Like many people, I’m a huge fan of Trader Joe’s. Visiting the store is a legit outing, and I prefer to go when I have the time to stroll the aisles, take in all the new products, carefully read ingredient lists, and scrutinize nutrition facts. (And of course, try an occasional sample or complimentary coffee.)
As a dietitian, I believe that Trader Joe’s gets a lot of things right. I’m continually impressed by their selection of healthful TJ’s-branded options. (I'm looking at you Organic Creamy Cashew Fiesta Dip!) And I’m thrilled that they recently made a commitment to significantly reduce plastic packaging. Still, not every product is a nutritional home run. Here are 10 new Trader Joe's standouts—including five that meet my approval, and an equal number I recommend skipping.
5 to Try:
Simply Almond Beverage ($4.99 for 33.8 oz. container)
Yes, almond milk is everywhere these days, but this almond beverage is about as close to homemade as you can get. Made with just two ingredients: almonds and water, it has no weird stabilizers, gums, or other unwanted additives. Plus, it packs four times more almonds than leading brands. One cup provides 100 calories, 9 grams of healthful fat, 4 grams of plant protein, and just 4 grams of carb with 2 from fiber, along with 6% of your daily calcium needs and 4% for iron.
Use this almond beverage in everything from smoothies and overnight oats to vegan mashed potatoes and creamy plant-based soups. Just be aware that because there is no emulsifier added, the milk may separate. You can skim off the delicious almond “cream” that rises to the top, or shake the container to re-blend.
Pumpkin Butter ($2.29)
This delightful pumpkin mixture is like fall in a jar. It contains pumpkin as the first ingredient, combined with just sugar, honey, lemon juice concentrate, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and nutmeg. A single tablespoon provides 20% of the daily target for immune and skin-supporting vitamin A, and based on the rest of the ingredient list, a healthy dose of antioxidants.
At just 40 calories per tablespoon, you can celebrate the flavors of the season and healthfully satisfy your sweet tooth. Spread it over toasted sweet potato slices, or swirl it into smoothies, oatmeal, even hummus.
Organic Creamy Cashew Cultured Yogurt Alternative ($1.69)
One of the newest options I’ve seen in the plant-based yogurt space, this non-dairy yogurt is available in vanilla bean and strawberry. Made with a base of crushed organic cashews and filtered water, the yogurt alternative is sweetened with a bit of cane sugar, while organic lemon juice gives it tartness. It’s relatively low in protein at 3 grams per container, but it contains healthful fat, plus the same beneficial probiotic bacteria found in conventional yogurt. It also provides pectin, a prebiotic known to support weight loss, help regulate blood sugar, and lower cholesterol.
Chocolate Hummus ($1.99)
Yes, dessert hummus is a thing. I personally make all kinds of sweet treats with chickpeas and beans, including puddings, smoothies, and vegan ice cream. So a sweet version of hummus just makes sense. Because chickpeas don’t have a strong flavor on their own, they blend well with sweet ingredients. They also add a whole lot of nutrition, including plant-based protein, fiber, slow-burning carbs, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. They’re also a naturally gluten-free, eco-friendly superfood.
In this version, TJ’s combines chickpeas with a bit of cane sugar, cocoa, tahini, sea salt, and a few other plant-based ingredients. I wish the cocoa wasn’t processed with baking soda (this step creates a milder, less acidic flavor and a darker color, but it reduces antioxidants). Still, I’m thrilled for an opportunity to incorporate more chickpeas! Use it as a dip for veggies, like celery and carrots, or fresh fruit, or simply enjoy it by the spoonful.
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Fall Harvest Salsa ($2.99)
Salsa may seem like a blah addition to this list, but this version of salsa is pretty unique. After spotting it on an end cap, I picked up the jar to check out the ingredients. I was pleasantly surprised to see pumpkin, apples, butternut squash, and red bell peppers, in addition to tomatoes, tomatillos, onions, and jalapenos. I love it, because consuming a wider variety of produce exposes your body to a broader spectrum of the health-protective compounds they provide. Also, this is a stealth way to expand your veggie and fruit horizons.
