Allergy Shopping in Groceries: Trader Joe’s and Others

By Heather Legg

The last time I was shopping in my neighborhood Trader Joe’s market, I happened to notice a large amount of Gluten free products. This in turn made me look a little closer at some other products in regards to allergies. I liked what I saw.

I like shopping at Trader Joe’s for a number of reasons. For one, their products are marked quite well. They list shared products and may contain products, along with of course, the required contains list. But another nice thing about their labeling, or products should I say, is that the products don’t contain a whole lot of ingredients. It’s a lot easier to read a list of 8 ingredients than 40 ingredients. Whereas mainstream products, like cereals and crackers, often have a lot of artificial ingredients and additives, Trader Joe’s products are much more natural, many of them organic.

In fact, according to the Trader Joe’s website, the Trader Joe’s

“logo assures that the products it is on contain NO artificial flavors, colors or preservatives; NO MSG; and NO added Trans Fats. In addition, ALL Trader Joe’s private label products are sourced from non-genetically modified ingredients.”

There are also symbols on labels to denote things like Gluten Free or Vegan (a plus for dairy and egg allergies).

On the website, I also found an allergy statement which lets me know that this company is conscientious to allergies and the effects they can cause. They maintain that they strive to ensure all labels are easy to read, accurate, and reliable. Also, the company practices steps prevent cross contamination including

“education and training of employees about allergens, careful labeling and segregation of allergen ingredients, cleaning of lines between production runs and stringent scheduling of product runs. Manufacturers may even use alternate days to process products that contain allergens from those products that do not.”

The store itself does carry a wide selection of nuts and peanuts, but these are packaged well so shouldn’t be a deterrent (my daughter has a nut allergy and I am comfortable shopping there). I am careful with the products I allow her to taste when they have their samplings, but there are many she can safely try; I just always check with the employees.

I noticed a product I had been looking for earlier but couldn’t find. My husband and daughter were camping and he had asked for some trail mix without the nuts she’s allergic to. I know, easier said than done. I looked around but everything seemed to have cashews, her most allergic nuts. She’s okay with peanuts and almonds, but I couldn’t seem to come across that. But there, at Trader Joe’s was Rainbow Trail Mix – raisins, candy coated chocolates, peanuts and almonds! The perfect mix. That’s why I love TJ’s.

Though Trader Joe’s isn’t nationwide at present, it is making its way to more and more areas around the county. It is on both coasts, the Southeast, the Southwest and Midwest. If you have one of these stores around you, you may want to check it out for your food allergy shopping needs.

I know shopping for food is tough enough, throw food allergies in and it becomes even tougher. I am happy to see a large gluten free section at our neighborhood Publix, both in freezer and pantry items. Trader Joe’s has a good selection for us (and most products are without artificial ingredients and contrived sweeteners, another big plus).

A walk through a grocery store

For most people, grocery shopping is just another errand to run. Maybe they have some food requirements or some favorites or some things that just don’t sit well with them that they stay away from. But for those with food allergies ourselves or in our families, grocery shopping takes on a whole new dimension. We can’t just toss things in the cart without careful scrutinization and a little deciphering. So let’s pick just one of the Top 8 allergies (remember, though that many people with food allergies suffer from more than one),..let’s go with tree nuts, for the sake of my daughter.

Upon entering, we go towards the produce, this one is pretty safe. But wait, if it’s autumn there is probably a big display of mixed nuts that look so tempting (just not to us). Who knows how many little hands have run through that and then touched other things in the store. But let’s move on with our safe fruits and vegetables. Mmmm, something smells good – it’s the chef cooking a demo meal of yummy things for dinner. She’s got it all spread out and what could it be? It’s almond crusted tilapia…

Skip to the bakery section and the big sign that states everything made in the bakery may have been processed on equipment that also processes tree nuts among other allergens. Oh, the brownies and cinnamon rolls smell so good, but are covered in pecans and walnuts. Let’s move on.

