Discernment Required: a grocery store review and primer

There’s a new grocery store in town!  Earth Fare has begun opening stores in Alabama, and after months of anticipation they have opened their newest store in my home-town of Auburn, Alabama.  This week I visited Earth Fare for the first time. It will be a great resource for those who are trying hard to find locally grown produce and meats, as well as other un-processed foods that are free from dangerous hormones, pesticides, and other harmful chemicals.

First, the store was small enough that it wasn’t overwhelming, the décor peaceful and a little earthy; with more barrels and baskets and less industrial shelving.  The produce section was a delight – everything appeared fresh, and was rich looking and colorful without the heavy waxes and coatings you find in conventional stores.  The meat department will be a blessing to those who haven’t been able to locate truly local farm fresh meats.  The dairy department included several options of full fat yogurts and some non-homogenized milk.  Unfortunately, their selection of cream was disappointing – all their cream has been ultra-pasteurized.  This doesn’t have to be so, as they carry a line of regional milk that could probably supply them with a better quality cream.  They had a refrigerator case with several selections for Kombucha, which was something I had not seen before so that was a nice find.  They also had a bulk foods selection that offered freshly ground nut butter, honey, real maple syrup, and many grain products such as actual wheat to grind at home, brown rice, dried beans, pasta, and more.  I was thrilled to see a bulk pasta section that included fresh tortellini and ravioli, with good ingredients!  Unheard of!  They even had several varieties of raw cheese that I have only seen in food co-ops, such as Morningland Dairy – an excellent product.

This is the type of thing that will give Earth Fare an edge over Whole Foods: offering a variety of raw cheese and other products that are often hard to find.

And there you have it – the most important parts of the grocery store checked out and I give a “thumbs up”!  But please, read on.

Overall I don’t see Earth Fare as being any different than any other major health food grocery store.  They do a great job providing folks with a better option in terms of produce, meats, and dairy.   This is a real blessing.  They also offer great products that you simply cannot find elsewhere, such as full fat organic coconut milk, true soy sauce, truly un-refined sea salts, more natural health care products and cleaning products, bulk herbs, etc.  On the other hand, they offer just as many un-healthy options as a regular grocery store.  Except somehow people lose their minds at the health food store and begin to buy products blindly.  I guess they assume that since it is at Earth Fare or Whole Foods it must be fine to eat.  Especially when it says “all natural” or “organic” on the label.

I’m here today to remind everyone to use caution at the health food store!  Put on your “discernment caps” and use common sense and wisdom!  First of all, shop the perimeter of the store and do your best to avoid the aisles.  This means go for the produce, meat, and dairy.  Then only go through the aisles that offer basic, un-processed products like flour, baking soda, nut butters, canned vegetables, olive oil, vinegars, etc.  The rest of the store you can ignore completely!

Yesterday as I browsed the aisles at Earth Fare I found the same ol’ problem that exists at Whole Foods and every other grocery store in America:  100% processed foods with great boasts on the label about how healthy they are.

The freezer cases are loaded with processed “foods” like the one pictured above.  This is obviously geared toward the vegetarian crowd – they bring in a lot of money because they are so hungry since they aren’t eating animal foods. 🙂  But seriously, my opinion of vegetarianism aside – no matter your take on healthy eating, one glance at the nutrition label makes it clear that this product is not really food:

Mycoprotein (30%), Gruyère cheese (skim milk, whey powder, corn starch, salt, cheese culture, enzyme, sodium dihydrogen orthophosphate, polyphosphates), breadcrumb (wheat flour, yeast, salt, vegetable mono- and di-glycerides, ascorbic acid), water, onions, sunflower oil. Contains 2% or less of egg white, potato maltodextrin, tapioca starch, dextrose, autolyzed yeast extract, natural flavors from non-meat sources, citric acid, calcium lactate, pectin, gum arabic, onion powder, garlic powder, canola oil, corn oil ??Made from natural ingredients.

