Quality of Trader Joe's versus Whole Foods
February 27, 2011 3:22 PM   Subscribe

Quality of Trader Joe's versus Whole Foods

I care a lot about a healthy diet and try to eat natural and tasty foods. How do Whole Foods and Trader Joe's compare in quality? What, if any, objective differences there are between the two companies and the food they carry?

Whole Foods is significantly more expensive, and I'm trying to determine if it's worth the premium pricing or not.
posted by mintchip to Health & Fitness (33 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
My impression of Trader Joe's vegetables is that they're cheap because they are old. Sorry, TJ's enthusiasts. Every time I buy even slightly more than I need that exact night, it goes bad on me at light speed.
posted by Medieval Maven at 3:27 PM on February 27, 2011 [5 favorites]

What, if any, objective differences there are between the two companies and the food they carry?

I don't believe anyone's ever done a study wherein two experiment groups each ate food from strictly one or the other of these two groceries, and then had their health evaluated and compared to a control group after some amount of time.

I would imagine that if such a study were done, it would show no difference at all between the two (and probably not much compared to the control group, either).

Honestly what are you expecting, that eating food from one store or the other lowers your risk of heat attack/diabetes? That one or the other grocery results in weight loss or longer life spans? How would you begin to answer your question, given enough time and money?
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 3:29 PM on February 27, 2011 [8 favorites]

IMO they're pretty different stores so it's hard to compare. A lot of Trader Joes veggies are packaged - in bags or trays so it's hard to pick out a single item. We only buy specific things there and don't use it like a reg grocery store. Whole Fodo while expensive probably has a bigger selection and you could try to use it like a regular grocery store.
posted by oneear at 3:30 PM on February 27, 2011

I think the fresh produce and meat at Whole Foods are noticeably better than those at TJ's. I think their packaged foods are fine though and like lukemeister I have an objection to Whole Food's CEO's politics, an issue quite aside from the quality or cost of their food. Trader Joe's does a great job on allergen labeling and they're my go-to source for packaged gluten free food.
posted by leslies at 3:33 PM on February 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: tylerkaraszewski:

Well, for example has Consumer Reports ever compared the two?
Do they source their products in vastly different ways (and if so, how)?
Does one have strict non-GMO quality controls while the other one is more relaxed?

posted by mintchip at 3:35 PM on February 27, 2011

As tyler said, if we're looking for long-term health benefits, it is impossible to answer.

As for simple taste, I never buy vegetables from Trader Joe's since the price is high for the quality. Their frozen vegetables taste fine and their dairy, boxed, and canned goods are high quality.

For fresh vegetables, Whole Foods is good as well but I have to disclose that I've only shopped their a couple times because we have a local market called Berkeley Bowl that sells produce much cheaper with almost equivalent quality.

At least all these stores are miles ahead of Safeway/Lucky/Albertsons/Ralphs.
posted by just.good.enough at 3:36 PM on February 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

I love Trader Joe's and spend as much of my grocery money there as possible - but you learn pretty quickly which of the produce at your store will work and which won't. I'll buy red bell peppers there because they hold up pretty well and are priced less than half of anywhere else in town, but the apples aren't worth the 59ยข apiece they cost.

The packaged foods are fine, and I've been very happy with the quality of their cheese as well. It's just the produce that's suspect.
posted by something something at 3:37 PM on February 27, 2011 [4 favorites]

If you go to TJ's and only buy veggies there might not be a good enough reason to go. But if you are shopping for a number of items in addition to veggies, you will find (1) cost per item less (2) items you will not find at Whole Foods. If you go to WF for items other than veggies, you will not only pay more but you will find a much greater variety of things in various categories.
I use both since they are in my area close together. But also need a conventional large grocery for canned items etc that the other stores either do not carry or carry at prices much too high for me.
ps: TJs is fun because the help is consistently friendly and helpful and greet me whenver I am there because they know me from my visits. A nice touch.
posted by Postroad at 3:38 PM on February 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

Where are you located? When it gets warmer start looking for Farmer's markets, local, fresh, price is likely somewhere between the two stores.
posted by edgeways at 3:40 PM on February 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

this cnn article mentions that trader joes suppliers make a higher cost version of the same product and sell them elsewhere under different branding. it specifically mentions that an identical looking product is also sold at whole foods.

i've read this same claim in another articles but i can't find the it right now
posted by nanhey at 3:42 PM on February 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

The Eco-Myth of Trader Joe's raises questions about the chain's sourcing, and the comments on the post present and debate other issues, such as double-bagging at the checkout and excessive packaging. Might be a good jumping-off point for research.
posted by virago at 3:49 PM on February 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

I can't really speak to a comparison of the healthiness of TJ vs WF, but as to the price, the Boston Globe just did an comparison of WF pricing, which I found fairly interesting. Part 1, Part 2.

