Not all health food stores are created equal. As we've mentioned before, a lot of the stuff that a person will find lining the shelves of most of them isn't healthy at all. But surely, some types of health food stores are better than others? How does the average consumer separate the great places from the not so great ones? Let's take a closer look.
5. Decide what kinds of specialty grocery items are most important to you.
This may seem like an obvious thing to figure out, but a lot of customers coming through the health food store I work at seem to think that our shop will be able to supply them with everything they have on their shopping list. While that may sound like a reasonable thing to expect, no store can carry every "healthy" item in the world, and most of the better ones seem to excel in some areas and less so in others. For instance, the place I work at has a great organic produce section, but a not very amazing bulk goods department. So a person who came in looking for organic kale or apples will usually rave about the store, while the old hippie dude that comes in expecting to find several different varieties of organic oats in big bins might be disappointed. I often get asked why such an injustice has occurred, and the answer is usually something basic like "we don't have enough space" or "we don't have a vendor that carries that anymore."
And another shop might have made different choices regarding which items they focus on, and what suppliers they buy from.
Revival Market in The Heights is a fantastic small grocery store that carries local beef, pork, and poultry, produce from regional farms, and even locally-grown grains and seasonings. Co-owner Morgan Weber founded Revival Meats to cultivate heritage breed meats, raised in a humane environment on a small, sustainable family farm.
4. Is buying local important to you? How important?
One trend that a lot of health food stores try to cater to is selling products that are local to the area. That's a big deal to many health conscious people, as buying goods produced on small local farms generally means that the end product is fresh and more care is spent creating it. It's not shipped halfway across America, or coming from another country, where safety standards may not be as stringent. Buying locally also contributes more fully to the local economy, so it's generally a good practice.
Many people want things like grass fed beef and organically raised chicken - products that aren't raised locally everywhere. My store carries those meats, but the beef is shipped in from Uruguay, and the chicken comes from a supplier in Colorado. Some customers are understandably unhappy that their uber-natural, organic, grass fed meat is shipped in from out of state or from South America, but it's a matter of economics. Some of these same folks are not prepared to spend the kind of money that it would take to supply them with locally sourced organic grass fed meat. It's cheaper for some stores to get it from out of the country, for the time being.
3. Perhaps a farmers market is a good choice.
Farmers markets are great resources for folks that want to buy certain locally produced items. While they may not always be as convenient as a neighborhood grocery store, they are good places to find locally raised beef and other meats, eggs, cheeses, produce, and other food items. A customer can also usually meet the person actually raising livestock or growing the crop they're buying, something that's usually not possible when they buy from a supermarket. Some ranchers are even known to display photos of their herds grazing on open fields, providing the kind of transparency one would be hard-pressed to find at any traditional meat counter. Local, seasonal fruits and vegetables are bought at the height of their freshness and provide optimum nutrition, while creating the least possible negative environmental impact.
Even if a person regularly visits a health food store for many of their specialty food needs, going to a local farmers market is also highly recommended. Vendors like Blue Heron Farms set up booths at local markets, selling goat milk chevre and cajeta that's made on their small farm near Houston. It's always fun to buy directly from the people who create your food, start to finish, and are passionate about their process. 2. Get to know the people you buy from.
Once a person finds a health food store or stores that fill their needs, developing a healthy rapport with the employees there is a good idea. They don't have to become your best friend, but spending a little time talking to them every week will eventually result in better service for you. I have customers that I've gotten to know enough that I'll set aside certain items just for them because I know they'll want them. Basically, if you frequent a store where the employees aren't helpful or they don't seem to know much about the products they're selling, it's probably best to move along and find a better place to shop.
1. A few more things to watch out for.
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Almost all health food stores sell certain items that probably aren't all that healthy - protein bars that might as well be candy, homeopathic cures that are made entirely from water and lies, to name a couple.
But there are some stores that seem to exclusively deal in junk. Any place that sells almost nothing but bodybuilding supplements and weight loss systems is probably somewhere to steer clear of. It wasn't too long ago that half of some chain's supplements for losing weight were full of ephedrine. Then the Feds cracked down on the sale of that stuff, so it's not like health is the primary concern of the places selling certain types of nutritional supplements.
I also have mixed feelings about giant stores (and you know their names). Yes, they have a lot of stuff, and yes, the stores are a lot of fun if you're a well heeled foodie. But they're also pretty expensive, and probably not the best places to shop for anyone on a budget. But for a person who has no problem dropping $100 on eight or nine items, and who has spent some time researching the products they want, those stores can be a good place to shop.
One of the difficult aspects of living a healthier lifestyle and eating healthy is the work it takes to find the items that we want, and in a lot of cases, no one store is going to be able to provide it all. This is especially the case for those of us that shop on a budget, and want to have healthier choices at a price we can live with. Visiting farmers markets, and finding two or three health food stores with employees that actually care about the products their shops carry, and who are educated about those goods, is probably the best strategy for most people trying to live and eat healthier.