The latest episode of Inside Trader Joe's revealed a few ingredients TJ's steers clear of. Read on to learn more about these ingredients, plus EatingWell's take on if you really need to avoid them.
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Trader Joe's storefront with a designed treatment
Credit: Adobe Stock / jetcityimage

Trader Joe's is a favorite grocery shopping destination for many reasons: the festive seasonal products, an impressive flower selection (with even more impressive prices), and the best deals on organic foods around. Plus, you just can't beat the uplifting and cheerful atmosphere. And after listening to the latest episode of the Inside Trader Joe's podcast, some loyal shoppers may appreciate the brand even more.

Episode 47, which was released on Monday, gave an inside look at the whimsical label and packaging designs of Trader Joe's private labels products, while revealing a few key details about what goes—or rather what doesn't go—into them. Alicia, a nutrition specialist for Trader Joe's, is tasked with ensuring each product meets the company's brand promises and many of those promises include leaving out certain ingredients. She shared several things on the podcast that you'll never find in the brand's in-house offerings that may offer peace of mind while navigating the beloved grocery store. We also took a look at Trader Joe's Product FAQs to find a few other private label no-nos of interest.

We should note that while Trader Joe's chooses to keep these ingredients out of their products, they're all technically safe for use—otherwise the Food and Drug Administration and other regulatory agencies wouldn't allow them in the food chain. And not everyone has the money or resources to shop as selectively as others, so being able to purchase specialty food items is a privilege. Plus, eliminating some of these ingredients doesn't automatically make them healthy, so be sure to still scan the nutrition label for things like excess added sugar and sodium.

1. Artificial Flavors

All of Trader Joe's branded products are free of artificial flavors. The company only uses "natural flavors" as defined by the FDA when formulating their products. Alicia, the nutrition specialist at Trader Joe's, noted you'll never find a key lime pie or any other product in the store for that matter made with any kind of synthetic chemical flavorings, which help their products taste their best.

Artificial flavors are used to mimic the flavors of real foods (think: cherry-flavored candy that has no trace of real cherry) to lower the cost of production and usually at the expense of taste. According to the FDA's strict safety protocols, the food additives currently used in the marketplace are safe for use. Same goes for "natural flavorings". However, some consumers prefer to stick to the real thing. And with 90% of grocery store food products containing some kind of added flavorings, Trader Joe's offerings makes a huge impact. We can really taste the difference in products like Trader Joe's flavored sparkling water, fruit-flavored yogurts, flavored coffee, among others.

2. Artificial Preservatives

Another artificial ingredient that TJ's avoids, artificial preservatives are used to prevent food spoilage and maintain nutritional value, appearance and/or flavor for a prolonged period. This is especially the case for frozen foods and meals, which Trader Joe's is famous for. However, there are plenty of natural alternatives out there and the brand says it chooses to use substances like sugar, salt, vinegar, celery juice and rosemary extract. While safe for use in the U.S., some of artificial preservatives have been banned in other countries, which leads consumers to search for products free of them.

The brand does note in its FAQs that it has two "almost exceptions:" sulfur dioxide and potassium sorbate, both of which are used for dried fruit preservation. TJ's clearly calls out both ingredients on the label and also offers dried fruit products that don't contain either ingredient if a consumer has concerns.

3. Genetically Modified Ingredients (GMOs)

Trader Joe's doesn't use any GMOs in its private label products, but you won't find any "non-GMO" or "GMO-free" labels. The suggested reason they leave it off the label is because federal guidelines for labeling around GMOs can be confusing to consumers, and the brand made the decision more than 20 years ago to make avoiding genetically engineered ingredients a brand standard. This means, that when customers see something labeled as a Trader Joe's private label product, they know that it does not contain genetically engineered ingredients.

The National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and dozens of other internationally respected groups all agree that the GMOs currently on the market are as safe and healthful as their conventional counterparts. So, it's not necessary to avoid GMO ingredients, unless it's your preference and you have the resources available to afford and access alternatives.

In 2001, Trader Joe's determined that its customers would prefer to consume foods and beverages that were free of genetically engineered ingredients when given the choice. The brand ensures its suppliers perform the necessary research to document that any suspect ingredients are indeed made without GMOs. The company also uses third-party lab testing to randomly audit potentially suspect ingredients. Note: this is only true for its branded products, not for the other brands Trader Joe's carries.

The one possible exception here is animal products. Trader Joe's states that it is unable to confirm that all of the in-house branded meat, dairy, and some farmed fish are strictly raised on non-GMO feed. The company encourages customers who are concerned about GMOs to seek out organic meat and dairy as well as wild-caught seafood, which, regardless of brand, are non-GMO. And thankfully at Trader Joe's, you can find these items at lower cost than at many other food retailers.

4. Bleaching Agents

Bleached flour is a common grocery store ingredient you'll never find in the baking aisle—or anywhere else in a Trader Joe's store. This was another mention of Alicia's in the podcast episode that we found interesting. Two common bleaching agents for baked goods: azodicarbonamide and potassium bromate are banned in many other countries but not in the U.S. for a number of potential adverse health effects. Trader Joe's always uses unbleached flour in its products and only sells unbleached varieties, so consumers can purchase their preferred flours.

5. rBST (also known as rBGH)

Alicia, the nutrition specialist, explained in the podcast episode that rBST stands for recombinant bovine somatotropin hormone. Trader Joe's dairy products do not contain this hormone—or any other added hormones. The FDA maintains that treating cows with rBST does not harm the animals—or significantly affect the hormone content of milk, which is a concern among some consumers.

However, many growth hormones are substances that are banned from food in other countries, like Canada, and in the E.U., but not in the States. Thankfully, if this ingredient concerns you, there are plenty of rBST-free diary products to choose from.

6. Artificial Colors

One of the major components of Trader Joe's brand promises is that TJ's refuses to use any type of artificial coloring in its branded products. The company only uses colors "derived from naturally available products" like beets, turmeric and paprika, as well as minerals like titanium dioxide. Artificial colors are typically thought of as something to be found in "junk food" like candy and soda, but not in others. In fact, artificial colors are abundant throughout the grocery store from pickles and ice cream to coffee beans and condiments.

The use of artificial colors in foods, like other substances, is controversial. The FDA deems food dyes safe for use when used in accordance with FDA. However, research has linked some commonly used food colorings to behavioral issues in children like hyperactivity. Another concern is that artificial colors may cause cancer. Colorings like Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 may contain cancer-causing substances, like benzidene. But because the amount of those substances in the dyes are low, the FDA still allows them to be used as (aside from Red 3), research has not shown conclusive evidence that artificial colors cause cancer. Ultimately, more research on humans (versus animal-based studies) is needed to truly determine the effects.

We certainly understand that these claims are concerning! Which is why consumers may feel better turning to Trader Joe's products.

The Bottom Line

Nutrition labels and ingredients lists can be pretty confusing as it is, and with plenty of research that opposes what U.S. federal regulatory agencies have deemed as safe for consumption, grocery shopping can feel completely overwhelming—especially for parents. While we don't advocate for omitting certain foods from our diets completely, we appreciate that Trader Joe's works hard to offer products made without chemical additives when possible—and still at affordable prices.

However, depending on your dietary needs, it is still important to take a look at the labels of the food and beverages you're purchasing at Trader Joe's to ensure you're getting enough of the actual nutrients you need as well. Just because a bag of candy is made without artificial colors doesn't make it a healthy snack!