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San Diego's health food stores

P.B. Natural Foods, Tommy's, New Seed, Windmill, Plantation Traders, Green Grocer, Grossmont Nutrition, Health Tree

Ten years ago there were basically two kinds of health food stores—one sold food and the other sold pills (food supplements). As the health food movement expanded, and with it the number of stores, these extremes softened. Today, in addition to food and supplements, most stores carry toiletries, books, herbs, teas, and machines (peanut butter grinders, sprouters, juicers, etc.). The major distinction now seems to be whether the store has primarily bulk foods, or whether it deals mostly in jars, boxes, and plastic packages.

Carrot

Carrot

With so many stores in the San Diego area to choose from, what besides proximity should attract one as a customer? Two factors bear consideration:

Breadth of Selection: The number of health food products has expanded to the point where small stores simply can't fit everything in, or for philosophical reasons don’t want to. Because cooler and freezer space is expensive, the products most likely to be missing or severely limited are produce and dairy. Some stores carry meat—presumably range-fed and hormone-free—but some don’t or won’t. Vegetarian “meats” (soy-based meals called textured vegetable protein) are widely available, but some stores won't sell them because they contain; artificial flavoring.

Price: It is not always the case that smaller : stores have higher prices, but those which emphasize bulk foods are generally cheaper. Spices, herbs, and teas sold in bulk are always much cheaper—you pay dearly for the bottle or box. Some stores are consistently better for certain items, so if possible, stock up. But remember that these foods are perishable (no preservatives), and ten pounds of rice is only a bargain if you don't throw three of them away because the grains have gone bad.

There were too many items for a complete comparison, so I chose a few which most stores stock and which are more subject to variation than brown rice or whole-wheat flour. When noteworthy. I included the prices of Alta-Dena raw butter, raw milk, Hain All-Blend Oil, wheat bran, and Deaf Smith peanut butter. Let your good health, and your pocket book, be your guide.

Ten years ago there were basically two kinds of health food stores—one sold food and the other sold pills (food supplements). As the health food movement expanded, and with it the number of stores, these extremes softened. Today, in addition to food and supplements, most stores carry toiletries, books, herbs, teas, and machines (peanut butter grinders, sprouters, juicers, etc.). The major distinction now seems to be whether the store has primarily bulk foods, or whether it deals mostly in jars, boxes, and plastic packages.

With so many stores in the San Diego area to choose from, what besides proximity should attract one as a customer? Two factors bear consideration:

Breadth of Selection: The number of health food products has expanded to the point where small stores simply can't fit everything in, or for philosophical reasons don’t want to. Because cooler and freezer space is expensive, the products most likely to be missing or severely limited are produce and dairy. Some stores carry meat—presumably range-fed and hormone-free—but some don’t or won’t. Vegetarian “meats” (soy-based meals called textured vegetable protein) are widely available, but some stores won't sell them because they contain; artificial flavoring.

Price: It is not always the case that smaller : stores have higher prices, but those which emphasize bulk foods are generally cheaper. Spices, herbs, and teas sold in bulk are always much cheaper—you pay dearly for the bottle or box. Some stores are consistently better for certain items, so if possible, stock up. But remember that these foods are perishable (no preservatives), and ten pounds of rice is only a bargain if you don't throw three of them away because the grains have gone bad.

There were too many items for a complete comparison, so I chose a few which most stores stock and which are more subject to variation than brown rice or whole-wheat flour. When noteworthy. I included the prices of Alta-Dena raw butter, raw milk, Hain All-Blend Oil, wheat bran, and Deaf Smith peanut butter. Let your good health, and your pocket book, be your guide.

Pacific Beach Natural Foods

4658 Mission Boulevard

Pacific Beach

There's an art to following an exclusionary food philosophy without sounding holier than thou. The store bills itself as the purest in town (“I won't sell anything I wouldn't eat”), yet manages not to alienate its less evolved customers. For a variety of health/spiritual / moral reasons, they do not stock any eggs, meat additives, and practically no sugar. Notable exceptions are carob-coated fruits and nuts which replace the usual assortment of health candies found everywhere else.

Someone who loved and understood wood designed their latticed facade, their countertops, and their intriguing double-decker bulk bins. Their produce display inspired confidence a sign over the cooler explains that, where possible, they have interviewed their suppliers and know the foods arc organically grown. They manage to get most of the basics in a limited space-bulk grains, nuts, seeds, and honey, ice-cream, rennetless cheeses, a few brand-name pre-packs, and a small line of vegetarian supplements.

