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Trader Joe’s: A Paleo Shopping Trip

This post was NOT sponsored by Trader Joe’s, or by the manufacturer of any of the products pictured. Paleo Leap has never taken money from Trader Joe’s for anything else, either. Everything here is pure opinion.

After the Whole Foods walkthrough, a lot of readers wanted a sequel with Trader Joe’s – but unfortunately, Trader Joe’s doesn’t allow photography in their stores. It’s a pretty silly policy to have in the social media age, but that’s the policy they’re sticking with. So here’s the next-best thing: a guide to Paleo-friendly edibles from Trader Joe’s, with pictures of some selected items that we took home and photographed there.

Just like the Whole Foods post, this one focuses on things that are unique to Trader Joe’s. You can get fresh vegetables, ground beef, and olive oil anywhere – those things are the staples of a Paleo diet, but they’re not unique or special to any one chain. So here’s a look at the things that might tempt you specifically to Trader Joe’s.

The big picture: Trader Joe’s is a reasonable place to get some Paleo-friendly specialty foods, but some of their products require a little compromise on added sugar and citric acid.

  • Sugar: added sugar isn’t good for you, mostly because it makes overeating sugar very easy. There’s no significant nutritional difference between table sugar and the sugar in Paleo foods like honey. The difference is all in the amount. That’s why Paleo discourages using a lot of sweeteners and dried fruit, but allows fresh fruit: you can eat a lot more sugar from Coke than from strawberries or apples, plus the whole foods have actual nutrients in them. Some otherwise-nutritious foods from Trader Joe’s have very small amounts of added sugar – less than the amount of sugar in a single grape. If you’re doing an absolute sugar elimination challenge, those foods would be out, but if you’re just trying to eat well, such a tiny amount of sugar is very unlikely to cause any noticeable problems, so they’re on this list as “Paleo enough to be getting on with,” in the spirit of making reasonable compromises and not being extreme over nutritionally irrelevant ingredients.
  • Citric acid: this is in most canned foods, and Trader Joe’s canned foods aren’t exceptions. Some kinds of citric acid may be a problem for people who are extremely sensitive to MSG. But citric acid is so harmless for the vast majority of people that even the Whole30 allows it – unless you have an extreme MSG problem, then it’s almost certainly fine.

Part 1: Meat

The meat section has a pretty good selection, especially of Paleo-friendly convenience meats.

Pork belly

Ingredients: pork belly, water, sea salt. Not bad!

If you’re looking for pre-cooked convenience protein, Trader Joe’s is the place to be. They also had some Paleo-friendly pre-grilled chicken strips (look for the ones labeled “just chicken”).

But as always, be very careful about anything with a sauce or marinade: most of them have junk oils or sugar or both.

There were also some Paleo-friendly sausages, but if you’re avoiding absolutely all sugar, be careful. Here are two different packages of Trader Joe’s brand chicken sausages with sun-dried tomatoes. Only one has sugar on the ingredients list. Can you guess which?

Choice A:

Chicken tomato sausage

Choice B:

Chicken sausage 2

A is the one with the sugar.

Ingredients for package A:

Skinless chicken meat, water, salt, turbinado sugar, spices, tomato powder, dehydrated onion, dehydrated garlic, paprika, basil, parsley, diced tomatoes, sundried tomatoes (unsulfured).

Ingredients for package B:

Chicken, sun-dried tomatoes, basil, water, salt, roasted garlic, paprika, dehydrated garlic, dehydrated onion, red pepper, white pepper, black pepper, chili pepper, coriander, extractive of paprika, in a natural pork casing.

The amount of sugar in package A is quite small, and probably not enough to affect anyone’s health. Package A would still be a decent Paleo compromise choice in a pinch – one sausage from Package A has about as much sugar per serving as a single grape. But if you’re trying to eliminate added sugar completely, you’d want to go for B.

There was also some decent salami, by Paleo standards, but again with a very small amount of added sugar:

salame

Ingredients: pork, sea salt, sugar, spices, natural flavoring, lactic acid starter culture, collagen casing to be removed prior to eating.

The ingredients list says sugar, but if you look at the Nutrition Facts panel, it says “Sugars: 0 g.” Labels are legally allowed to round down to 0 if there’s less than half a gram, so this means that there’s only a very minimal amount of sugar per serving. The amount is so extremely low that it’s probably not an issue health-wise (again, you’d get more sugar from one single grape), but if you’re absolutely eliminating added sugar, read the ingredients, not the Nutrition Facts!

One last thing from the meat section:

Cod pieces

This is a cool thing that Trader Joe’s does: they sell “pieces” of some meats. This is exactly the same fish as the more expensive cuts of cod; it’s just the weirdly-shaped bits that don’t look very pretty. But it tastes the same and it’s just as nutritious so the pieces are an easy way to cut down on the grocery bill.

