It’s all about moderation.
When you adopt a balanced way of eating, no food is really off limits. There’s a little thing called “moderation,” which means you can eat all your veggies and save room for your favorite indulgences every now and then. Trader Joe’s is a great place to stock up on staples like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, lean proteins, and healthy fats. With low prices and attractive packaging, it’s also easy to grab certain items that may not be nutritionally sound.
As abundant as Trader Joe’s nutritious options may be, the quaint supermarket is also home to battered frozen dinners, delectable desserts, and comfort foods with nutritional profiles that experts don’t exactly love. We asked nutritionists and dietitians what products they generally avoid on their routine shopping trips to Trader Joe’s, and these are the items they don’t consider weekly staples.
Mandarin Orange Chicken
A fan favorite for its tangy, takeout-like flavor, this frozen entree isn’t your best bet if you’d like to watch your sodium intake. “With 330 milligrams (mg) of sodium per serving, it contains a massive amount of sodium,” says Yelena Wheeler, RDN, a dietitian in Los Angeles. “It also contains 95 mg of cholesterol, which is fairly high for just one cup.”
For reference, the FDA recommends capping your sodium intake at 2,300 mg per day while the American Heart Association has even stricter guidelines at less than 1,500 mg daily.
Now, everyone’s favorite chicken dinner at Trader Joe’s has got some good things going for it, too. Wheeler points out that it’s a good source of protein, with 21 grams (g) per serving.
Gluten Free Cinnamon Coffee Cake Muffins
It’s interesting how popular breakfast foods like pancakes, donuts, muffins, and cereal are kind of like dessert in disguise. While they may be a delicious way to start your day, the nutrition experts we spoke to have other plans for your breakfast.
“These gluten-free muffins are marketed as a morning product, but the last thing we want to do is give ourselves a massive blood sugar spike first thing in the morning,” says Gabbi Tuft, CPT, LSN, a certified personal trainer and nutritionist in Leander, Texas. “Each muffin contains 31 g of sugar, which could lead to an energy crash shortly after you get to work.”
Instead, Tuft recommends starting your day with a meal high in protein and complex carbohydrates.
Shrimp Boom Bah
Frozen foods create a convenient shortcut to getting dinner on the table with the least amount of time and effort, but some are more nutritious than others. When it comes to choosing an entree, registered dietitian Christa Brown, RDN, LD wouldn’t reach for these shrimp.
“I’m not too thrilled about this battered shrimp because a serving only provides 11 g of protein while packing 5 g of saturated fat,” she explains. “Though it’s not as effortless, if I air fry my own shrimp, a 3-ounce serving will up the protein by 6 g, while cutting the saturated fat to less than 1 gram.”
Still, Trader Joe’s is Brown’s favorite grocery store. She says to look for TJ’s products that are high in protein and fiber, while keeping saturated fat and sodium to less than 20 percent of the daily value.
White Sliced Bread
In many households, white bread is a staple. It’s cheap, versatile, and satisfying, but of all the bread choices at Trader Joe’s, it’s not a dietitian’s favorite.
“This bread falls flat due to the lack of fiber,” says Cara Harbstreet, RD, LD, a Kansas City-based dietitian. “It contains less than 1 g of fiber per slice, and it’s not a good source of micronutrients.” A more nutrient-rich choice would be one higher in fiber, micronutrients, and protein, she notes.
Speculoos Cookie Butter
Creamy, crunchy, and comforting, this cookie butter is one of Trader Joe’s most iconic products. You simply can’t get it anywhere else, but Wheeler recommends reserving it for special occasions since it’s “loaded with sugar and fat.”
Some products aren’t designed to be nutritional powerhouses and this is one of them. “This item contains 11 g of fat and 11 g of sugar in just two tablespoons,” Wheeler explains. “Since it’s virtually void of fiber and protein, it could spike your blood sugar.”
General Tsao Stir Fry Sauce
Are there any condiments nutritionists would avoid at Trader Joe’s? Glad you asked! Tuft would steer clear of this General Tsao Stir Fry Sauce, not because it isn’t tasty, but because the nutrition facts simply aren’t that impressive.
“The first ingredient in this product is sugar, and the second is a source of sodium,” Tuft explains, noting that the amount of sugar in this sauce is actually more than your typical candy bar. Taking a look at the nutritional label, a serving contains more than half the recommended amount of sugar and a third of the amount of sodium to consume in a day.
It’s not that you should avoid sugar and sodium at all costs, but rather consume it mindfully. Tuft points to a 2017 study showcasing how higher amounts of sodium increase hunger, blood pressure, and water retention. And we’ve all been warned of the dangers of too much added sugar—obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart risk are some examples, per the CDC.
Organic 3-Cheese Pizza
Harbstreet advocates for processed or frozen foods because they’re so convenient and affordable, but she can’t recommend this frozen pizza for its high sodium content. “A serving provides 680 mg of sodium,” she notes. But she makes an important point. The recommended serving size is only one-third of the pizza, which may not satisfy everyone’s appetite. “If someone were to eat the whole pizza for dinner, it would account for 90 percent of their daily value for sodium,” Harbstreet explains. This one is best split with a friend, and if it doesn’t seem like an adequate portion, add a side to make it more substantial.
