Smart Shopping in Natural Food Markets

natural foods marketNatural and organic food markets have sprouted up everywhere, offering you a nearby source for “natural” foods, such as organic produce and other foods that are free of antibiotics, preservatives, growth hormones and trans fats.

However, not everything in these markets is healthy. In fact, 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. Jenna A. Bell-Wilson, PhD, RD, CSSD, co-author of Energy to Burn and owner of, shows you how.

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: 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: Frozen and 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.

SIDEBAR: 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 prepared 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.


This article is a service of IDEA, the leading international membership association in the health and fitness industry,


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