My Love/Hate Relationship with Trader Joe’s

Up until a few years ago, I had never been to a Trader Joe’s. I didn’t live near one. When I moved, I happened to suddenly be in close proximity to a few, so I had to check it out. Admittedly, there were things I loved upon first sight: their low prices, friendly people, and “healthier” versions of conventional “fun foods” (i.e. dye free jelly beans and Oreo-type cookies sans the high fructose corn syrup and artificial flavors).  After closer scrutiny, there are things I’ve found I really don’t love so much. I hardly go out of my way to go to TJs, but on the occasion when I stop in, and every time I do, I experience a mix of enjoyment met with frustration. There are things I really love about that place, and things that I really don’t.

Here’s what I like:

  • The employees genuinely try to make the shopping experience a pleasant one.
  • It’s not your typical grocery store loaded with tens of thousands of products. It feels like a small neighborhood store, not the 300+ store chain that it is. TJ’s typically sells close to 4,000 items while most supermarkets stock their shelves with nearly 50,000 items.
  • They honor a return policy that can’t be beat. Return anything — no questions asked.
  • They have some decent alternatives to conventional favorites.
  • Their prices are, without a doubt, attractive.
  • TJ’s private label products do not contain high fructose corn syrup, petroleum-based artificial colors, or artificial flavors or preservatives. (However, they do carry a number of brand name products that do contain these ingredients.)
  • While waiting online to check out, there are no obnoxious headlines staring you in the face because Trader Joe’s does not carry newspapers, magazines, or tabloids.

Here’s what I don’t like:

  • Often I hear, “It’s from Trader Joe’s, it’s healthy.”  Like with everything, you still need to read labels very carefully. TJ’s still carries a lot of highly processed foods, and way too many packaged products that contain soybean or canola oil — cheap and unhealthy ingredients (which lead to inflammation) that I try to stay far away from. You can read more here about my take on man-made fats.
  • Trader Joe’s is secretive. They claim that their private label products are free of GMOs, but they refuse to allow a third party to validate this. So, I don’t know. Maybe they are completely GMO-free, maybe they’re not. When I have inquired about the sources of certain added flavors or spices, I’m often given ambiguous answers or told it’s proprietary information. Additionally, I like to know who is behind a product, and with TJ’s private label masking the manufacturer, I can’t ever really know and be an informed consumer.
  • Often their produce is wrapped in an excessive amount of packaging.
  • Too many TJ products are flown in from other countries.  I wish Trader Joe’s  would develop relationships with more local, organic farms, otherwise making the journey shorter and giving consumers knowledge that they are supporting hard-working farmers in their areas.  But it’s not just the produce. Why do “fun foods” like  lollipops or jelly beans need to make the journey to TJ’s on an international flight?
  • I find their labeling for low-fat/fat-free processed foods to be offensive and unnecessary. While slogans like, “Guilt-Free” or “Reduced-Guilt” are a product of some creative marketing, part of my philosophy for healthy eating includes not ever having guilt for eating anything. This labeling perpetuates an idea that if we reach for the non fat-free or low-fat options, we should feel less guilty, and if we eat something full fat, we are “bad.” The truth is, though, that anything made to be low-fat or fat-free that isn’t naturally that way, has something added to it that is way worse than fat could ever be.

So, what do I buy at Trader Joe’s?

  • Some baking items like aluminum-free baking powder and organic, fair trade sugar cane.
  • Coconut oil — great for the kitchen when making things like these flavorful chocolate bites and homemade beauty remedies (think: moisturizer, deodorant, etc…)
  • Pure, organic maple syrup
  • Ketchup & mustard for when I want condiments without the chemicals
  • Balsamic vinegar and certain olive oil (check out this article to find the “real deal” at TJs)
  • Toasted Sesame Oil for making these delicious sesame noodles
  • Rice vinegar for light dressings and dishes like this no-mayo potato salad and no-mayo chicken salad
  • Organic, whole wheat pasta
  • Organic dried fruit
  • Organic raw seeds and nuts
  • 100% pure, unsweetened cranberry juice (I do usual prefer unpasteurized juices, but this is a great version of real cranberry juice; add seltzer and a touch of maple syrup for a homemade cranberry soda)
  • Grass-fed butter & cheeses
  • Organic popcorn made with olive oil
  • Organic marinara sauce (made with olive oil instead of vegetable oil)
  • Ak-mak crackers
  • Pumpkin Cranberry Crisps (a seasonal favorite, although they do have some more ingredients than I typically care for)
  • Better versions of some conventional favorites: I have always loved a glass of cold milk and Oreos. I won’t eat Oreos anymore, and I find the Vanilla Bean Jo Jo’s to be a good, every-so-often alternative. Other “sometimes picks” include their jelly beans that are colored with fruit and vegetable juices instead of petroleum-based dyes.

Do you shop at Trader Joe’s, and if you do, what are your favorite go-to items?

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