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Healthy ‘How To’: Navigating a Health Food Store

Health food stores can be intimidating for the first timer. This is the first in a series of posts in which I will 'walk' through the store and give a virtual tour.

It took years before I felt comfortable shopping in a health food store. I used to live a block away from a Whole Foods. I can’t even tell you how many times I walked in and then right out of the place because I felt intimidated.

Sometimes I purchased something, but it was always an item I was familiar with that I could have gotten at any conventional grocery store. I remember it so vividly. My feelings came from everywhere – the other shoppers, the people who worked there, even the items on the shelves.

So many questions filled my mind. What were all of these different brands? Were they supposed to be better than what I was familiar with? Why are there so many different type of milk? What is in the prepared food case? Would I like anything if I tried it? I was too shy to ask anyone for help.

Fast forward 7 years and now I’m a pro. I feel at home in a health food store. What I don’t know I ask. I try new things. I read labels. I talk to people. When I see someone with a confused look on their face, I ask if I can help them. Afterall, I’ve been there. Since I know what it’s like, and I know that health food stores have so much to offer, I’m excited to write this ‘Healthy How To’ series.

First things first – I have to start off by saying that just because a product is in a health food store doesn’t mean that it is healthy. Yeah I know that’s not fair.  While a lot of companies do have the best health interests of the consumer in mind, you have to remember that companies are typically in business to make money. Some products are marketed as healthy and they’re simply not. While this is rampant in conventional grocery stores, it also happens in health food stores. 

So is an organic potato chip better than a conventional potato chip? My answer is yes. But is an organic potato chip still junk food? My answer is yes. It’s the same for cookies and candy and lots of other things too. But it’s not black and white – that’s why it's so important to read labels and know what is in the products you are buying.

Today we’re going to start in the produce aisle.

It’s usually the first thing you see when you walk into any grocery store. Keep in mind that the types of produce you find in a health food store are no different than what you find in a conventional store, although sometimes you will find more variety. What IS different, is the availability of organic produce. You can always recognize organic by the PLU code. The PLU code is the four or five digit numeric code on the sticker. If it starts with a ‘9’, it’s organic, while if it starts with a ‘4’, it is grown using conventional methods.

You might be taken aback by the price of some organic produce. It's not always more expensive, but you can be pretty sure it will be if it is for any item that is not in season locally and has been shipped from another destination. The good news is that you don’t have to buy everything organic.

I recommend looking at the ‘Shoppers Guide to Pesticides in Produce’ published by the Environmental Working Group. They keep of list of the ‘Dirty Dozen’ and ‘Clean 15’, which are lists of the fruits and vegetables with the most and least pesticides.  There is also an app for your mobile phone which makes it easy to have this list with you all the time. This way, you can easily check to see which types of produce you should buy organic and which types organic isn’t really necessary.

My one bit of advice to everyone about shopping in the produce section is to fill your cart with a rainbow of colors, load up on the leafy greens, and to try new things. If you see something you’re not familiar with, stick it in your cart and when you get home, look up a recipe. You can’t go wrong trying a new vegetable! 

Our tour will be continued in my next post!

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Kelly Galimi July 28, 2011 at 06:59 PM
Maria, I love your suggestion about putting a new vegetable in the cart. Often that is all it takes to try something new and find out that you want it to be a regular part of your diet. Like you, I have been intimidated to walk through Whole Foods. I'm grateful that I have your blog posts to help me take that first step. Great tips! Thanks!

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