You can also get “ends and pieces” of their bacon (sadly, not sugar free), and “pieces” of smoked salmon.

Part 2: Plants

Just like Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s carries pre-grated cauliflower, which is very convenient for all kinds of recipes:

cauliflower

They also have a nice selection of pre-cut and bagged greens.

kale

“Are you tired of endlessly cutting the stems out of your kale? Buy me instead!”

Unfortunately, every single one of the prepackaged salads (at least at this particular store) had some kind of junk in it. Canola oil in the dressing would be one thing (you can just leave the dressing off to avoid it), but even ingredients like “chicken” aren’t just “chicken.” If you look carefully, the ingredient listed as “chicken” often includes junk like canola oil and sugar that the chicken was cooked in.

There was also a decent house-brand salsa without any corn in it:

Salsa

Ingredients: whole peeled tomatoes (tomatoes, tomato juice, salt, calcium chloride, citric acid), onion, cilantro, chile de arbol, salt, garlic, dried oregano

Again, the citric acid is there, but for most people that shouldn’t be a huge deal.

Once again, if you’re eating Paleo, the majority of your cart space should be full of fresh produce, but you can get that at any store so there’s no real point dwelling on pictures of Trader Joe’s spinach and cabbage in particular. It’s there; it’s fresh; eat a lot of it in all different colors.

Part 3: The Center Aisles

The center aisles are fruitful if you know where to look! Starting with the nuts and dried fruit aisle, the bad news is that every single one of the pre-packaged trail mixes had some kind of junk in it. Even if the front only listed nuts and fruit, the actual ingredients inevitably include canola oil or sugar somewhere – and not in the “tiny and unnoticeable amount” sense of sugar. These trail mixes actually had significant sugar content. Any dried fruit was typically dried in canola oil, and usually sweetened.

But if you’re looking for unsweetened dried fruit to put on top of a salad…

CherriesThe only ingredient in this is “cherries.” Like all dried fruit, these are high in sugar – this particular package listed 19 grams of sugar per 1/4 cup serving, which is a significant amount. That’s why dried fruit is better saved as a salad topping or an occasional treat, not an everyday staple snack! But if you’re specifically looking for something with absolutely no added sugar, these might be a nice break from cranberries.

Moving on to the canned goods:

Ingredients: green chile peppers, water, calcium chloride, citric acid, salt

Ingredients: green chile peppers, water, calcium chloride, citric acid, salt

Mmmmm, spice! Again, the citric acid is here, but that’s really nothing to worry about for the vast majority of people.

And then there’s this:

coconut cream

This is not coconut milk. This is coconut cream – it’s basically like heavy whipping cream, but the coconut version. It’s thicker and fattier. You can use it to make coconut “whipped cream” for treats like these or just for putting on top of berries. (You can also DIY coconut cream by putting a jar of regular coconut milk in the fridge overnight, and then scooping out the thick white stuff at the top and throwing away the water).

Most of the jarred pasta sauces had either canola oil, added sugar, or both. But there was a canned version that was A-OK:

marinara

Ingredients: whole, unpeeled tomatoes, extra heavy tomato puree, cold pressed extra virgin olive oil, onions, herbs, garlic, salt.

If you look up in the corner of the can at that little red banner – yes, that does say “Low Fat.” This might go down in history as the first time a Paleo site has advised eating anything labeled “low fat,” but apparently at Trader Joe’s, “low fat” means “we took the canola oil out,” and that’s a kind of low-fat even the Paleo crowd can get behind. Plus, you can easily fix the lack of fat with an extra drizzle of your own olive oil!

Continuing through the center aisles, the broth is another master class in reading the nutrition labels.

Chicken broth

Ingredients: chicken broth (water, free range chicken, rosemary extract), organic chicken flavor (organic chicken flavor, sea salt), sea salt, cane sugar, onion powder, turmeric extract.

Just like the salame, the Nutrition Facts said 0 grams of sugar per 1 cup serving, so the total amount of sugar is very low and probably nutritionally insignificant. But it’s still really annoying that they needed to put it in there in the first place: why does chicken broth need sugar? Chicken broth isn’t supposed to be sweet!

Trader Joe’s also had a brand of Paleo-friendly potato chips. White potatoes always stir up controversy, but they’re just as nutritious as sweet potatoes, they don’t cause autoimmune disease in people who don’t have one already, and they’re basically fine if you tolerate them. Not everyone does. Nobody has to eat white potatoes, and some people feel better avoiding them. But if they’re fine for you, here’s another snack:

potato chips

Ingredients: potatoes, olive oil, sea salt

And one last hidden gem from the center aisles:

vinaigrette

Ingredients: extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, thyme honey.

Real live pre-made Paleo-friendly salad dressing. Now combine that with some of the kale from above with some crispy broiled pork belly on the side – sounds like dinner!

What are your favorite treasures from Trader Joe’s? Let us know on Facebook or Twitter!