Navigating the Aisles of Natural Food Markets

by Jenna Bell-Wilson, PhD, RD, LD on May 29, 2008


Simple tips for smart shopping in the maze of organic food stores.

Natural and organic food markets have sprouted up everywhere, offering shoppers an alternative to conventional supermarkets. Health-conscious consumers now have a nearby source for “natural” foods, such as organic produce and other foods that are free of antibiotics, preservatives, growth hormones and trans fats.

But natural food markets can still pose challenges for shoppers. As in larger chain supermarkets, floor layouts in natural food markets are designed to get you to fill your cart with the most tempting and not always the healthiest items. Even the best stores use covert tactics and strategic diversions to entice unsuspecting shoppers to bulk up on unnecessary and fat-laden treats. Healthy items are within your grasp in natural food markets, but it takes a steady eye and a solid plan to resist temptation while in the throes of food shopping.

Danger Signs to Avoid While Shopping

The layout of a natural food store can be challenging for even the smartest shoppers. Learn how to spot and navigate around the danger signs in store aisles before your next visit to the market.

Danger Sign: Organic Labels

The term organic means that the food is more than 70% free of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, growth hormones, antibiotics, irradiation and genetic modification. Organic does not mean the product is low fat, low sodium, fat free, low calorie, nutrient dense, rich in phytochemicals or even plain old healthy. It simply means it has been certified “organic” by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Danger Sign: Gourmet Food Section

Part of the lure of a natural market is the delicious, gourmet cuisine that often greets you when you come in the door. This strategically placed array of pre-made wraps, focaccia bread sandwiches, spinach lasagna, wasabi-sesame-crusted tuna, grilled veggies and tofu meatloaf all conspire to defeat your best intentions—especially if you arrive hungry to shop! The good news is that those shiny cases do contain some healthy and fabulous choices; you just need to find them!

When in doubt, go for the greens, says Kyle Shadix, MS, RD, chef and director of Nutrition and Culinary Consultants in New York City. “The more veggies, the better,” he says. “Shy away from cream-based soups and sauces. Look for foods that aren’t marinated or swimming in oil.”

Steer clear of any food that is breaded or fried, advises Connie Guttersen, PhD, RD, author of The Sonoma Diet (Meredith 2005) and The Sonoma Diet Cookbook (Meredith 2006). “When looking at prepared dishes, pay attention to the type of ingredients listed,” she says. “If it is a grain dish, [pick one with] whole grains, beans, legumes and lean proteins.” Guttersen also cautions that a “meatless [entrée] is not always lighter or healthier” than one that contains meat and that it is important to check the label for oil, whole-fat cheese or cream.

Danger Sign: The Dessert Display

Speaking of temptations, have you seen the desserts in the natural food markets lately? Just because these decadent delights are promoted as being healthy doesn’t mean they are free of fat or lacking in sugar (nor would you want them to be). Treat desserts like stiletto heels: they are warranted on special occasions but will hurt you if used on a daily basis. It’s all about calorie overload, says chef Shadix. “Overall calories lead to weight gain, not simply sugars, and portion size is the most important factor in choosing a food.”

Danger Sign: The Designer Cheeses

Traditional, specialty, farmhouse or artisan cheese: no matter what designer label you put on them, these creamy blocks of love can make your head spin and your waistline expand if you overindulge. While cheese does contain protein, calcium and riboflavin, less is more when it comes to even designer varieties.

“When selecting cheese, remember that the harder varieties typically have more fat and calories,” says Shadix. Per ounce, gourmet cheeses that are lowest in calories and fat are your best bets. Opt for goat cheese, Camembert or Brie. If you are craving less healthy cheeses such as Havarti, Pecorino Romano or blue cheese, make sure you keep your slices thin or simply pass on the cheese, please.

Danger Sign: Crackers, Chips and Cookies—Oh My!

Natural food markets offer shelves and shelves of crackers, chips and cookies claiming to be organic alternatives to junk food—all without trans fatty acids. In these aisles, keep a close eye on food labels to make sure saturated fat hasn’t replaced trans fat. There are some better, tasty snack choices lurking on these shelves, but again, check the labels to find the healthiest options.

Danger Sign: Bins of Bulk Foods

Many health food markets greet customers with bins and bins of basic fare, such as pasta, nuts and flours. Keep in mind that these are not sampling troughs for your eating enjoyment—you may find yourself overbuying products because the bins seem bottomless. Experts say you can and should buy in bulk to save some money and to help the environment, but remember to purchase only what you need.

“The bins are always fresh, involve little packaging waste and give customers the option to choose a handful or a barrel-full,” says Vanessa Abel, community marketing coordinator for a health food market in Columbus, Ohio. Fortunately for shoppers, food labels providing nutrition breakdowns are usually stamped right on the bins, so you can make informed decisions.

Danger Sign: Frozen & Faux Foods

More and more natural food markets are stocking up on frozen and “faux-meat” entrées to attract harried health-conscious shoppers. Stamped “organic” or “natural,” these products are convenient, but they can pack a lot of calories and fat into a serving size.

Occasionally indulging in a frozen pizza from one of these stores is probably not a problem if your overall diet is healthy. But don’t assume that a slice of pizza is low fat simply because you bought it at a natural food market. Some varieties can dish up a generous amount of total fat, so always scan the nutrition facts panels.

The wide variety of meat alternatives now on display can also push the fat envelope. Although they may offer less fat and fewer calories than the “real thing,” faux products can still provide more than a nugget of fat, some of which may be saturated. Flip the boxes and choose a meat substitute that provides the taste you are looking for with the least amount of fat. Pay close attention to the grams of saturated fat.

