It used to be that natural food stores were small specialty stores, probably operating with large overhead. But nowadays, as they have become more popular, they have grown into larger chains, which seem to have brought the prices down. The three big natural supermarket chains in the US are Whole Foods, Fresh Market, and Trader Joe’s. And while many big supermarket chains now seem to be carrying their own line of natural foods or organic foods, the natural foods store chains seem to beat traditional stores in their prices for organic or natural products.
At natural food stores products are made without chemicals, additives, hormones, high corn syrup, etc. Not everything is organic, which comes with stricter guidelines, but most everything is made naturally, meaning there are not preservatives or chemicals added to the product. Many natural food stores have their own brand products, and they are often equally priced to typical brands at the traditional market. Furthermore, if you stick with certain items, you will not spend much more (or may even spend less!) than at traditional stores. In general, if you stay away from prepared foods and specialty items, you will do okay cost-wise. And buy natural products rather than organic ones. You will still get the health benefits of a natural product.
When shopping at natural food stores, try to buy produce that is on special for the week. Milks and cheeses, made without hormones are often comparable in price to that of regular supermarkets. Breads without chemicals or preservatives often cost less than a premium brand made with preservatives found at a regular market. Jellies made from only fruit or with natural sweeteners often have a competitive price to big brands found at other markets, which are made with high fructose corn syrup. Natural food stores’ pasta, sauces, and soup broths often have fair prices, too. And frozen fruits and veggies often have comparable prices, too. In fact, looking at that list, it seems that staple items seem to be the items that are priced fairly at natural food stores.
Of course, not everything natural food stores is competitively priced. I suggest checking out your closest natural foods market and making a price list of items that you normally buy and compare it to what you would pay at a traditional market. Once you make a list of items that are competitively priced at the natural market and fit into your food budget, it may be worth it to do a weekly or monthly stop at the natural food store to stock up on such items.
In Real Life (IRL) – In our area, we have Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. I shop at Trader Joe’s monthly and I go to Whole Foods weekly, since it is walking distance from my house. I have a regular list of items that I buy at each of these stores. Most of the items are natural but not organic, which tends to be more expensive.
In general, I buy milks, shredded cheese, and cream cheese at Whole Foods. Milk is the same price as at Safeway or Giant, the two biggest grocery chains in the DC area. Yet, they don’t have hormones in it! A 12-ounce bag of shredded cheddar is $4 and a 16-ounce bag of mozzarella is $4.99. It’s not a bargain, but it’s actually a better price than Giant’s shredded cheese prices when they are not on sale. Again, it is made with no hormones. A block of cream cheese is about $1.49. Vegetable or chicken soup broths in the carton at Whole Foods are $2, and they are organic. You can’t get those prices at Giant. I also buy all-fruit jelly at Whole Foods for $2.29. I love that there is no high-fructose corn syrup in it. It is cheaper than the comparable Polaner all-fruit at the regular market (unless I have a coupon and it’s on sale). I generally only buy produce at Whole Foods if it is on sale, because their produce can be pricey. But they often have pretty good sales on one or two items each time I visit. And much of their produce is local, which has a better impact on the environment. I regularly buy sandwich bread there as well – it’s $2.29, which is similar to a sale price on Pepperidge Farms or Arnold breads at a traditional store.
Trader Joe’s is an experience if you have never been there. It is a completely "fun" environment with their nautical decorations and attire. Their prices are often lower than at other natural food stores because they avoid the middleman and market many products under their own label. They do not run sales ever – so the prices are consistent each time you visit. Many of their foods are very tasty, and if you don’t like something you buy there, you can return it for a full refund! I tend to buy all of my frozen veggies at Trader Joe’s. They have competitive prices and the flavor is always delicious - especially their sweet corn. I also buy some frozen fruits there, as well if they are out of season. And I always buy a container of hummus every time I visit, too becuase it has the cheapest price around ($3.49 for 16 ounces). Their bananas are 19 cents per banana and their bags of apples can often be bought for under $1 per pound. I also stock up on bagged pasta, which is 99 cents per bag and imported from Italy. Their tomato basil pasta sauce at $1.79 per jar is cheaper than the regular price of Ragu at the supermarket, and is twice as good! Even their ground beef has fair prices. In general, I have a whole list of items I buy at Trader Joe’s for a monthly stock-up visit. Their quality is good, and the prices for most items are very fair.
I am not too familiar with Fresh Market, although I have visited the chain a few times when I was traveling. It reminded me of Whole Foods, and I am guessing that the prices would be comparable. If you live near one of their stores, please check it out and report back!
Overall, if you get to know the products that natural food stores carry and the prices they charge, you will find that some of the things are worth buying there on a regular basis if you care about not eating preservatives, chemicals, hormones, etc. There are many items that are competitively priced, especially their store brand products. By shopping smartly at natural food stores for certain items and still picking up bargains on other items at traditional stores, you should be able to stick to your food budget and eat more healthily, too.