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Navigating the Aisles of Natural Food Markets

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.

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).

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 [entr├®e] 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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

Sign: Frozen & Faux Foods

More and more natural food markets are
stocking up on frozen and “faux-meat” entr├®es 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.

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!).

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

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

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
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
(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.

Jenna A. Bell, PhD, RD

Jenna A. Bell, PhD, RD, holds a doctorate degree in exercise science and a master's degree in nutrition. She is a popular speaker and writer for IDEA Fitness Journal.

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