I suppose it depends on your TJ, but in my experience, WF has better selection and for the most part, better pricing than TJ, especially for organic produce. I've had produce from TJ's go bad within two days of purchase (and by "bad" I mean completely inedible.)

I've had trouble finding where TJ's sources their produce (they are notoriously secretive.) This is a long article that basically says because they're so secretive, you can't really confirm any of their claims. Here's one more article, just for fun.

WF, on the other hand, is pretty open about where they source their foods and posts signs all over the place. This is not to say that WF does not have its own issues, just that they tend to be significantly more open about where stuff comes from.

*on preview, virago got to one of my links before I could post.
posted by Flamingo at 3:56 PM on February 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

I just want to reiterate the fresh veggie issue. It's been that way since I was a little kid - my dad and uncle bought most of their food from TJs in the 1980s (as in, I didn't realize you could get chocolate and bread anywhere else until I started going on shopping trips with my soon-to-be-stepmom in fourth grade,) but never, ever produce. We went to Safeway/whatever for tomatoes and brand-name soup.
posted by SMPA at 4:15 PM on February 27, 2011

Why limit yourself to just two places? I don't buy produce at either, unless I'm really jammed for time (yes, TJ's bagged chopped onions.) Farmer's markets, my local Korean market for veggies. But honestly--healthy and tasty depend more on what you do with the produce than the store you shop at.
posted by Ideefixe at 4:24 PM on February 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

Are you asking about produce, prepared food, frozen food, or what? Specifically Whole Foods' branded stuff, or everything they carry? If you're talking about comparing everything in the store, I think that's really comparing apples and oranges. WF carries their own branded stuff, and other brands to a much greater extent than TJ. If you're really trying to eat healthy, I assume you're not eating packaged goods, but produce and staples. I have never bought produce at TJ because of the packaging, so I really couldn't say. TJ doesn't really have a bulk section, so... you know, they're not not comparable as stores, IMO. There's no butcher, either. I think you'd need to clarify if you're asking about store branded, processed or prepared food, the only area where they have much overlap. In which case, I feel like each store's frozen food and cereal and canned stuff is pretty much the same. But those aren't the healthiest options at either store anyway.

Here's what WF's website has to say about GMOs.
posted by oneirodynia at 4:27 PM on February 27, 2011

My experience is that Trader Joes offers great deals on some things, especially dry ingredients, nuts, dried fruit, and basic dairy products. But a lot of what's in the store is basically junk/convenience food. And their produce generally sucks.

Also, they don't have a lot of kinds of thing. The cheese section at Whole Foods is a huge 30-40 foot long area with different types of temperature control, cheeses from all over the world, specials, and a cheesemonger to offer advice and samples. The cheese section at TJ's is your typical grocery store spread next to the sour cream, with cheddar, mozzarella, swiss, etc.

For seasonal produce and gourmet and specialty items, Whole Foods. For a great deal on Greek yogurt and dried cranberries, Trader Joes'.
posted by Sara C. at 4:48 PM on February 27, 2011 [4 favorites]

Processed food is processed food, regardless of who sells it. Read the labels and compare. I don't see much difference between TJ and WF.

Raw food, same deal. I can get fresher organic foods cheaper at Winco or farmers markets.

Overall, I think TJ, WF and F&E are all overpriced hype and good only for convenience.
posted by Ardiril at 4:57 PM on February 27, 2011

Trader Joe's offers different brands than chain grocery stores, which are better in some cases and just the same in other cases. They are also very good at convincing people to buy really shitty wine.

I mostly go there for the cheap pre-prepared lasagna and other stuff like that. If I didn't live across the street from it, I doubt I'd go there very often.

Whole Foods is a massive step up in terms of quality and selection, but is overpriced.
posted by twblalock at 5:01 PM on February 27, 2011

This is sort of relevant, but Chow.com has done a couple of articles investigating the possible name-brand sources of Trader Joe's branded foods. I think the name-brands are the same as those available at Whole Foods.
posted by apricot at 5:24 PM on February 27, 2011

As many have noted, it's not a good side-by-side comparison. Very generally, I'd vote for Trader Joe's for packaged foods and Whole Foods for fresh foods if you can afford it. In practice since I'm a cheapskate, I buy almost all our groceries at Trader Joe's and go to Whole Foods when I'm looking for a treat or a specific allergen-free item.