The rest of the outskirts of the store is pretty safe to us, but not those with dairy allergies, that’s where all the milk, ice cream and other dairy is. They sometimes have to search for the right refrigerated sections because though sometimes stores stock alternatives next to the traditional product, others stock them all in their own cozy corner. But back to us, now we have to make it through the inner aisles, the cereals, breads, crackers…

As we are trying to eat healthier and snack healthier, trail mix is a good alternative. It’s filling and healthy. But it seems it’s always full of nuts. Cashews are big in trail mix, and that’s my daughter’s biggest nut enemy. So we can make our own with different dried fruits and cereals. Let’s visit the cereal aisle. It’s not terribly hard to find cereal without nuts, plus just plain old oatmeal is popular in our house. And I’m very impressed to see all of the gluten free alternatives here, many of them are even marked not only on the box but by the store themselves. As I look more carefully, I see that on the store labels on the shelves is a big G for Gluten Free, right there with the price. Good for the store!

The frozen aisle to me is a mini store in itself. You’ve got your dairy products, produce, baked goods and proteins, along with ethnic and ready made foods. Again, produce is fairly easy to stay nut free in, unless of course, you accidently grab the green beans in an almond sauce or pecan rice pilaf. I also notice much more gluten free and sprouted grains which is nice (in their own section, of course). I think where you have to be extra careful is the ice cream and the ready made meals. Because so many ice cream manufacturers use all kinds of nuts in ice cream, we have to read the labels really carefully. It’s here we often read of recalls on food due to undeclared nuts. As for frozen entrees, nuts aren’t necessarily snuck in, but with so many ingredients, sometimes it’s hard to spot them – read carefully if buying, especially ethnic!

Well, now that we have our cart sort of full, it’s time to check out. For as difficult as it sounds, shopping for a food allergy has improved even in the years my daughter has been diagnosed. Though there are still lots of kinks and inconveniences we have to deal with it, it’s comforting to know it is getting easier!

Here is more of a rundown of what to find where:

Warehouse stores like Sam’s and Costco:
Usually these are not the best places for allergy needs. Where they will have a selection of soy milks, lots of the snacks have nuts and there is not a whole lot of gluten free items. Though are they cost effective if they can meet your allergy needs, they don’t always have what you’re looking for.

Mainstream Supermarkets like Kroger and Publix:
Getting better all of the time. Even if they don’t have what you’re looking for, they often will get it if you speak with a manager. They are getting more healthy options of foods, and that often means gluten free options and dairy alternatives. As I mentioned above, good allergy free options for a variety of foods are both in frozen foods and pantry aisles. Because they cater to the demands and demographics of their area, speak to the managers if they don’t have what you want, they’ll usually do their best to stock it.

Specialty Markets like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods:
Probably your best option with a good variety of wheat and dairy alternatives, as well as products made in allergy safe facilities. You can find things like rice pasta and soy milks and yogurts.

Health Food Stores and Online Markets:
Good options for things like wheat free breads and alternate flours as well as dairy free. Be careful though, in the health food stores as nuts are often a prominent products and are often sold in bulk. Online is a great choice if you can’t find it in your area. Many of these places only make allergy safe food so there is not worry of contamination.

One great online grocer is Miss Roben’s, specializing in food allergies. It was founded in 1992, selling just a few products, mostly wheat and gluten free. As the company grew, and the needs of consumers were taken into account, changes were made. At Miss Roben’s, ALL major food allergens, including gluten, were removed from the plant and each piece of equipment is thoroughly cleaned after each use. All outside items (which may contain some allergens, but always clearly listed) are thoroughly inspected before sale, including label checks (as these can change) and even the packaging material so it, too, is allergy safe.

Another need this company saw in the market place was for those with multiple allergies. It’s easy enough to find nut free or milk free or wheat free items, but what if you are allergic to more than one of the major allergens, or to many others, like rice and corn, that at Miss Roben’s are taken into account. Here, it’s easy to find products that fit your needs.

I think allergy shopping in general is getting easier, though it is still a chore. Remember, it never hurts to ask if you’re looking for something in particular, and always read your ingredients, products are always changing.

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