‘Pie hole’, colloquial for one’s mouth, is believed to have evolved in the USA in the 1980s from the British expression ‘cake hole’ (coined in the mid 20th century). Pie hole refers to a mouth, as in: Shut your pie hole or, in this case: Put less in your pie hole.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Should You Reverse Thrust on Your Autopilot Purchases at Trader Joe's?

Buying food: It's something we all do, whether it's at Whole Foods (which is mostly organic, gluten free, conflict free, free range, frou-frou), Trader Joe's (which is mostly pre-made, pre-marinated and pre-fab), Ralph's (which is expensive unless products are on sale), or somewhere else. There's a stigma attached to stores like Trader Joe's and Whole Foods: That their convenience food is healthier. Since moving to the US, numerous acquaintances have zealously supported this claim.

After hearing these impassioned opinions, I did what any normal person (or dietitian) would do... Went on an excursion to my local Ralph's and Trader Joe's.

I picked (at random) 4 store brand convenience foods: Fish sticks, mini beef tacos, mac and cheese and tarter sauce. Random, right?

Next up, I compared price and (tried) to compare major food components (calories, total fat, saturated fat and sodium). 

US food labels make this task extremely laborious due to their not having any kind of standardised column. For example: a serve of fish sticks at Trader Joe's (TJ's) was 114g, but at Ralph's it was 56g... This makes it simply impossible to accurately compare products without a calculator, something I have found exceedingly frustrating since moving to the US (tell your congressman).

But I digress. For the purpose of this exercise, I compared price per 100g (3.5oz) of product, calories per 100g, total fat per 100g, saturated fat per 100g and sodium per 100g. Once we have a standard measure (100g) we can compare the products side by side.

First up: Fish sticks.
Reduced Fat Fish Sticks at Trader Joe's

Reduced Fat Fish Nuggets at Ralph's
Fish Stick Comparison. *Sat fat unable to be calculated due to 0g sat fat per serve listed on label
Analysis: We can see in the green that TJ's is significantly cheaper (more on this later), has negligibly more calories and total fat, but less sodium. When looking at ingredients we see the TJ's product has fewer, but many of the extra ingredients in the Ralph's brand are spices and minerals (zinc, folic acid, thiamine).

Next up was mini beef tacos:

Mini Beef Tacos from TJ's



Mini Beef Tacos from Ralph's
Mini Taco comparison
Analysis: TJ's is cheaper and appears to win out in all categories. Two things to note here:
1. A calorie difference of 18cal/100g is negligible
2. I made an error here because the Ralph's brand contains cheese (which is higher in calories, fat and sodium), so this isn't totally a comparative product.
Ingredients between the two are fairly similar, I wouldn't say one is 'healthier'.

The all Americano mac and cheese:
Mac and Cheese from TJ's
Mac and Cheese from Ralph's
Mac and cheese comparison
Analysis: TJ's was cheaper, but struck out in every other category, pretty significantly. The ingredients in the TJ's product did have fewer 'additives' compared to the Ralph's brand.

Last but not least, tarter sauce:
Tarter sauce from TJ's
Tarter sauce from Ralph's
Comparison of tarter sauce
Analysis: TJ's beat Ralph's in all categories (though only negligibly in the price and total fat sections). BUT... And there's always a but. Let's look at the ingredients: Ralph's first ingredient is soybean oil, TJ's first ingredient is... wait for it: Water! Of course if you water down a fatty product, it will have fewer calories (and fewer everything else) per gram.

Things to note:
  • Ralph's tarter sauce used soybean oil, where TJ's used canola oil 
    • Canola oil is lower in saturated fat (reflected in the sat fat comparison) and higher in polyunsaturated fats, translation: It's a healthier oil 
  • The Ralph's brand has over double the sodium per 100g.

The side note I wanted to make about price, is that Ralph's is notorious for high prices and always having sales. Three out of the four products I chose were on sale, but I used the full price for the comparison (can't always count on a sale). 

But, to round off this article, the beef tacos, mac and cheese and tarter sauce were on sale at Ralph's. The sale prices of the beef tacos and tarter sauce ended up being cheaper than TJ's price per 100/g. Tacos on sale were $0.79/100g, where TJ's were $0.86/100g and tarter sauce on sale at Ralph's was $0.68/100g compared to TJ's at $0.73/100g.

The takeaway meal... I mean messages:
  • All pre-made convenience food contains ingredients and additives you wouldn't put in your food at home
  • Be a smart shopper... Don't assume a food is 'healthier' because of it's name, packaging or appearance in a store called Whole Foods or Trader Joe's
  • Read the label (both the ingredient list and nutrition panel)

Special thanks to my friend, Erika for encouraging me to write this article.

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