Also, despite the secrecy of who supplies TJ's packaged foods, the ingredient labels and what the food looks and tastes like usually give it away when you compare with name brands. And sometimes TJ's will carry a name brand for a little while, find it's selling well, and then negotiate with the manufacturer for a cheaper TJ's branded version (rice milk is a good example). TJ's is definitely a much better deal than Whole Foods with similar quality if you're looking at similar packaged foods.
posted by girlhacker at 5:38 PM on February 27, 2011

I wanted to jump in to disagree about the cheese, but then I remembered that the TJs near me is really quite different (much smaller, tiny cheese section, no hard liquor) from the one I worked at near San Jose, California. (Trader Joe's started in CA).

I can tell you that TJs is a pretty great company to work for, grocery store or not. Managers usually work over 50 hours, but are not on salary (so they make overtime pay). I haven't read about them lately (though I am interested in the articles posted above). I'm not a superfan or anything but I have always recommended them, especially to people who have never been there.

I would say TJs is good for dried nuts and fruit (as mentioned above), inexpensive wine, vitamins which are strictly tested (so they told us), fresh flowers and in particular potted orchids (although I see them much more at regular grocery stores than I used to), some unique dessert type things (pistachio toffee, cat cookies and chocolate-covered sunflower seeds come to mind - and some damn tasty frozen dessert type things). The one I worker for had a crazy huge selection of power bars (Cliff, Luna, Balance et al). Their free trade coffee is cheaper than Whole Foods, I think.

But stores seem to vary quite a bit. I wouldn't be surprised if a large percentage of folks on this thread with the negative feelings about TJs just don't live near a nice, big one. But then again, it's probably not for everyone. ;D
posted by Glinn at 5:41 PM on February 27, 2011

posted by Glinn at 5:43 PM on February 27, 2011

avocados: a lot cheaper at TJs
good cookies: a lot cheaper at TJs, but some WF cookies may be better?
bread: somewhat cheaper and good enough for my taste at TJs
produce: WF quality and variety is incomparably better, some items on sale can be very affordable
dried fruits: WF has excellent dried apricots and dates, better than TJs. Other than that TJ selection is good.
nuts: TJ selection is as good or better, price a bit better
bulk produce: WF has a lot of stuff to try and you can sample a small portion, TJ has no bulk produce
frozen vegetables: WF has organic edamame and corn and lima beans and lots of other stuff, TJs almost nothing at least here

pastries: WF has really great babkas and rouglaches, TJs doesn't seem to have anything comparable. TJ fruit pies are not very good imho.
yogurts: both have very cheap and good yogurts, WF has much better selection though
teas: WF has much better teas, e.g. Rishi, although I don't buy them since even much better teas can be bought online
sun dried tomatoes in oil: WF's are much, much better, but also almost 2x price
cheeses: WFs are quite a bit better and some of them are cheap, but TJs have a pretty wide selection too and I haven't tried most of them, so I'm not sure. I really don't like cheeses anyway.

chocolate: TJs only have white chocolate rarely, WF always have many types. WF has much more selection of various artisanal chocolates, some of them are very good and cheap when on sale, otherwise not so cheap. I don't like chocolate very much though, so I haven't tried most of them.

butter: both have good kerrygold butter, similarly priced.

oils: WF selection is much wider, they have cheap saffron oil for example, TJs mostly have olive oil, which is fairly cheap and good for cooking but not the best for salads.

Generally WF is quite a bit better and it's possible to pick and choose inexpensive products, but TJs is good to store up on nuts, trail mixes, cookies, organic strawberry spread (cheap!), lemon curd, and a few other things.
posted by rainy at 5:48 PM on February 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

Whole Foods has 100% transparent product quality standards (no artificial colors, preservatives, or flavors, and no hydrogenated fats, to start with). If TJ's has something similar I couldn't find it on their website. (Full disclosure - I work for Whole Foods!)
posted by kitarra at 5:50 PM on February 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

To mostly echo above posters: yeah, I have't found significant differences among a lot of the prepackaged convienience foods you'll find at TJ's and WF. What they generally have in common is the use of recognizable whole-food ingredients and a lack of HFCS, hydrogenated oils, and artificial colors/flavors. Which isn't to say it's all healthy -- some of it's still junk food -- but it's better than comparable stuff at conventional stores. And for that packaged stuff, TJ's has better prices, and WF has more selection. WFs also tend to have more autonomy to buy locally produced items.

