What you should buy at Whole Foods—and what to skip

Photo Courtesy of Whole Foods
Photo Courtesy of Whole Foods

Some of my friends jokingly call Whole Foods Market "Whole Paycheck." The first time I shopped there, I understood why Whole Foods gained its nickname-I was stunned at how much I spent. Of course, I bought everything on my list-I hadn't paid attention to what was a good deal and what wasn't.

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The store didn't always have that reputation. Whole Foods started in 1980 as a single little crunchy-granola natural-foods store in Austin, Texas. Over the past three decades it's become a go-to destination for foodies and sustainably minded shoppers alike, with more than 300 stores in North America and the United Kingdom. The company prides itself on sourcing the highest-quality natural products and its commitment to the environment. While these top-quality products are too pricey for many, it's possible to find good bargains if you know what to look for and what to skip.

Here are my recommendations:

What to Skip

1. Conventional fruits and vegetables
While some organic items were less expensive at Whole Foods, many conventional fruits and vegetables were a little pricier-cantaloupe ($1 more each), red bell peppers ($1 more per pound) and grape tomatoes ($1 more per pint), for example.

2. The meat counter
My head was spinning in the meat department. It's basically a full-service butcher-I can get a dozen kinds of sausage made fresh in house, as well as house-smoked bacon and ribs, dry-aged New York strip steaks and different cuts of pork, lamb, chicken and more. The prices were generally higher than at other supermarkets, though-$1 more per pound for chuck stew meat and $1.40 more per pound for ground turkey breast. The upside is that you can buy just what you need for a recipe, which may save you money, plus I was able to find locally raised meat and organic chicken (which can be hard to get at traditional chain supermarkets).

3. Health and beauty products
The price difference on personal-care products was most surprising to me. I use natural beauty products to avoid the toxic ingredients that some traditional products contain. I figured that my favorite Tom's of Maine toothpaste and Kiss My Face bar soap would be less expensive at Whole Foods than at a traditional supermarket, but I found them elsewhere for at least $1 less each than the Whole Foods price.

What to Buy

On, the other hand there are some great reasons to shop at Whole Foods. You can count on finding:

  • local and organic produce

  • local and/or sustainably raised meat, seafood and dairy products

  • a great selection of healthy, natural food products you can't find elsewhere

And its dedication to health is top-notch. This year Whole Foods is rolling out a program to make eating healthfully easier, called "Health Starts Here." The program includes posting nutritional scorecards around the store, adding healthier prepared foods and baked goods to stores and offering wellness clubs and nutrition education. Each store will have a healthy-eating specialist on staff to offer tours, tips and demonstrations.

While it might not be the place to go bargain hunting, there are good values for your dollar to be found there. As an editor for EatingWell Magazine for the past six years, I've shopped for and cooked professionally in the EatingWell Test Kitchen and contributed to many cookbooks, including EatingWell on a Budget. Since I fancy myself a savvy grocery shopper with an eye for a good deal, I vowed to figure out how to make my money stretch further at Whole Foods.

I talked to Libba Letton, spokesperson for Whole Foods Market, Inc., and Janet of YourGreenHelper.com, a website dedicated to providing you with "cost-effective, eco-friendly solutions for daily life," to get their best tips for getting the best deals. Plus I did some hands-on research of my own at my local Whole Foods Market.

1. Local fruits and vegetables
According to Libba Letton, spokesperson for Whole Foods, "There are lots and lots of ways to save money at Whole Foods. For produce, shop for local produce, in-season produce or both." On a recent trip to my Whole Foods I found local organic carrots ($1.29/pound*) and potatoes ($4.99/5-pound bag) for the same price as nonlocal organic ones at the supermarket down the street.
*Prices may vary by location.
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2. Sustainable fish and seafood
If you've made one of EatingWell's fish or seafood recipes, you've likely noticed that we suggest buying responsibly farmed or caught fish. But it can be a challenge to know what you're buying when you get to the seafood counter. Whole Foods makes it a no-brainer. "Our latest research shows that seafood customers are strongly influenced by information they get at the point of purchase," says Alison Barratt, spokesperson for Monterey Bay Aquarium. "The work that Whole Foods is doing is of enormous value in creating a future with healthy oceans and sustainable seafood supplies."

