I once would have laughed at the thought of grocery stores being trendy. There are fashion trends, there are TV show trends and there are music trends, but lately, where you buy your food comes along with social stereotypes.

Health food, in particular, is especially trendy. Every day there seems to be some new, non-fat, low-carb, chia, super-fruit, probiotic blend marketed as the cure for everything. It is the prevalence of these products that can make grocery shopping in Ann Arbor legitimately excruciating. There have been times when I’m surviving on oatmeal and granola bars for days just because I don’t want to go spend my Whole Paycheck at Whole Foods.

The summer after my freshman year, I worked in a research lab on campus. Without the added stress of classes and snow, it was much easier to settle into a healthy routine of running, yoga, lifting and proper nutrition. I even had time to watch the documentaries “Fed Up” and “Food Inc.” (both available on Netflix and both I highly recommend), which gave me a new perspective on processed foods, especially meat. At that point, I was subject to the trendiness of chia seeds and matcha powder, and I was under the impression that in order for food to be healthy, I had to buy from stores that market themselves as such. Since then, I have realized this to be false.

For me, it came down to the research, and there is absolutely no evidence that the organic food one can buy at Whole Foods is better for you than the organic food purchased at a conventional grocery store. There are plenty of resources in Ann Arbor through which one can buy healthy foods without spending everything in your wallet.

Farmers markets are one place where it is easy to get fresh, local food without the price tag of an upscale grocery store. In Kerrytown, every Saturday and Wednesday between 7 a.m. and 3 p.m., there are local farmers, gardeners, bakers and others selling fruit, vegetables, meat, eggs, gelato, baked goods, pesto, pasta and anything else in season.

Trader Joe’s is my first choice during the months when the entire state is buried in snow. For a while, people didn’t know about Trader Joe’s, and it was only when health food shopping became “trendy” that it became mainstream. Before that, people would just ask, “Why do your Oreos look so weird?” and when I responded that they were from Trader Joe’s they would say, “What’s that?” You could even say that Trader Joe’s got lucky; they’ve always been centered on organic and healthy food, but the popularity of eating well has just brought it to everyone’s attention and made it trendy. Even though it carries this reputation now, it is actually cheaper than places like Whole Foods. The trick with both of these stores, though, is not to get caught up in the “magic” foods that claim to change your life.

Although not as “fashionable” as the stores mentioned above, Kroger and Meijer can also be resources for healthy options. Be aware that sifting through organic, non-organic, processed, refined, artificial and natural products can be a challenge if you don’t know what you’re looking for. First, know that non-organic products won’t poison you. If you are looking for organic, both of these stores have generically-labeled products. Also to this point, generic is okay.

It is important to distinguish that “organic” and “healthy” are not synonymous. In fact, a 2012 systematic review revealed no significant difference between organic and inorganic foods in vitamin content and nutrient content (with the exception of phosphorus and phenols). Pesticide residues, however, were significantly more likely to be found in non-organic products than organic products. However, it is also cost-effective to keep in mind that not all commercial and organic foods are equal. Soft fruits such as peaches, nectarines and berries; vegetables including peppers and carrots; starches such as potatoes; and beef are more important to buy organic than other products.

Meats are particularly important to buy in the free-range, grass-fed variety. Unlike most produce, it is shown that nutrient content is vastly different between these and commercially produced meat products. First, the photos of concentrated animal feeding operations are some of the most disturbing images I’ve seen regarding the food industry. Second, and even more concerning, is the fact that the lives of the animals in these pens, in addition to the use of corn as feed for these animals causes the meat to be less nutritive, and can result in harmful, acid-resistant E. coli outbreaks with potentially disastrous consequences. The runoff from these farms also contributes to E. coli outbreaks in spinach and even apple juice (all the more reason to buy some of your foods organic). The most disturbing part? While it seems intuitive that with technology developments food would be getting safer, it is actually becoming easier for these harmful pathogens to spread. According to “Food Inc.,” there were once “thousands of slaughterhouses in the United States. Today we have 13 slaughterhouses that process the majority of beef that is sold in the United States. The hamburger of today, it has pieces of thousands of different cattle ground up in that one hamburger patty.” Ew.

What it comes down to is the difference between being smart and being trendy. Choosing wisely where and on what to spend the few dollars I have can be overwhelming when trying pick healthy options. 

Pick and choose when to go organic and when to let it go. It’s about balancing your checkbook, your health and the ever-so-difficult transportation to any of these food destinations.

Grace Carey can be reached at gecarey@umich.edu.

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