People often ask me what I purchase when I grocery shop at Trader Joe’s. If you are not familiar with it, Trader Joe’s is what I consider a discount health food store. You can find many “natural” or “healthy” items there at a good price.
However, I shop at Trader Joe’s like I grocery shop everywhere else, very selectively. Not all “health food” products, no matter where you shop, are created equal. You have to look at ingredient lists and know your products. You also need to know your containers. For example, one thing I stopped purchasing at Trader Joe’s is their almond butter, because few years ago they switched their almond butter containers from glass to plastic.
If you and/or your family eat gluten-free there are additional things to watch out for when food shopping. Trader Joe’s actually has a handout you can request that lists all their gluten-free foods. However, as you will see below, many gluten-free products are not that healthy. Other substituted grains have their drawbacks as well and can cause additional issues.
Caution: Trader Joe’s follows the industry standard, so their “gluten-free” products can contain up to 20 part per million (ppm) of gluten. If you have celiac disease or you are severely sensitive to gluten, you may need to shop for other gluten-free brands (ones that are produced in a gluten-free facility), some of which are listed in the Pantry.
What NOT to Buy
So, before I tell you what I do buy at Trader Joe’s, I need to tell you what I do not purchase. As a general rule, I typically do not buy the following types of products no matter where I shop.
- Oils and greasy products in plastic containers – Greasy and fatty foods tend to absorb the chemicals found in plastic and when we eat these foods the chemicals end up in our bodies. Examples include bisphenol A (BPA) and its newer cousin bisphenol S (BPS), however, plastics contain many chemicals we have yet to hear about. So, you really need to limit foods like nut butters, vegetable oils, meats, cheese, or other greasy-type foods in plastic bottles, cans (or tetra packs) with plastic liners, or plastic wrap. (You should not store these foods in plastic bags or containers at home either.)
- Genetically modified (GM) ingredients – Unfortunately, this rules out quite a bit in all grocery stores, including health food stores. So many “healthy” processed foods have corn, soy, and/or canola oil in their ingredient list and it is estimated that 85 to 95% of these three foods are genetically modified. (Click here to see how many ways corn alone is added to our food.) Other GM food ingredients to stay away from include: beet sugar, cottonseed oil, alfalfa, certain papaya, crookneck squash, and some zucchini. If it does not state the sugar as “cane sugar” you need to assume it is GM beet sugar.
- Gluten-free (GF) prepackaged products – Since we are gluten-free in our family, I often check ingredients in prepackaged foods that state they are gluten free. However, many packaged gluten-free foods are just not healthy, including those at Trader Joe’s. Some are glorified junk food, with plenty of sugar to make up for the lack of gluten. Others have additional suspect ingredients like GMOs (see above), oatmeal (which you should stay away from if you are strict GF), unhealthy binders such as Carrageenan (a known stomach irritant) and xanthan gum (often corn-derived), etc. Unfortunately, this includes most breads, cereals, crackers, and cookies. (See more about going gluten-free here and other healthy GF food option here.)
- Prechopped and prewashed produce – Yes, I do buy this type of produce in a pinch if it is organic. However, many prewashed items such as lettuce, kale, and other chopped vegetables are washed in a bath with one or more chemicals. Baby carrots, for example, are known to be washed in a chlorine bath. Fruits and vegetables also start to loose nutrients the moment they are pealed and cut. Trader Joe’s happens to have quite a bit precut produce, most of which I stay away from. It may be more convenient, but it is less nutritious.
- Salad dressings, dips, and hummus – The number one reason to stay away from these premade and packaged foods is that most of them contain canola oil, a genetically modified food. If you do find one that is free of GM ingredients and other suspect “natural” ingredients, be sure to recheck the ingredient list once in a while. I was buying a Trader Joe’s hummus, for example, until I realized that they changed the olive oil to canola oil (after being out of stock for a while). This can happen to any grocery product as manufacturers find ways to cut costs and larger mainstream manufacturer’s purchase smaller organic companies.
- Fruit juices – We stay away from these in general. Drinking fruit juice not only unnecessarily spikes your blood sugar, the juice is also typically made from concentrate and/or has been pasteurized so it has little nutritional value. We use it for special occasions only. This is the same for most coconut water drinks as well. (Check this out to find a quality coconut water.)
- Fortified products – You should stay away from fortified products in general. Theoretically, packaged foods with added vitamins sounds like a good thing. The problem is that most of these vitamins are synthetically derived and not readily used by the body. For example, added vitamin D is usually D2 (man-made), not D3 which is what your body really needs. Folic Acid is another synthetic nutrient that actually harms the body, which really needs the natural version, called folate. (Click here for more information.)
After reading the list above, you may be asking yourself, “What is there left to buy?” Believe it or not, there is still quite a list of items. Obviously, not everyone will immediately cut out all the culprit foods listed above. However, if you want to be healthy, you really need to educate yourself. There may be other ingredients to consider as well, such as “natural flavors,” which can be used to mean many different things, and “low-fat” or “low-sugar,” which often means the product has alternate, unhealthy ingredients.
My Favorite Items
So, what do I purchase at Trader Joe’s? What I typically buy is organic as well as grass-fed and wild caught whenever possible. I also like to get products as close to their naturally-grown state as possible. When purchasing processed foods, I like products with the least number of ingredients and all the ingredients should be ingredients I recognize. Many items listed below are the Trader Joe’s (TJ) brand. However, even other brands are usually less expensive at Trader Joe’s.