Pair the salsa with healthful fat to up the absorption of antioxidants and fat-soluble vitamins, like vitamin A (two tablespoons provides 20% of the daily goal). Top a baked potato with a few spoonfuls, along with chopped avocado, or toss with leafy greens and garnish with toasted pumpkin seeds.
5 you can safely skip:
Leafy Greens Butternut Squash Salad Kit ($4.49)
My primary reservations about this kit are the dressing ingredients and feta. The latter isn’t needed (after all, dairy is one of the big eight most common allergens), and the former is pretty processed. The main ingredient, soybean oil, is high in omega-6 fatty acids, which are known to be pro-inflammatory, especially when not properly balanced with omega-3s. The cranberries and candied almonds also both contain added sugar.
For a better-for-you but still quick salad, whisk together TJ’s new Herbs de Provence extra virgin olive oil and a little Dijon or stone ground mustard. Toss with greens of your choice, and top with fresh fruit and nuts. When you have time to cook, oven roast extra veggies, like butternut squash, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower. Stash inside glass storage containers in the fridge, chill, and add to salads for a flavor, nutrition, and texture boost.
RELATED: The Best Salads for Dinner
Cinnamon Bun Spread ($3.49)
I know this sounds delicious, but I’m not crazy about the ingredients. In addition to honey, tapioca syrup, and brown sugar (yup, three sweeteners), the jar contains milk, cream, and butter—and not the grass-fed organic kind—as well as cornstarch. A tablespoon contains 60 calories, no protein, a few grams of fat, and one and a half teaspoons of added sugar.
For a healthier option with a similar flavor profile, stir some pure maple syrup, cinnamon, and pure vanilla extract into your favorite nut or seed butter as a dip for fresh fruit.
Organic Crunchy Apple Cinnamon Bread ($3.99)
I go crazy for everything apple in the fall. But simply containing fruit and being labeled organic doesn’t make an item healthy. Here, organic dried apples and cinnamon are wrapped up in organic (but refined) wheat flour stripped of its nutrients, along with organic sugar, eggs, and dry milk powder. One seventh of the sweet bread contains 180 calories, mostly from 26 grams of carb, with just 1 gram as fiber, and nearly three teaspoons of added sugar.
For a spiced up baked goods fix, opt for TJ’s Snickerdoodles instead. They’re free from wheat, gluten, dairy, peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, and soy, but are every bit as delicious as conventional cookies.
Organic Fruit Flavored Snacks ($2.49)
These may be organic, but the word 'flavored' is a dead giveaway that these goodies aren’t 100% fruit. When I saw the box on the new product shelf, I took a quick look at the ingredients. The first is organic cane sugar, followed by tapioca syrup (another sweetener), and then fruit concentrates. In other words, it’s pretty much candy. The animal shapes are cute and fun, but one packet contains almost three teaspoons of sugar, and 0% of the daily target for fiber or nutrients.
For a chewy, naturally sweet dried fruit option, check out TJ’s new chopped medjool dates instead. The two-ingredient goodies are rolled in coconut flour (no added sugar or preservatives), and one third of a cup provides 11% of the daily fiber goal, 6% for potassium, and 4% for iron.
Broccoli & Kale Pizza Crust ($4.29)
Based on the name and color of this crust, you might assume that it’s low-carb and primarily made from the two veggies. But corn flour, potato starch, and cornstarch make up the second, third, and fourth ingredients. That’s why just one sixth of the crust provides 15 grams of carb with 0 grams of fiber, about the amount in a slice of white bread. (Note: If you eat half, you’ll take in 45 grams of carb, and only 3 grams of protein and 1.5 of fat.)
While I’m all for sneaking in extra veggies, it’s always important to look beyond a product’s name to ensure that it doesn’t overpromise and underperform based on your expectations.
Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health's contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a nutrition consultant for the New York Yankees.
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