PB+C Snack Duo
Two of our nutrition experts named this kid-friendly snack, so keep this in mind if you pack these in your child’s lunch.
For starters, it’s high in sugar for a small snack. “We tend to put peanut butter in the healthy category, but we also have to remember that many peanut butters contain added sugars,” Tuft says. This one packs 22 grams of sugar, 18 of which are added sugars, which is more than one-third of the recommended amount for adults. For children, it’s likely even less.
It’s also a source of saturated fat and carbohydrates (mostly from the sugar). “This combination does a couple of things to the body,” explains Tuft. “It can increase LDL cholesterol, as well as ghrelin—the hunger hormone—leading to more hunger cravings.”
Wheeler also flagged this snack for being lower in fiber. Most Americans don’t get enough fiber, per the American Society for Nutrition, and while every bit adds up, we can do better than 3 g of fiber per serving.
Organic Coconut Milk
Coconut milk is a key ingredient in many Asian-style recipes, even when baking. It’s also a sweet, creamy alternative to cow’s milk for those who don’t tolerate it well or choose to forego it.
But this can of Organic Coconut Milk from Trader Joe’s doesn’t meet Brown’s criteria for keeping saturated fat below 20 percent of the daily value. “As an occasional creamy add-in to your rice and baked dishes, this is certainly a nice treat,” she says. “However, this isn’t a staple in my kitchen because it contains 50 percent of your daily value for saturated fat.” Brown points out that these nutrition facts are for a quarter-cup, which isn’t even a realistic serving size. “Most recipes usually require a full cup, significantly exceeding the recommendations for fat intake,” she adds.
Saturated fat is one of those nutrients to be mindful of. Yes, fat is necessary for the body, but too much of anything can be a bad thing. Too much saturated fat is linked to high cholesterol and risk factors for heart disease and stroke, according to the National Library of Medicine.
Gluten Free Double Chocolate Muffins
Trader Joe’s is a haven for those with food allergies or dietary restrictions. For those with aversions to gluten, you’ve got multiple gluten-free options in the baked goods section, which used to be unheard of.
Like regular muffins, gluten-free muffins are best reserved as a special treat. “There’s 47 g of carbs, 23 g of sugar, and only 4 g of protein in a single muffin,” notes Tuft, adding that foods high in refined sugars and carbs release hormones that feed food addictions and emotional eating patterns. Finding gluten-free foods can be exciting, but Tuft suggests that the label can be misleading since “gluten-free” doesn’t automatically make it healthy.
Broccoli & Cheddar Cheese Quiche
Eggs are one of the most popular breakfast foods in America. They’re quick to make, and they’re a good source of protein in the morning.
While you might think to grab this veggie-packed quiche for an easy breakfast, Brown says not so fast. “It does offer a whopping 16 g of protein per quiche, but it also contains 60 percent the recommended amount of saturated fat,” she explains. It’s also high in fat, sodium, and cholesterol, while being low in fiber.
Non-Dairy Almond Beverage (Original, Unsweetened)
Not everyone drinks dairy, so milk isn’t always an option. Fortunately, the non-dairy options are a-plenty at Trader Joe’s. When taking your pick, Harbstreet recommends thinking twice about replacing cow’s milk with an almond-based alternative. Sure, it has a pleasant taste, can be used in a ton of recipes, and comes in handy when you want something lower in calories, but it just doesn’t stack up to the nutritional profile of regular milk.
“This almond beverage is very low in protein, with only 1 g per cup,” Harbstreet says. “It’s also very low in calories, with only 30 calories per serving.” While that might be a green flag for some, Harbstreet recommends against valuing a food item based on how low-calorie it might be without looking at the full picture. According to USDA data, a glass of nonfat cow’s milk contains roughly 84 calories and just over 8 g of protein. Even though almond milk contains added vitamins, its other nutritional values pale in comparison to its dairy-based opponent.
She’s more inclined to recommend soy milk as the closest substitute to milk, nutritionally speaking. For those with allergies to soy, oat milk is a creamy swap, Harbstreet says.
Related: 15 Best Trader Joe’s Items Under $5
Joe's Joe-Joe's Granola Cookies & Creme
If you love Joe-Joe’s cookies, there’s a good chance you’ll love this granola, since it’s made with them. It’s also made with rolled oats, brown rice crisps, and coconut oil, so it’s got to be healthy, right?
“Although granola sounds healthy, it should be noted that this one in particular has 4 grams of saturated fat and 15 grams of added sugar per serving,” Wheeler explains. Plus, it’s not a rich source of fiber, so it’s not a food choice that will support heart health, she adds.
Wheeler leaves us with this uplifting message: “All foods can be eaten in moderation, and one can still achieve optimal health through a well-balanced diet."
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