Big Chain Supermarkets vs. Whole Foods

Hi! I’m Jack from Kate has asked me to be her guest writer for the next few days. My posts won’t have her look, style or superior writing ability – but they are on subjects that I think will be of interest to her readers. So here goes…

Big Chain Supermarkets and Whole Foods: How do these opposites compare? Below you’ll find very biased analyses of what I think are the plusses and minuses of the Big Chains and Whole Foods. As you’ll see, I’m not in love with Whole Foods, yet compared to Big Chain Supermarkets, for me, there is only one choice.

Big Chain Supermarket

The Good

  • They’re likely to be open (i.e, long store hours).
  • Clean stores.
  • Recognizable products ie. “ it seems like every big name is there. (Not good to me,  but it is to the average shopper.)
  • It’s not hard to find the store.

The Not-So-Good

  •  Produce: Farmers in Chile must love them, some Central Valley guys, too. Small farmers? Sustainable agriculture? Who? What? Huh?
  •  Employees: Compared to Whole Foods employees, Big Chain Supermarket employees just don’t seem to understand food.
  •  Often the store is so big it takes forever to get an item you forgot, like milk. Also it takes longer to get everything you need.

The Bad

  •  Accepts slotting fees. Big-name producers keep out smaller guys, new guys, etc.
  •  Soda aisle is the High-Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) Emporium.
  •  Actually, every food aisle is the HFCS/PHO (Partially Hydrogenated Oils) aisle. I could not find, during a visit today, a processed frozen food that (excluding milk-based products) didn’t contain one or both.
  •  Proudly stocks as many candied breakfast cereals as possible.
  •  In the Tetra-pack drinks (for kids!) section (in the front of the store) all have HFCS as their second ingredient (water is first). Perhaps the ones without HFCS were hidden elsewhere in the store.
  •  Three words: Farmed Atlantic Salmon.
  •  Most products are from big-name producers.
  •  Low cost is always more important than taste, distance shipped, etc.
  •  Fruit & Vegetables look great but many (like those perfect looking strawberries) come up way short in the smell and taste department.
  •  Lack of food standards: Impossible to not get your daily dose of bad ingredients like HFCS and PHO.
  •  Lots of disposable products. One store had a full aisle of them.
  •  Fish department sells fish of questionable origin, catch method, or which is endangered. It’s very sad that the very endangered Chilean Sea Bass (patagonia toothfish) is now “Sea Bass (big letters), Chilean (small letters), wildâ€.
  •  No shortage of over-sweetened products.
  •  No stocking of ecologically safe cleaning products (such as Ecover, 7th Generation).
  •  Abysmal stocking of healthy foods for kids.
  •  Artisanal food products rarely stocked.
  •  No butcher’s department in some of the huge stores. (Can this be true in general?)

The Very Sad (- based on what they stock¦)

  •  They must be assuming kids aren’t getting enough HFCS and other sweetners in their diet, as they seem to offer no alternatives.
  •  They must be assuming that low carb, zero carb, no fat and low fat products are indispensable health products to their shoppers. Watch for No Trans-fat products with less than 0.5g of transfat per serving, coming soon.
  •  They must be assuming that soap, itself, isn’t naturally anti-bacterial. Instead, they have what seems like the complete range of anti-bacterial products “ that remove the good bacteria as well as the bad.
  •  I didn’t find labeling as to which products are GMO. Did I miss it?
  •  The Organic produce and Natural Foods department is always small, filled with less attractive-looking items and priced not-to-sell in a price-conscious store. The organic produce was housed in the mushroom cooler in the last store I was in.
  •  The meats and poultry mostly come from huge industrial farms/plants (that are serious polluters). If you saw the living conditions of these animals, you’d, – well, let’s just say there’s a reason people become vegetarians.
  •  The incredible abundance of ready-to-eat meals discourages people from buying food to cook. Why bother when you can just microwave, etc.
  •  Some unbelievably stupid products stocked. (Weight Watchers products that have partially hydrogenated oils, for example.)
  •  For some products, portions are too big. (Example: Huge BBQ Rib racks are packed two(!) to a package(!!!).)

The Funny

  •  If you regularly shop at Whole Foods you won’t be able to shop at a Big Chain Supermarket as they won’t have practically any of the products that you’re looking for.

Whole Foods

The Good and The Great

  •  Some piece-of-mind about what you’re buying. They stock very few bad or stupid products. This is one reason why their shoppers shop there  and are willing to pay more.
  •  Very good organic produce  both quality and variety.
  •  Their Fish Department is the best of any chain store in the country (that I know of).
  •  Wine Department is superior to most any chain grocery I’ve been to (Larry’s Market in the Seattle area was pretty good, too). The Wine Department varies widely from store-to-store, as each store has its own buyer.
  •  They stock the right diapers and detergents. And not one anti-bacterial soap.
  •  You can buy healthy food and snacks for kids here.
  •  Real foods can be found, like raw milk, raw butter and grass-fed beef.
  •  Carry many artisanal food products, but I feel they have a ways to go here.
  •  Excellent cheese department.
  •  No slotting fees. This enables them to choose what products are in each store. And a much bigger selection of new products.

The Not-So-Good

  •  Sometimes (or is it often?) higher prices for the exact same items found at other stores. I’ve seen the same Del Cabo tomatoes for half the price at Trader Joe’s. (In fairness, I saw those Del Cabo tomatoes priced just as high at a Safeway recently.)
  •  The quality of pre-cooked fish from their deli-area has been inconsistent and discouraging; almost as if it’s not the same fish the fish department has, or that it’s just the oldest fish getting cooked. (This is a standard grocery store practice cooking or marinating unsold fish (or meats)  but I don’t know if this is normal practice for Whole Foods.)
  •  The produce is generally not as good as the Farmer’s Markets. (Certainly not as fresh.)

The Bad

  •  Continues to stock products from vendors such as Hansen’s Sodas and Newman’s Own, both of which still have HFCS in their products (but not all of them) at Whole Foods. Something about being grandfathered in is what I read somewhere. I just don’t understand why they haven’t phased these out.
  •  Whole365 brand eggs are shipped in from Texas(!)(!!!) to Santa Rosa. What Wile E. Coyote came up with that?
  •  Too much produce comes from Chile.
  •  Too much emphasis on stocking products from the big names in Organics that are now mostly owned by Big Food.
  •  Higher prices on some items than even independent grocers, for no apparent reason, other than people will still pay it.

So here’s the thing: when/if you switch to shopping at Whole Foods, it does take time to figure out the hundreds of different products you’ve probably never seen before. (Curiously, the independent supermarkets where I live have a mix of products Whole Foods and ones that the big chains carry.) And there’s some trial and error. For instance, which is the good raisin bran cereal? (It’s Barbara’s¦ it even tastes better than Post!) And if you’re super price-conscious, forget-about-it. But if you care about what you feed your family, it’s hard not to shop at Whole Foods.

Also see Kate’s article on slotting fees, Why Whole Foods Matters (or Safeway Hurts Innovation) from August 9th.

Side note: I’ve love to see a study comparing the weight of shoppers at Whole Foods vs. Big Chain Supermarkets, by age category (healthy weight should be – to actual weight). The study would weigh in every six months over a three year time period. Waving magic wand, futilely.


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