Danger Sign: Canned Goods

Those designer soups may look more elegant than the old-fashioned cans, but the fancy varieties may be just as high in sodium. Fortunately, more companies are starting to offer low-sodium options. While it is probably fine to have the occasional cup of sodium-laden soup, a better choice is to make your own soup at home (and freeze leftovers in small containers for months of quick meals!).

Danger Sign: Dressings & Condiments

More and more health-conscious consumers are buying fancy, expensive leafy greens to liven up their salads. Right next to the pricey plastic bags of baby spinach, you may spot an array of creamy, oily, spicy, garlicky, cheesy dressings. The problem is that many of these special sauces are loaded with fat, even if the labels boast that the dressings are free of trans fats and the ingredients are certified organic. Look for the “light” salad toppers that are now available in a cornucopia of flavors. You can also add flavor without adding calories by topping salads with wine- or herb-infused vinegars and Meyer lemon- or blood orange-infused olive oil.

Another way to spice up your food is to use tasty and healthy condiments and herbs. “There are many delicious and interesting spice rubs, featuring the flavors of North Africa, Latin America, Asia and the Mediterranean,” says Guttersen. “Try using sea salt [instead of] regular salt. It comes in different varieties—such as pink Persian, smoked and even black—and adds an interesting flavor.” A modest amount of sea salt goes a long way, she adds.

The Checkout Counter

The most important thing when shopping at any health food market is to enjoy yourself. The purveyors of these alternative food stores have gone to great lengths to provide you with a unique experience, so sample what they offer and make smart choices. Just look out for the danger signs in order to stay on the healthiest course!

SIDEBAR: Trolling in Traditional Supermarkets

Even if a natural food market is your first choice, chances are you will need to visit a traditional chain supermarket occasionally. Like any commercial enterprise, these conventional food stores are designed and laid out with one thing in mind: getting you to fill up your cart with things you didn’t set out to buy. It is wise to know where the dangers lie as you navigate the aisles of your local supermarket. Here are some strategies to help you make the most informed and healthiest food selections:

Start With the Perimeter. The healthiest and least-processed foods—including the fresh produce, fish, poultry and dairy items—are usually found around a supermarket’s perimeter. Enter the inner aisles only if you need a specific item, and do not make it a practice to go down every aisle trying to remember what you need. Instead, make and use a shopping list, and aim to stick to the perimeter!

Forgo Foods Placed at Eye Level. Product placement can be a shopper’s enemy. Foods are strategically placed to promote purchases, warns Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University and author of What to Eat (North Point Press 2006). “Supermarkets are set up to attract the eyes and, therefore, wallets,” she says. “Research—lots of it—shows that what you see is what you buy.”

Skip End-of-the-Aisle Displays. These in-your-face displays are rarely a deal and often tout the latest in junk food. “That’s where supermarkets place the highly profitable foods they want to move quickly,” says Nestle.

Beware of the Bakery. Bakery items are designed to entice the senses, but it’s hard to know what’s inside those freshly baked pies. “The United States Department of Agriculture does not require nutrition labels on ready-to-eat foods if they are prepared at the retail location,” points out chef Kyle Shadix. “So it’s hard to know what’s in a serving!” This is why it is important to read the ingredient list. “Ingredients are required by law to be listed in the descending order of predominance by weight,” says Shadix. “For example, if the first ingredient listed is sugar, then the cookie is mostly sugar, or if the second ingredient is partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, that’s a trans fat red flag.”

Stay Clear of the Checkout Candy Corral. Danger awaits you even as you load your goods on the conveyor belt. To avoid temptation, keep your eyes on the register, and focus on organizing your foods on the belt. If the wait becomes unbearable, flip through a magazine rather than blow your nutritious diet by falling for candy.

Jenna A. Bell-Wilson, PhD, RD, CSSD, is a nutrition consultant and writer in the Greater Boston Area.

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About the Author

Jenna Bell-Wilson, PhD, RD, LD

Jenna Bell-Wilson, PhD, RD, LD IDEA Author/Presenter

Dr. Jenna A. Bell is the co-author of Energy to Burn: The Ultimate Food & Nutrition Guide to Fuel your Active Lifestyle (John Wiley & Sons 2009) and Launching Your Dietetics Career (ADA 2011), Nutrition Communications Consultant and member of the Editorial Advisory Board for Today’s Dietitian. Dr. Bell is a leader with the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics, including positions with Nutrition Entrepreneurs and the Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group. She is an international presenter for healthcare professionals and consumers, and her expertise have been featured in Us Weekly, Self Magazine, Fitness magazine, Pilates Style, Men’s Health, Runner’s World, IDEA Fitness Journal, IDEA Health and Fitness Source, IDEA Personal Trainer, other print publications and on the web. She’s been published in scientific journals, and appeared on the Daily Buzz, ABC, NBC and FOX affiliates, local and national radio programs and podcasts. Jenna is a Nutrition Advisor to international sports nutrition companies, and has worked in public relations for 15 years. She has provided nutrition seminars at major athletic events like the Boston Marathon, the ING New York City Marathon, Bank of American Chicago Marathon and the Ford Ironman World Championship in Kona, HI. Jenna is a two-time Ironman Finisher and completed three marathons. In addition, she has competed in numerous sprint and Olympic distance triathlons and road races. Dr. Bell earned her doctorate with Distinction in Health and Human Performance with an emphasis on Exercise Science at the University of New Mexico, Masters Degree with Distinction in Nutrition and dietetic internship, and Bachelors in Nutritional Sciences from the University of New Hampshire. She is a popular speaker and writer for IDEA Fitness Journal. She is currently based in Saint Petersburg, Florida.