Last Updated Feb 8, 2011 5:11 PM EST
This article is part of a package on shopping at Trader Joe's. Read the other article, on 6 things to buy at Trader Joe's.
In addition to cheap prices and friendly staff, one of the strengths of Trader Joe’s is its carefully curated shelves. No, it doesn’t have nearly the selection of a supermarket, but the items it does stock are so well-chosen you feel as if you are in a food boutique — a boutique where everything is on sale. The items are collected by Trader Joe’s buyers, who travel the globe in search of well-priced, often organic, goodies. And when it comes to packaged goods, the quality is remarkably consistent. But not everything on the well-stocked shelves is worth taking home. Below are four items to cross off your Trader Joe’s shopping list.
Trader Joe’s takes a lot of hits from environmentalists for its over-use of plastic wrap on produce, but the freshness factor is a problem as well. “Sell by” dates, observe some sadder-but-wiser shoppers, can be overly optimistic. On one recent afternoon in a West Los Angeles store, the apples were soft and picked over, one lonely eggplant sat in a bin, and a pair of peppers were so over-wrapped in plastic and a clamshell case that they were barely visible. To its credit, Trader Joe’s doesn’t use rinses and sprays to keep its organic produce fresh, possibly accounting for the faster spoilage. What to do? Use any produce you buy the same day — or simply go elsewhere. Glaring exception: bananas, which are usually fantastic and super cheap at 19 cents apiece.
2. Premade Wraps and Sandwiches
For a store that tries to convey a “good-for-you” vibe, the premade wraps and sandwiches are not such a healthy choice — nor a very tasty one. A recent turkey BLT wrap at a Trader Joe’s in Los Angeles was mostly “L,” containing one slice of stringy processed turkey, the edge of which twanged in your teeth like a rubber band. And a Trader Joe’s turkey pesto sandwich contains almost a Big Mac’s worth of calories plus 1,900 mg of salt, nearly meeting the recommended USDA daily sodium intake limit in a single sandwich. Better to stick to the store’s lunch meats and make the sandwiches yourself.
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Take a look at the list of ingredients on the back of the Trader Joe’s 16-piece “Sushi Sensations” package and wait for your appetite to fade: “imitation crab, fish protein from Pollack, cod and whitefish, potato starch, etc.” True, all this can be yours for $5.99, but why would you want it? Online complaints about slimy rice, “krab,” and mystery fillings indicate that even folks who love Trader Joe’s swim clear of its sushi.
4. Two-Buck Chuck
Trader Joe’s Charles Shaw wines are better known as “Two Buck Chuck” for their $1.99 and $2.99 price tags. Though some people seem perfectly content with these bargain wines, most wine lovers would rather drink the beer. Keith Wallace, executive director of The Wine School of Philadelphia, puts it bluntly: “A lot of people are saying that this stuff is as good as anything else. It’s not. It’s just crap.” Michael Steinberger, wine columnist for Slate, managed to dub the varieties of Two Buck Chunk “plonk,” “swill,” and “undrinkable” in a single column. What its drinkers may not know, says Wallace, is that there is no actual Charles Shaw winery and that the Two Buck Chuck production process more closely resembles that of soda than wine. “This wine is made in a factory, with a lot of synthetic and concentrated products, like grape musk, added to manipulate the flavors from bad grapes,” he says. Yes, it is $2 a bottle, but you get what you pay for.
Though some people seem perfectly content with these bargain wines — see our taste test in the video above — most wine lovers would rather drink the beer.