What You'll Find in a Natural Foods Store

Jack Challem By Jack Challem

What man or woman with diabetes doesn't have special dietary needs? To help make healthy food decisions, consider doing at least some of your grocery shopping in a natural foods store.

If you've never been in a natural foods store, you'll be in for a pleasant surprise. Gone for the most part are the almost cultish health food stores of decades past, along with their spotty fruits and vegetables. When you step into a natural foods store these days, you'll see both the familiar and the unfamiliar, along with a lot of good products and some you should be wary of.

The store layouts are often similar to those of conventional supermarkets, with fresher foods located on the perimeter, and packaged and frozen foods stocked toward the center. Fresh foods are generally better than processed, so try to do most of your shopping on the perimeter, where you'll find produce, fish, meats, and a deli counter.

While there are hundreds of independent natural foods stores around the country, the two big food chains are Whole Foods Market and Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage. Whole Foods tends to focus on larger cities, but the chain is opening more stores in mid-size cities, such as Wichita and Boise. Meanwhile, Natural Grocers is aggressively spreading out from its Colorado roots. You'll find stores in small to mid-size cities, such as Flagstaff and Omaha, so far in 14 states west of the Mississippi River.

The two chains have a very different look and feel. Whole Foods feels like a boutique supermarket, with prices to match.  In contrast, Natural Grocers focuses on low prices, and about one-third of their floor is devoted to vitamin supplements. Plus, every Natural Grocers store has a staff nutrition health counselor – someone with at least one nutrition degree – to provide free guidance to customers.

Both chains carry a wide variety of groceries and produce, as do a number of smaller regional groups of stores, such as New Season's, MOM's (My Organic Market), Akin's/Chamberlin's, and Earth Origins. Other big chains, such as Sprouts and Hannaford, sell many natural items, but they aren't true natural foods stores.

What specifically will you find?

Jack Challem Produce. Both Whole Foods and Natural Grocers sell organic fruits and vegetables—meaning they are grown with natural fertilizers and without pesticides or other synthetic agricultural chemicals. But you have to pay attention to the details. Only some of the produce at Whole Foods sparkling displays are organic, while Natural Grocers and many indie markets sell only organics. Be warned: organics cost more than conventional produce, but prices are more competitive at Natural Grocers. You can also find organic foods at many farmer's markets.

Meats and Seafood. Whole Foods markets (and some independents, e.g., New Seasons in Portland, Oregon) have full-service meat and seafood departments. The meats range from "humanely raised" chicken and beef to organic and grassfed meats. Natural Grocers offers a small number of packaged meats, such as grassfed beef and organically raised chicken. Expect to pay much more for organic meats than comparable items at a conventional supermarket, but if you can afford it, they're a healthier option.

Bulk foods. Nearly all natural foods markets have bulk foods sections where you can buy the exact amount of coffee, rice, beans, trail mixes, and nuts you want. At Natural Grocers, many familiar bulk food items – e.g., nuts and trail mixes – are prebagged. It's definitely worth buying organic coffee because the crops are otherwise heavily spray with pesticides.

Dairy. Whole Foods and many indie stores have excellent dairy departments, with some products (e.g., milk, half and half, yogurt) being organic and others not. As always, read labels carefully. In 2014, Natural Grocers tightened their dairy standards, selling products only from animals that had access to pasture and a natural diet of grass. The company refuses to sell products from animals given non-therapeutic antibiotics, hormones, growth promoters, or feed containing animal by-products from other animals.

Gluten-Free Foods. Increasing numbers of people are avoiding or minimizing their consumption of gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. Some people, such as those with celiac disease, are completely intolerant of gluten; others just say they feel better when not eating gluten-containing foods, such as pasta, bread, and cereal. Practically every natural foods store sells at least some gluten-free foods. But like meat substitutes, they're processed (i.e., not fresh foods) and may not always be the healthiest choices. If you need or want to go gluten free, eat mostly meats, seafood, and fruits and vegetables.

Meat and Dairy Substitutes. Pretty much all natural foods stores sell meat and dairy substitutes for vegetarians. The meat substitutes are often made from soy, and the dairy substitutes may be made from soy, almonds, or rice. But there's a catch: meat substitutes tend to be highly processed (i.e., not very natural), and some contain added gluten (which helps the ingredients stick together).

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Last Modified Date: August 18, 2014

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