused grocery stores. But that isn’t always the case.

Urbo spoke with Todd, who works for a meat supply company on the west coast. Todd says that most people “aren’t sure what to look for when it comes to purchasing meat,” and a lot of supermarket chains take advantage of that.

Todd says it’s perfectly possible to get a great cut of meat from your standard regional supermarket chain as well as from Whole Foods. According to Todd, most consumers don’t know that marbling is the best way to judge the quality of most beef.

“You want fat outside of the meat, but not too much. It’s intramuscular fat that provides flavor,” he says. “Some pieces are more apt to marbling than—short rib has naturally more marbling.”

The benefit of intramuscular fat is that it provides flavor and tenderness without the unhealthy globs of fat that can be found on the exterior of less desirable cuts of meat.

Todd says it’s possible to find great cuts of meat at your local supermarket, healthy chain, and even bulk stores like Costco—“Costco has some great meat.” Todd that consumes are likely “paying extra” for the peace of mind of shopping at Whole Foods, whereas a local chain could have the same quality marbled meat for less cost.

4. Pricing can be very suspect.

If it isn’t already obvious, one secret of healthy chains is that they occasionally leverage their healthy image to get folks to pay more. For example, says Kastel, Whole Foods will have higher prices on food that is certified organic, which is generally expected to cost more, but then use non-organic ingredients in their hot bar offerings—yet they maintain their high prices.

Concerns about Whole Foods pricing have not gone unnoticed. A New York City Department of Consumer Affairs report stated that there was a “systematic problem with how products packaged for sale at Whole Foods are weighed and labeled.”

That report led to a lawsuit against Whole Foods in 2015 accusing the company of overcharging. From the 2015 suit filed by plaintiff Sean John: “Whole Foods engages in a deceptive pricing scheme which targets health conscious consumers who are willing to pay a premium for healthy, organic and natural groceries.”

In discussing the chain’s premium pre-packed groceries (which includes “meats, dairy products, nuts, berries, vegetables and seafood”), the suit contends that shoppers trust that Whole Foods “has accurately priced these item[s] according to its actual weight.” However, the suit continues, “Whole Foods customers are not getting what they pay for, and are instead being routinely overcharged.”

Two grocery bags filled with fruits, veggies, and breads
Maria Lin Kim on Unsplash

The findings and lawsuits led to fines and PR issues for Whole Foods and forced the company’s CEOs John Mackey and Walter Robb to offer a mea culpa to customers.

The overcharging complaints have persisted into this year, but a shift occurred when Amazon purchased Whole Foods and immediately moved to lower prices. A tactic that has paid off, at least for now. It will remain to be seen if Amazon-backed Whole Foods will encounter any future overcharging allegations.

5. Whole Foods might be going less local.

With its sale to Amazon, Whole Foods may be retreating from its proud perch as a local marketplace, according to a report from TIME.

Historically, the company has always given its regional stores a good deal of independence to stock their shelves with healthy goods from local farmers; enterprising small food businesses could find ways to get their products into Whole Foods’ aisles by cajoling and impressing local managers. This could all come to an end, though, if Amazon follows through on plans to streamline and centralize the decision-making process.

Kastel argues that local co-op grocery stores have always been and will continue to be the best source for finding fresh organic offerings from local farmers. “These co-ops have a lot of relationships with organic grocers. They know who their farmers are. Or they go to the farmers market on the weekend.”

Pam Pinto, proprietor of Act Natural Health and Wellness store, says that she routinely grills any farmer who wants to sell in her store: “What are your soil procedures? Where’s the water coming from? Is it a clean water source? What are you using for soil?”

It’s not to say Whole Foods doesn’t always ask these questions; as a national chain now owned by a gigantic company, though, they may be less personally invested than a local store would be. Plus, if the streamlining reports are true, Whole Foods may not need to engage with as many local farmers.

6. You won’t find total transparency.

One notable example of this is Trader Joe’s practice of “co-packing.” Nearly all of Trader Joe’s self-branded products—cereal bars, frozen burritos, salsa—are coming from a variety of other brands and companies providing products to Trader Joe’s as a third party.

According to Progressive Grocer writer Randy Hofbauer, many of the private label foods can be deceiving: they come from companies that are “lesser known for their national brands and more known for working with retailers to develop unique products to the retailers’ specifications.”

TreeHouse Foods, for instance, is a food conglomerate that provides packaged food to all kinds of different buyers. This means that Trader Joe’s brand, say, trail mix or hummus, isn’t always going to be as exclusive to Trader Joe’s as one might think.

Is this necessarily a bad thing? No, but it is a reminder that these chains are big businesses who will put the bottom line and efficient practices first.

Kastel has advice for anyone doing their shopping at one of these big healthy chains—“Caveat Emptor… let the buyer beware.”

When it comes to these healthy chains, consumers can expect that these stores will provide them with plenty of healthy and organic food options, but they need to be wary of putting their full faith into trusting national healthy grocery stores.

Groceries in a pile on a bed
Maddi Bazzocco on Unsplash

If you’re looking for the most clear and open information about where your food is coming from, it might be best to depend on your local farmer’s market or co-op instead of putting your trust in big corporate grocers. Talking to a grocer who has spoken with the farmer who grew the food you’re buying is likely the best way to get peace of mind at the checkout aisle—even if they don’t have the word “organic” everywhere or wear fun Hawaiian shirt uniforms.

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