Trader Joe’s Isn’t Always The Healthiest

Trader Joe’s Isn’t Always The Healthiest

The clock strikes five. I’ve just finished a day’s worth of class lectures interspersed with some brand consulting work, and I’m starving. I open my freezer and reach for the first thing I see: Trader Joe’s Frozen Gnocchi al Gorgonzola, a quick ready-made meal purchased from my local store. When I bought the 16 oz. package, it was just one item in a basket filled with organic vegetables, antibiotic free chicken, and gluten free rice crisps intended to take the load off of preparing a meal on the busiest day of the week.


I would describe the dish as being rich, filling and delicious, but not healthy. Dang nabbit, I fell for it again: their clever brand centric marketing. This time, however, I wasn’t the only one who fell for the delusion that all of the products inside the hip urban grocery store were good for my diet.

Trader Joe’s, a privately held grocery chain with over 455 domestic locations, prides itself on high quality and private label offerings. The fact that the company controls nearly all of its entire horizontal and vertical supply chain ensures delivery of quality ingredients to consumers at a significant price discount compared with Whole Foods, a direct competitor.

Trader Joe’s private label food brands

In a recent qualitative study by iModerate Research Technologies (see the full study here), consumers listed Trader Joe’s top benefit as having “healthy”, “organic” offerings. Batter me up and deep-fry me! Did consumers (like me) perceive that a majority of the product offerings were healthy, when in reality they weren’t? Why yes. Yes we did.
New iModerate Study Reveals Differing Perceptions of Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods (Courtesy of iModerate)

Trader Joe’s pioneered the specialty food store space by offering high quality ingredients not available at typical grocery stores. The frozen meal options are attractive to millennials shopping on a budget for ready-made meals holding the belief that the pre-made food won’t completely ruin their diets. The product offering meets this demand, except for one little problem: the macro ingredients used in some of their frozen meals aren’t healthier just because they come from Trader Joe’s when compared to their name brand competitors.

Alongside the freezer chests full of fresh-frozen vegetables and unseasoned brown rice sit diet landmines such as corn dogs, fried macaroni and cheese bites, and General Tso’s chicken. These products share the same packaging style and design as their healthy counterparts, but they are no healthier than the traditional offerings in the freezer aisle of any other local grocery store.

Trader Joe’s Fried Mac and Cheese Bites

During my first few trips, I’ll admit that I was convinced that a bag of cheesy pasta had to be healthier from Trader Joe’s than from Stop & Shop. In reality, I was confusing the benefits of certain product lines, such as their Trader Joe’s brand frozen vegetables without additives or preservatives, with the entire store’s offering. The lack of doors in the freezer and refrigerated section replicates the allure of a farm stand in which the consumer reaches directly into the bin and selects a specific product. I encourage all of my readers to shop at a Trader Joe’s’ sometime in the near future. You will be amazed at how simple packaging and marketing initiatives can create the impression of a healthy product when in reality the ingredients are the same if not worse for your health.

Trader Joe’s Frozen Display Cases

So buyers take heed. When shopping at any supermarket, be aware of a product’s ingredients and nutritional information. Marketers are involved from product conception right up until the moment of purchase (and even post-purchase, too!) Marketers cleverly influence buying decisions and perception. If it seems to be true that fried macaroni and cheese bites are “healthy”, it probably is too good to be true.

Garrett Meccariello is an aspiring brand manager based out of NYC. In his free time he can be found building the next great brand, exploring the city, and eating a lot of cured meat and cheese.