Is that Trader Joe’s Junk Food You’re Eating? Foodie Underground


ColumnJust because it’s from Trader Joe’s doesn’t mean it’s not junk food.

There’s no denying that Trader Joe’s has a cult following. It has made food shopping fun. And not only has it made it fun, it makes people feel good about what they’re buying–proud of the fact that they got something seemingly healthier and better for them than the usual grocery store fare. There are vegetables! There are organic foods at affordable prices! There’s hummus!

Let’s call it the “Trader Joe’s effect,” an effect that seduces the consumer and turns them from a conscious one into a blind one. Because when it comes down to it, just because it came in a Trader Joe’s bag, does not make it good for you.

This is not to say that all food at Trader Joe’s is bad. Certainly, the store has probably gotten more people eating nut butters than any other large chain, they do have a corporate policy against GMOs and you’ll often find that the ingredients list on the pack of packages is much shorter than what you find at your average grocery store.

But it concerns me that Trader Joe’s often gets touted as a health food store. People see the TJ label and immediately think “organic and healthy!” Maybe it’s the organic virgin coconut oil, but the store’s reputation is so strong that consumers fail to peel back the layers.

Recently, the store released its 25 most popular items of 2013. So if people go to Trader Joe’s because they’re getting healthier items cheaper than they would elsewhere, customers must be loving the rice milk and organic canned black beans, right? No. The top three items are more junk food than anything else, and the other items (besides maybe the almond butter) don’t really scream “real, clean food.”

1. Triple Ginger Snaps

2. Speculoos Cookie Butter

3. Joe Joe’s Cookies (All Varieties)

4. Reduced Guilt Chunky Guacamole

5. Charles Shaw Wine (All Varieties)

6. Pumpkin Coffee

7. Mac ‘n Cheese

8. Pumpkin Butter

9. Almond Butter (All Varieties)

10. Pumpkin Pecan Instant Oatmeal

I like a junk food treat as much as the next person. Eating well is all about a little indulgence once in a while. But let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that shopping at a certain store means being able to shop blindly. Gourmet junk food is still junk food.

Eating well is about buying real food, whole ingredients, and the occasional cookie. I can assure you that Joe-Joe’s don’t have a top spot because people just buy them occasionally. If your daily dinner is consisting of Mac ‘n Cheese followed by Triple Ginger Snaps doused in Speculoos Cookie Butter (which as the “crack” of the food world, has its own Facebook page), you probably have some work to do.

And while Trader Joe’s often has a very “green” image, the chain is in the market of selling marked down name brand products, which forces them to be very secretive about where the food comes from and how sustainable the business operations really are.

It’s all a reminder that as consumers, we need to stay informed and continue to be vigilant about what we buy. In an article published in 2010 in Utne Reader, Danielle Maestretti wrote, “The Trader Joe’s brand of milk, for example, claims to be organic—but it won’t disclose which dairies it buys from. Ditto for the soybeans it uses in its brands of soy milk, tofu, and other products. And a recent report found that its store brand of veggie burgers are made using hexane-extracted soy protein.”

So where does all the Trader Joe’s food – junk food and healthy food – come from?

“It is very hard to figure out sourcing with Trader Joe’s. They heavily depend on private label products which are based on secrecy. We have said that private-label organics is an “oxymoron.” Organic consumers want to know “the story behind their food.” They want to know where it was produced, how it was produced, how the animals and workers involved have been treated, etc. None of that is possible with Trader Joe’s. Unlike the majority of all responsible brand marketers in organics they have refused to participate in our research studies and are thus rated very poorly on our scorecards that critique dairy foods, eggs and soy foods (etc.),” Mark Kastel, Director of the Cornucopia Institute told Food Babe.

So, even if those tasty chips are organic, doesn’t mean you can know the story behind them.

A little junk food here and there may not kill you, and I have personally spent many an hour drooling in a Trader Joe’s aisle, but there’s an argument to be made about knowing where your food comes from and what your eating. And that requires conscious consumption, not just blindly pulling items off of a shelf at a store that has a smart and healthy image.

Related on EcoSalon

Behind the Label: Trader Joe’s Secretive Sourcing Practices

10 Fast Food Chains to Steer Clear Of

A Penchant for Gourmet Junk Food: Foodie Underground

This is the latest installment of Anna Brones’ weekly column at EcoSalon: Foodie Underground, an exploration of what’s new and different in the underground movement, and how we make the topic of good food more accessible to everyone. More musings on the topic can be found at

Image: Guian Bolisay

Anna Brones

Anna Brones is a food + travel writer with a love for coffee and bikes. She is the author of The Culinary Cyclist and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. Catch her weekly column, Foodie Underground.