They also have freshly squeezed fruit and vegetable juices which can be guzzled on the premises or, if you bring a container, taken home. “If you have it, we'll juice it.”

Prices: Butter slightly high at $1.79/lb, but noodles uniformly low at 59¢/lb for most varieties.

Tommy's Natural Foods

6866 El Cajon Boulevard

San Diego

Despite its diminutive size—no bigger than most living rooms—they have managed to squeeze in most of the important things. There is a dairy case; a freezer with both real and imitation meat; bulk honey; bulk Bronner’s; and over 150 bulk herbs, teas, and spices. To get around their size limitation and still give bulk foods, they pack grains, seeds, nuts, and fruits in their own bags which are kept on meticulously ordered shelves. Although this usually adds a few cents per item, their bran price is among the lowest in town and their dairy prices are lower than some stores several times their size. Though they don’t ordinarily stock produce, they will carry organic carrots, apples, and oranges when available. Call ahead to have your freshly-ground flour waiting for you.

Prices: At 23¢/lb, bran was lower than most. $2.37 for Hain All-Blend was much lower than most stores its size. Deaf Smith peanut butter low at $2.09 28 oz.

Hillcrest Food Pantry

405 Washington

Hillcrest

I was surprised to discover any bulk foods here, since my first impression was of boxes and cans. But some of the basics are available in cleverly designed bins, though almost all the same foods are stocked in prepacks as well. Their specialty seems to be low-sodium and sugar-free foods they have fruits, vegetables, soups, condiments, and meats. They also carry a house-brand line of supplements, dairy, and some vegetarian products.

Prices: On the high side by a few cents overall.

New Seed

946 Garnet Avenue

Pacific Beach

Numbers aren't every thing, but with over 200 barrels and bins, the New Seed has the best bulk food selection in town. Aside from the grains, nuts, fruits, and beans found in most bulk stores, they specialize in seeds for sprouting (13 kinds), textured vegetable protein (five flavors and a variety of textures like minced, ground, or chunk), and the biggest selection of unusual pasta I’ve seen— artichoke, buckwheat, corn, rice, spinach, sesame, soy, vegetable, and whole-wheat noodles in 30 combinations and shapes. Although they don’t have the usual “health candies,” they offer bulk carob-coated fruits and nuts, and irresistible sesame-onion-cheese and other flavored crisps. There are no barrels of flour (except unbleached white and gluten) because they grind all their flours to order. They’ll mill anything within reason, so you can explore your penchant for the exotic. If you call ahead, it will be waiting for you. One of their specialties is a line of bulk dehydrated items for camping— soups, vegetables, gravies, and more.

Be forewarned: they are uniquely a food store—they have no dairy, meat (vegetarian or otherwise), toiletries, or even supplements.

Price: Best buy in town—a gallon of real maple syrup for $17.75. Bulk herb and tea prices generally good to excellent.

The Grainery

4021 Goldfinch

Mission Hills

When the Grainery was starting out, the people at the New Seed helped them find distributors, so they carry a similar selection of bulk foods. The store is deceptive at first—the walls on each side are lined with floor-to-ceiling shelves which have mostly jars, bottles, and boxes. But it’s very deep and the middle section has bulk foods, stretching all the way to the dairy case at the back. Almost hidden near the storage area is a good collection of both common and exotic herbs, teas, and spices. They have tamari (soy sauce) and honey in bulk, but their oils and nut butters are in jars. There are “all natural” supplements, and at the checkout-counter, a display of Sunburst organic baked goods. I find it hard to accept the red and green glaceed cherries—refugees from Christmas fruitcakes—in a store which is otherwise of such high quality.

Prices: Dairy moderately high—butter $1.99/lb, cottage cheese 99¢/pt. Bean prices good.

Windansea Natural Grocery

6903 La Jolla Boulevard

La Jolla

The Windansea manages to stock all the important natural food items and yet not slide over that precarious edge, into supermarket consciousness. Though they do have books, toiletries, and supplements, the emphasis is clearly on good food. They have one of the most complete dairy sections — milk, butter, yogurt (several brands), kefir, both rennetless and renneted cheeses, ice cream and cottage cheese. They also have real (no vegetable gum added) cream cheese which feels like white velvet in your mouth. The produce section is immaculately maintained and their selection is better than most—they had luscious ripe-picked strawberries long after everyone else was out of them.