- Produce – I really am not crazy about the produce at Trader Joe’s since much of it has been prechopped, prewashed and sealed in a bag. I prefer to have something fresher that is still intact. (This type of produce also does not typically last very long in the refrigerator.) A few things I get regularly that can be found organic include: broccoli, cucumber, avocado, whole carrots, onions, red potatoes, lemons, apples, bananas, pears, raspberries, grapes and other items in season (except corn and strawberries).
- Meats – Like most food stores, there is a wide variety of meats to choose from. Optimally, I try to get our meats from a local farmer that I trust. Trader Joe’s does have a great TJ Grass Fed Angus Beef (1 lb.) in the frozen section. These are usually flash frozen so I do not worry about the plastic here and I take them out of the plastic to defrost. When in a pinch I get their TJ Organic Free Range Chicken Breast Tenders. Sometimes I also get Applegate Organic Uncured Beef Hot Dog and TJ Uncured Turkey Bacon, both of which are nitrate free. (Yes, these are my exceptions to purchasing plastic, but we limit eating them to once or twice a month.)
- Fish – Another great frozen item is the TJ Sockeye Wild Caught Salmon. There is more than one salmon option so choose carefully. You always want to stay away from the farmed fish, especially since most of them are fed GM grains. I also get their canned salmon, either TJ Wild Alaskan Pink Salmon or TJ Sockeye Salmon. A good tip is that canned fished has to be wild caught because farmed fish does not can well, and most canned fish do not have plastic liners in the cans.
- Frozen – Like the produce section, there are many prepackaged and prepared frozen items, some with added flavors and sauces. Be sure to look at ingredients. Some of the best frozen items are the fruits, like TJ Organic Mango and TJ Wild Boreal Blueberries, that are great for smoothies. We also like TJ Organic Green Beans, TJ Organic Peas, and TJ Organic Broccoli Florettes.
- Nuts and Seeds – There are not many organic nuts to choose from at Trader Joe’s but they usually have organic raw walnuts. I also typically get standard raw pecans since these are hard to find organic. However, you do need to be aware that some nuts are allowed to be modified and still be called raw. For example, since 2007 the USDA has required all “raw” almonds sold in the United States to be chemically treated, irradiated, or pasteurized (steamed) – and they can still be labeled as raw. I no longer purchase conventional raw almonds, almond butter, or almond flour. (The only place to purchase truly “raw” almonds is direct from a farmer or through a company with a waiver to sell in small quantities.) Most “raw” cashews also go through a high-temperature process, to make sure the toxic resin inherent in the shell is not released during the shelling process. I do get Trader Joe’s Raw Sunflower Seeds and Raw Pumpkin Seeds as well as their Organic Chia Seeds and Raw Shelled Hemp Seed.
- Grains – Although I stay away from most of the breads and other grain products like crackers and cookies (as discussed above), the one gluten-free bread we do get is Good for Life Gluten Free Bread. (Toast this bread twice for the best taste.) I also get the Lundberg Brown Rice Organic Rice Cakes, TJ Sprouted Organic California Rice, TJ Organic Basmati Rice, TJ Organic Quinoa (several options available), and TJ Organic Brown Rice Spaghetti Pasta (several options available), all of which are inherently gluten free.
- Diary – We are not currently eating much dairy. However, if you eat dairy, raw would be best, or you should at least be using organic dairy. If it is not labeled organic, you need to assume the milk is from an animal fed GM grains. I do get Kerrygold Pure Irish Butter (from grass-fed cows). Trader Joe’s also has a few cheese selections that are minimally processed and/or raw; I used to get the red wax gouda which is from Holland. Most of their yogurts and ice creams, however, are not organic and/or have suspect ingredients like natural flavors (that can mean many things), sugar (not necessarily cane sugar), and sometimes Carrageenan or xanthan gum, so be sure to check.
Other items I purchase on a regular basis include:
- Organic herb teas (they have a few varieties)
- TJ Organic Cranberries (a few other organic dried fruit options are also available like raisins and mango)
- Larabar Cashew Cookie, Cherry Pie and Apple Pie bars
- TJ Organic Maple Syrup (Grade A – dark color for more nutrients)
- TJ Organic Virgin Coconut Oil (when I run out of my typical brand)
- TJ Organic Cage Free Eggs (when I miss the local farmer)
When You Need a Treat
A few products I purchase once in a while, either as a treat or for special occasions. These include the following:
- TJ Organic Coconut Water (pasteurized but not from concentrate)
- Pellegrino Sparkling Natural Mineral Water
- Virgil’s Root Beer
- Reed’s Original Ginger Brew (ginger ale)
- Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free Pie Crust (does have xanthum gum)
- TJ Dark Chocolate bar (does have soy lecithin, it is one of the few chocolate items without milk)
- TJ Gluten-Free 3-Cheese Pizza (does have xanthum gum)
- TJ Organic Raspberry Fruit Spread
- TJ Organic Potato Chips Kettle Style
- TJ Macadamias Dry Roasted and Salted
Trader Joe’s may not be perfect, but they do carry many healthy products at a good price, you just have to look for them. Here in Nashville we are fortunate to have a Trader Joe’s just blocks away from a Whole Foods. When it is time to go grocery shopping, I often start at Trader Joe’s, getting as many things on my grocery list as I can, and then supplement at Whole Foods. Other items I get from local farmers whenever possible. Those are lists for another day!
This article was written by Sharon Harmon, founder of Life Design for Health. She has a passion for helping people find their way back to optimum health. Please contact her if you would like to know more. There is a great deal of health-related information in her blog articles and on her website.