For produce, it varies -- the TJ's nearest me often has good, well-priced organic produce that's of pretty decent quality. Others I've visited don't. WF produce is much more spendy, and often not local or organic. For the best combo of quality/locally grown/organic/well-priced produce, I go to a local Portland chain (New Seasons) or farmers' markets.
posted by lisa g at 5:53 PM on February 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

The produce at TJ pretty much never looks like something that would inspire me to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables--I'd never go there for produce at all, really. Whole Foods' produce section makes me wish I had a higher grocery budget so I could buy it all. (Three different kinds of kale! Interesting mushrooms! Heirloom tomatoes!) That's significant.

Also, if you're looking at pre-prepared stuff, Whole Foods has a salad bar, and the larger stores have a really huge variety. Stuff from a hot bar/salad bar is going to be healthier than pe-packaged convenience foods--lots of the dishes have fresh vegetables in them.
posted by needs more cowbell at 7:07 PM on February 27, 2011

Eh, disclosure here, over the past few years I have worked for both WFs and TJs. I do not currently purchase much in the realm of organic food on a regular basis.

What is TJs good for?
-Organic Dairy Products (price, fixed quality)
-Nuts (price, fixed quality)
-Specialty frozen including organic frozen veggies (quality and price)
-Salsa (quality and price)

What is WFs good for?
-Bulk Grains (quality, price and variety)
-Non-locally sourced specialty meats (quality not price)
-Non-locally sourced organic produce (quality not price)

Neither place does local. TJs produce is generally mismanaged so you only see the old stuff. Wholefoods attracts gourmet dumpster divers - since they wind up throwing out as much of it as they do.
posted by Nanukthedog at 7:18 PM on February 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Some of Whole Foods' organic food comes from China where the organic oversight is different and done by private companies, if that influences you (link). Ever since Whole Foods' CEO blogging scandal, I've looked at them a bit askance. In general, I'd make the determination on a product-by-product basis vs. store-by-store.
posted by slidell at 12:09 AM on February 28, 2011

I don't have a whole foods near me, so I can't comment on that.

But for pre-packaged food (soup, microwave meals), I've found TJs food unfortunately has a huge amount of sodium.

Yes, I realize everyone salts their food that way (hah!), but I projected onto TJs the wholesome-good-for-you image, and was very disappointed in the high salt content.
posted by k5.user at 6:50 AM on February 28, 2011

Echoing that TJs varies a lot according to the location. So does WF, though. I have three or four WF stores nearby and they are very different. WF has slipped a lot from like 6 years ago, in my estimation, although they have brought some of the prices down. My local TJs, on the other hand, has abysmal quality control. Any dairy product I buy from them goes bad super fast. And if you buy a prepared food from them, there is a good chance it will be hellacious.

I'm not thrilled with the produce at any of my TJs or WF locations. I go instead to Super H or another Asian market, usually. I live in the Chicago area, if it matters.
posted by BibiRose at 7:24 AM on February 28, 2011

depending on where you live your local farms will be cheaper and healthier then both. I live on long island towards the east end and the farm stands are much much cheaper then whole foods or trader joes. Heck even the local organic farm is way cheaper.

Keep in mind some regular super markets have growing organic sections. The stop and shops by me their organic brand has been getting good on the prices compaired to whole foods and wild by nature.
posted by majortom1981 at 9:07 AM on February 28, 2011

Trader Joes is not a supermarket, but a specialty foods store with some very good deals and/or variety in SOME of the sections. Great deals and variety in Wine, Cheese and Nuts, and good prices in the Dairy section. But cleaning supplies, or produce? Forget about it (except for those 19¢ bananas.)
posted by Rash at 10:21 AM on February 28, 2011

TJ's products, from baked goods to things as simple as dried fruit, tend to be overwhelmingly sweet. Start reading the ingredients list on every product of theirs you look at — I generally find that sugar is in the first three. Usually there isn't a non-sweetened or less-sweetened version available, and when there is you pay a premium for it ($2.99 for 6 oz of unsweetened dried mango vs. $1.69 for 6 oz of sweetened dried mango).

We buy nuts there (decent quality, decent price, not sweetened), raw trail mix (not sweetened), Lara and Pure bars, the roasted seaweed snack (which, unlike the roasted nori available at the Asian groceries near me, does not include MSG on the ingredients list), and unsweetened frozen fruit.
posted by Lexica at 7:45 PM on February 28, 2011

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