I was filling up one of my reusable bags from Whole Foods at the Kroger checkout. The clerk glanced at it, and commented she hadn’t ever shopped there. “That place is too expensive for me,” she said. I felt embarrassed. I’m not exactly Lady Gotrocks either. “You know, there’s lots of stuff there that’s priced better than here,” I stammered. She looked at me skeptically. “Like what?” All I could think of was olive oil, which she claimed she could get at the dollar store for, well, a dollar.
What she’s getting there is a canola-olive oil blend, not pure extra-virgin. I know, plenty of people in the world couldn’t care less about olive oil. But even if you’re one of them, consider reading on. And if you cruise the Nature’s Market section at Kroger in search of healthy options or bounce from store to store trying to get just the right mix of price and quality, stick with me. I might help you decide where to get what.
Price and quality
A few weeks after my public shaming in the Kroger, I saw a group of customers following an employee around at Whole Foods. They were on a Value Tour, part of the chain’s campaign to familiarize customers with its range of affordable, high-quality food. Aware that their store is nicknamed “Whole Paycheck,” Whole Foods offers these tours regularly for people who are curious about the store’s offerings but concerned that they can’t afford to shop there. The tours cover topics from how to read a food label and navigate the store’s system of ANDI (Aggregate Nutrient Density Index) Scores to highlights of the grocery chain’s private label lines, which include 365 Everyday Value, 365 Everyday Value Organic, and the Whole Foods Market Brand.
On the tour I lined up for myself, my guide, marketing specialist Liza Burke, maintained that their food isn’t always the least expensive, but often provides the best bang for the buck. For the sake of transparency, I’ll state right now that I’m a fan of WF’s house brands. However, for your benefit, I’ve donned my skeptical spectacles and gathered some hard data on how the line’s prices compare with commensurate items at Kroger, which I toured with a nutritionist for a column last year.
Well, roughly commensurate. As Liza instructed me at our tour’s outset, items that look equivalent might not be. Not all organics are created equal, and the items that wear the Whole Foods brand are likely to be subject to different levels and kinds of scrutiny than other brands. Take, for example, the Whole Trade program, which covers items from bananas to coffee. The program exceeds typical fair trade standards in supporting not only humane working conditions, better wages and more money to producers, but also environmental stewardship and high standards of quality. So in some cases, comparing apples at Whole Foods to apples at another store might be more like comparing apples to oranges.
That said, there are definitely some areas that offer the most value and lowest prices. Because I really can’t afford to buy everything organic, I use the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” list of foods that are most heavily contaminated with potentially harmful pesticides in the produce section.
For example, it’s worth buying organic straw-berries, to avoid the staggering array of up to 59 pesticides their conventional counterparts can retain. On special at Whole Foods, they were $7 for 2 quarts (reg. $5/qt.); on the some day at Kroger I found them for $5/pint. Other items on the list I priced were organic carrots, spinach, and bagged salads, all significantly less expensive at Whole Foods.
Unsurprisingly, the reverse was true of their conventional versions — much less expensive at Kroger. And this was also the case in the frozen foods aisle: better deals on frozen organic fruits and vegetables at WF, better prices on conventionals at Kroger.
So for produce at least, Whole Foods is the place if you can spend a little extra to avoid turning your body into a science experiment. Other experts also recommend budgeting to spend extra to buy organic meat and dairy.
Why bother? They’re less likely to be laced with pesticides from feed and hormones. In addition, these animals are raised in ways that minimize their environmental impact and are far more humane. Here, the additional cost can be prohibitive. But if you’re already modifying your family’s diet to consume less meat and dairy for health reasons, you might be able to afford to spend more for chemical-free products. The prices on organic meats and dairy at Whole Foods are very competitive, as they are for sustainably raised or caught seafood, including fish sticks, a family favorite.
I’m likely to buy my pantry staples at Kroger. I can get better prices on flour and sugar there for sure. But the prices for organic canned tomatoes and strawberry jam, made from fruit that can retain pesticides, are well below those at conventional grocery stores. And only Costco gives Whole Foods a run for the money when it comes to olive oil. Considering how much we use, in pasta recipes, drizzled over vegetables, to fry eggs in the morning, I’d better find the best deal. At $5.49/liter, the Whole Foods house brand is a steal, especially when you smell and taste how good it is.
Whole Foods posts sales, coupons, and specials regularly to its website, and maintains a calendar of educational and tasting events. But the best thing I learned from my tour is this: Instead of going out for fast food the next time you don’t feel like cooking, consider their family meal for four for $14.99. It’ll only cost you a couple bucks more up front than dinner at Wendy’s, and probably a whole lot less in the long run.