Health food grocery stores, from big ones like Whole Foods and Lucky’s to smaller ones ones that are unique to each city, all have one thing in common: they aren’t your typical grocery store. The foods are different, the atmosphere is different, and there are a lot of little details that can leave you scratching your head. Here’s a guide to all the things you need to know:
1) The carts are tiny. Some grocery stores also offer the traditional large buggy, but if you don’t need one of those, it’s such a relief to zoom around with a small one.
2) “Conventional” means “not organic”. Some stores simply say “organic oranges” and “oranges”, but others make sure to let you know that “oranges” are “conventional oranges” so you don’t mistakenly buy one thinking it’s organic just because you’re in a health food store. This is only an issue at larger chain stores; most smaller stores will exclusively sell organic produce so you can shop with confidence.
3) There are a lot more produce items, many you’ve probably never seen. It wasn’t until I started shopping at health food stores that I had even heard of a pomelo (a giant citrus fruit similar to a grapefruit but mild and sweet, not tart) or a jimca (a semi-sweet root vegetable you chop up and eat like a carrot). Don’t hesitate to ask the employees or even the other customers – most people are happy to chat about strange and delicious foods.
4) Honey sticks are clear straw-like containers sealed at both ends and filled with honey. They might be flavored, colored, or just plain honey and they cost about 25 cents each. To eat one, you bite open one end or you can cut it off if you have scissors handy, and then push out the honey into your mouth, onto your bread or into your tea.
5) You can still have cookies, ice cream sandwiches, lollipops, chocolate, gummy bears, pastries, and other “non-healthy” items. It’s just that they will most likely be organic, made with whole ingredients rather than chemicals and colored with vegetable juice. And they’re delicious.
6) There will be a bulk section where you can take as much or as little as you need of things like rice, nuts, dried fruits, candy, chocolate treats, trail mix and more. For people who only want a little, you don’t have to pay for more than you need, and for people who want a lot, this will help cut costs – the bulk items are usually much cheaper than buying their pre-packaged counterparts because you have to do the work yourself to put it in a bag and write the product number on the bag so the cashier can ring you up. Many larger stores even have bulk nut butters (peanut, almond, etc.) and bulk syrups.
7) You might not want to leave. Larger chain health stores tend to have soft lighting, wood floors and furnishings, classical or instrumental music playing, a bar of some sort – coffee bar, smoothie bar, beer bar, or all of the above – and lots of other pleasant features. Many Whole Foods stores have a 10-minute massage area, aquariums to gaze at, and of course lots of free samples to enjoy. Health food stores want you to stay a while. Can you grab and go? Sure. But you probably won’t want to.
8) The bags are paper. All of the larger stores use paper, though some smaller ones still use plastic. Just something to keep in mind if you usually re-use the plastic bags for other things, but you will quickly start finding ways to reuse the paper bags as well, even for the litter box. They much more well-built than the paper bags at conventional grocery stores, so much so that they usually have handles.
9) You get a discount for bringing your own bag. Although the paper bags are a much more environmentally-friendly alternative to plastic bags, the most environmentally friendly option is to bring your own reusable bag. If you don’t have one – they sell them in stores. And if you bring them, you will have the option to either get about 10 cents off your reciept per bag or get a token that you can drop in a box for the charity of your choice as you leave – some stores even will match your donation to that charity.
10) It’s not as expensive as you think. Ten years ago, buying organic was expensive for several reasons: 1) it was new and there simply weren’t enough products available, 2) it takes several years for land to become certifiably organic, and 3) because there can be a hefty cost to getting the organic label, companies had to hike the price for a few years to recover their investments. Now that organic is much more common and has been around for a while, the prices have become much more affordable. In fact, many times the organic option is even less expensive than other options! Woohoo!
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve encountered at a health food store? Leave a comment below!