Best Grocery Stores for Healthy Eating

Regional chains earn top ratings for their selection of healthy options

Father and child in grocery store iStock-960043536

When you want to eat healthy, it's not hard to find a food store that can provide the basics: vegetables, fruit, cereals and bread made from whole grains, low-fat dairy products. But a grocery with bushels of high-quality produce, decently priced organics, abundant locally sourced foods, and other healthy options is another kettle of omega-3 rich, wild-caught fish altogether.

When Consumer Reports asked its members to tell us about their shopping experiences with supermarkets, warehouse clubs, and supercenters, only 6 out of 96 rated grocers got top marks for their selection of healthy options, and all of them were privately held regional chains. In ratings order, they are:

• Central Market (Texas)

• Wegmans (mid-Atlantic)

• Heinen's (Ohio and Chicago area)

• New Seasons Market (Oregon, Washington, and Northern California)

• Fresh Thyme Farmers Market (Midwestern states, Kentucky, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania)

• Natural Grocers (19 states west of the Mississippi)

But while choosing organic is considered a cornerstone of healthy eating—and 43 percent of our respondents said they'd bought organic produce in the past month—not a single grocer got the highest score for their prices of organic options. Several, however—Trader Joe's, Costco, Fresh Thyme Farmers Market, Natural Grocers, Aldi, Woodman's, and Grocery Outlet—did get commendable marks.

Selling Organics and Healthy Alternatives

Just four grocers in our survey—Central Market, Wegmans, Heinen's, and New Seasons Market—received superlative ratings in several health-related categories: selection of healthy options, produce quality, produce variety, and selection of locally produced products.

Every page of a recent weekly flyer for a Portland, Ore., outpost of New Seasons Market was filled with images of fresh, organic, and locally sourced products. In time for Cinco de Mayo celebrations, the store highlighted tortilla chips made with organic, non-GMO (genetically modified) ingredients. (Consumer Reports has urged the Department of Agriculture to require disclosure of GMO ingredients using easily recognized terms, such as “GE,” “genetic engineering,” or “GMO,” and to disclose the presence of highly processed ingredients.)

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On a recent Facebook post for Central Market, the grocer highlighted a vegan alternative to sushi and nigiri that its in-house chefs had created: marinated Roma tomato slices that look like raw fish. "I’m pregnant with my first child," a commenter wrote. "I can’t have raw fish. This could be a really tasty alternative!"

Wegmans' store brands sport as many as 16 different labels to identify a food's health benefits or whether it's appropriate for certain diets, including lactose-free, gluten-free, heart-healthy, and vegan. On the Wegmans website, shoppers can find nutrition information on all of its store-made prepared foods, bakery items, soups, pizzas, and more.

Heinen's has been putting organic food front and center, says shopper Richard Elder of Avon, Ohio. "Heinen's has a very extensive selection of organic food, including a lot of their store-branded items," he says. "I buy organic produce and other organic things sometimes because I think it is a healthier option."

Opting for the Farmers Market

While having low prices is among the most important reasons members say they shop at a supermarket, factors connected to healthy eating also drive their decisions.

Twenty-five percent of our survey respondents said good-quality produce was key to their choice of market. Ten percent cited a variety of healthy options at a store as an important reason to shop there. Among members who had stopped shopping at a grocer because they were dissatisfied with it, 13 percent said it was due to a poor selection of healthy options.

But good prices on natural or organic foods, organic food selection, and selection of locally produced products mattered less to our members in choosing a grocer.

Perhaps shoppers are finding those items elsewhere. A third of surveyed members said they'd bought groceries at a farmers market in the past month.

A Call for Stores to Inform Shoppers

American food shoppers increasingly view the grocer they go to most often as an ally in eating healthy, according to a 2018 study by the Food Marketing Institute, a grocery-industry organization in Arlington, Va., and The Hartman Group, a food and beverage industry consulting company in Bellevue, Wash.

The study found that 55 percent of shoppers think their primary grocer is "on their side" in helping them stay healthy, an increase from 45 percent in 2017. Nearly the same percentage—57 percent—said the same of their health club. (Respondents could give multiple answers.)

Those findings jibe with those of CR's survey. It found that customers don't just want to buy healthy food at their grocers, they also want grocers to inform them of potential health concerns related to the food they sell.

Eighty-eight percent of our members told us they think grocery stores should be responsible for notifying shoppers of an outbreak of foodborne illness, though only about a third—32 percent—said their food purveyor did so with, say, in-store signs or notices. (Our supermarkets survey was fielded in 2018, not long after the U.S. experienced an outbreak of the potentially fatal bacterium E. coli in romaine lettuce.)

How to Shop Like a Nutritionist

Eating well isn't always easy—or fun. On the "Consumer 101" TV show, a Consumer Reports' expert, Amy Keating, heads to a grocery store to show you how to make healthy decisions when it comes to food.

Tobie Stanger

I cover the money side of home-related purchases and improvements: avoiding scams, making sense of warranties and insurance, finding the best financing, and getting the most value for your dollar. For CR, I've also written about digital payments, credit and debit, taxes, supermarkets, financial planners, airlines, retirement and estate planning, shopping for electronics and hearing aids—even how to throw a knockout wedding on a shoestring. I am never bored. Find me on Twitter: @TobieStanger