Whole Foods offers Marine Stewardship Council-certified seafood, and marks most other items with sustainability ratings from Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program and Blue Ocean Institute. Working with scientists and environmentalists, Whole Foods has also developed its own standards for farmed seafood, including third-party verification, to ensure that the farmed seafood it sells is responsibly farmed. The market has also committed to phasing out seafood which environmental groups rate red, indicating species to avoid, by Earth Day 2013.

You might think that would come as an additional cost, but the frozen haddock and frozen wild sockeye salmon at my local Whole Foods were $2 less/pound than one supermarket I checked. To save even more money, Janet suggests keeping an eye out for 'One Day Only' sales. "Many Whole Foods Markets participate in these sales, and they often offer a great seafood deal."
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3. Bulk foods
While your local supermarket may offer some items in bulk, there's a huge variety at Whole Foods. Shopping the bulk bins are a way to buy fresher products that are often less expensive, you can buy just what you need, and you'll waste less packaging. You'll also be buying mostly healthy, unprocessed foods.

I like to stock up on bulk whole grains and dried beans, which are full of fiber and essential nutrients. I store them in clear glass jars in my cupboard so I can easily see what I have, which makes me more likely to use them. It may take a little time, but beans cooked from scratch have much better texture than canned beans and you'll save money too. One pound of dried organic chickpeas was $1.99 at my Whole Foods, which makes about 5 cups of cooked beans. A 15-ounce can of store-brand organic chickpeas (about 1 1/2 cups drained) elsewhere was the same price for only about a fifth the amount of food. When I cook a batch of beans, I freeze them in 1 1/2-cup batches (about the same amount as one 15-ounce can) so I can defrost just what I need.
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Dried herbs and spices bought in bulk are an even better deal. Here are a few numbers: a .62-ounce jar of dried rosemary is $5.49. Do the math and you'll discover that you're paying $141.68/pound of rosemary! I can buy it in bulk at Whole Foods for $7.99/pound. I can buy just what I need or will use in a reasonable amount of time, so it will have the best flavor. That's the whole reason you're using herbs and spices, right?

4. Store-brand products
Whole Foods has two store brands-365 Everyday Value™ and Whole Foods Market™. Whole Foods has worked with manufacturers to source nongenetically engineered ingredients for their store brands. A couple of the Whole Foods products I price-checked were better deals than or the same price as competitor store-brand products. 365 Everyday Value™ nuts were generally a better deal-1-pound bags of cashews and almonds were $5.49 and 4.69 respectively (they were $4-5/pound more at a national chain supermarket). Whole Foods organic rice milk and soymilk were the same price as organic store brands elsewhere.

Other Money-Saving Tips

  • Two easy ways to find out about One Day Sales and other deals is to "Like" your local store on Facebook and follow it on Twitter.

  • On your way in to Whole Foods, pick up The Whole Deal, a bimonthly flyer with information, recipes and coupons. (You can also download the same coupons from the website, wholefoodsmarket.com.) "Many of the stores will allow coupon stacking, which means you can combine both a Whole Foods coupon with a manufacturer's coupon to increase your savings," notes Janet. (Check your store's policy.)

  • Also check out their Weekly Buys flier, which highlights a sampling of what's on sale each week and varies by store.

  • Make an appointment at the customer service desk for a Value Tour. A store employee will take you on a tour of the store and show you how to find the best deals.

What do you think are the best things to buy, and what do you skip, at Whole Foods?

By Carolyn Malcoun

Carolyn Malcoun combines her love of food and writing in her position as contributing food editor at EatingWell. Carolyn has a culinary arts degree from New England Culinary Institute and a degree in journalism from University of Wisconsin-Madison. Carolyn lives in Portland, Maine, and enjoys cooking, gardening, hiking and running in her free time.

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