First, don’t let that last statement fool you – the FDA may consider these natural ingredients but if they didn’t come direct from the farm, or if you can’t buy them for your pantry, they are not natural.  The number one ingredient, Mycoprotein, is something I have never heard of and am sure no one has in their pantry.  Then note that the Gruyere cheese contains whey powder, a form of oxidized cholesterol – something truly dangerous for your heart and also a known form of Monosodium Glutamate.  There are quite a few other red flags in this ingredient list (phosphates, maltodextrin, dextrose, natural flavors, canola oil…), but let me point out just one more: autolyzed yeast extract.  This is another well-known form of Monosodium Glutamate, which is an “excitotoxin” and does damage to your nervous system (whether the FDA will officially admit it or not).

This reminds me of something my savvy son discovered at the Whole Foods food bar not too long ago:

Do you see the irony?  If it isn’t really what it is, then it isn’t food.  Got it?

Here is a marketing scheme that caught my eye yesterday at Earth Fare:

The store is playing on the desires of concerned moms who want healthy kids by pointing them to this aisle in the middle of the store, where it would appear that THIS is where you will find the HEALTHY foods for KIDS!  My first question here is why do children need a special food section at the grocery store?  Should they not be eating the same things as adults – such as fresh produce, meat, and dairy?  Well you won’t find any of that in this aisle.  Here is the first product proudly displayed under the Healthy Kids banner:

Mini organic chocolate cookies!  Now, I’ll be the first to tell you that Late July cookies are the BOMB!!!  But do they really need to be marketed as healthy foods for kids?  Late July cookies have far better ingredients than other crème filled sandwich cookies at the conventional grocery store, and I do buy them as an occasional treat for my family, but they are NOT the foods that will make your children healthy!  Don’t be fooled!

The rest of the Healthy Kids aisle was laden with pre-packaged processed foods that a “health conscious” mom would purchase for her child’s school lunch box and feel like she was doing something really good.

Now the ingredients in these bars are nothing bad, no concern.  But why can’t Mom just make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich using all natural peanut butter and all natural jelly and a decent loaf of whole wheat bread?  Is it really that much trouble?  I’m telling you that $4.29 for 5 1-oz. bars is EXPENSIVE and if you just bought the individual ingredients you would get a LOT more for your money!  And Junior would be much more satisfied eating something fresh.

Mom really needs to be careful in aisles like these where the packaging is fun and the products not necessarily dangerous to Junior’s health…Because this is where “healthy” eating can get really expensive.  Why does Mom need to buy pre-packaged apple sauce?  It is incredibly easy to make fresh applesauce at home using fresh apples, a little cinnamon and nutmeg, and some maple syrup.  You don’t even need to peel them – just take a hand blender to the pot and puree the whole thing.  Cheap, fresh, economical, and especially environmentally friendly.  By the way, these pre-packaged foods that don’t have harmful ingredients are not necessarily nourishing.  They are processed foods, by the very  nature of their being in these packages, and that means they are basically dead foods.  Dead foods cannot bring health to your children (or anyone else).

These are the products that bring in the money for the grocery store and that is why store managers draw your attention to them and play upon your desires to “do what’s right.”

You see, wherever you shop, fake foods and highly processed foods abound.  And it is up to you to recognize and avoid them.  While buying organic and all natural produce, meats, and dairy IS more expensive than the conventional grocery store, you will save money in the long run by NOT purchasing pre-packaged products, and by NOT falling prey to marketing schemes promoting highly processed fake foods with questionable claims.  It isn’t hard to spot these foods.  You’ve just got to be wise and discerning.

So there you have it:  a little review of Earth Fare, a seemingly great health food chain that is probably Whole Foods’ biggest competitor.  With this review you get a little primer on how to shop any grocery store and spot the wolves in sheep’s clothing hiding among the aisles.  Let me say again:  I really liked Earth Fare and am so glad to see it in Auburn!  For more information about this chain visit their website at http://www.earthfare.com.

And remember:  this post, as with this entire blog, is my opinion only and is intended simply to get you thinking about what and how you feed your family.  Come join me on Facebook – look for The Grain Girl, and also for the companion page, “Well Fed Family” for much more healthy eating info and resources!