In a corner of the store, where you could miss them if you don't look carefully, are bulk herbs, spices, and teas—though there are a few boxes of tea blends. They are flanked by the toiletries (some in bulk) and the supplements (a reasonable selection). They have oils, soy sauce, and peanut butter in jars and in bulk. They even have a fresh cashew butter grinder. Textured vegetable protein products, though, are not stocked.

Prices: Erewhon whole wheat organic bulk flour good at 29¢/lb. Dairy very low at $1.59/lb for raw butter, and 85¢/half gallon for milk.

House of Natural Foods

Safeway Center

7523 Fay A venue

La Jolla

It makes me feel decidedly uncomfortable to walk into a health food store that looks so much like a supermarket. On the other hand, if variety is what you want, this is where you'll find it. They have everything from vegetarian meats to the real slice of cow. There’s also an enormous selection of Haagen-Dasz ice cream, and not just the honey varieties (for those of us who like to sin now and then). Although the Frazier Farms pre-packs are their own house-brand, I didn’t notice an accompanying savings on most items. An exception is the brown rice at several cents less per pound than the Erewhon in bulk. But there are no bulk spices or teas—just the expensive Seelect jars and boxes. They even have Campbell’s soups—though it was low-sodium single serving cans. If they have a philosophy, they seem willing to subjugate it to market realities and offer anything that could conceivably be considered “health food.” Kosher imitation-flavored gelatin?

Prices: Wheat berries no bargain at 32¢/lb. Raw butter moderate at $1.67/lb. Organic Erewhon rice in bulk is 69¢/lb, but house-brand Frazier Farms pre-pack only 55¢/lb.

House of Natural Foods

705 Felspar

Pacific Beach

The manager describes it as “a natural food grocery—if people want it, I stock it.”

But sunglasses? Fabric dye? It’s very crowded and they are hoping to expand soon. As it is, people who pass one another in the aisles get very friendly. They have everything, twice-over. Their longest wall is stocked, floor to ceiling, with food supplements. Though there are a few barrels of bulk foods in back, most of their fruits, nuts and seeds are in house-brand pre-packs. They have a good produce section and a fully stocked freezer with ice cream, meat, vegetarian products, and dairy.

Prices: Cashew pieces low at $1.09, but All-Blend was $2.49/qt.

Organic Grocery

4711 Monroe

Kensington

They have recently moved to this location and the store is spacious and uncluttered. It is very much a grocery with a lot of cans, jars, and boxes—though they are displayed on attractive and unusual polygonal wooden shelves. I couldn't help feeling that they have the space to do more—bulk herbs and teas, for example, instead of the expensive jars and boxes. Yet they clearly have a pro-food philosophy which limits their supplement selection to “all-natural” brands where possible. They have both cooler and freezer space with dairy, meat, vegetarian meat, and produce.

Prices: Deaf Smith peanut butter very low at $2.09/28 oz, but bran high at 35¢/lb.

Stay- Well Health Foods

644 7th Avenue

Downtown

If you don’t know it’s there, you'll never find it—it looks just like the warehouse next door, and in a sense, that’s what Stay-Well is: a natural foods warehouse. Decor is minimal—everything is in cut-down card board boxes on tables. There is a limited; produce section, and though it was 65 cents, the celery was the most beautiful I've seen outside a garden—the stems were easily twice as long as most commercial celery, and it must have weighed three pounds.

There are no bulk herbs, spices, or teas (except, for some unaccountable reason, large sacks of desiccated peppermint). Technically, there's no bulk at all—everything is in its own one. two, and five-pound pre-packs, but at considerable savings in most cases. In a window-less freezer, so you could miss it if you tried, are lots of organic chickens nestled next to Alta-Dena deluxe ice cream. There are no books or toiletries. Plus brand supplements are carried almost exclusively, probably at a discount.

I have to say “probably” because the irascible old gentleman who owns the store does not like to be interrupted when he's adding. Since there's always a long line waiting to be checked out, and he does all of it by hand, he's always adding.

If you don’t mind the limited selection in some things, and being glared at now and then (my four-year-old was sternly admonished not to eat the fig bar on the premises), the potential savings may justify the wait.

Prices: Many startlingly low. All-Blend at $2/qt, butter $1.50/lb. Lecithin granules very low at $3/lb.

The Nutrition Shoppe

Ocean Beach Health Foods

4935 Newport

Ocean Beach

The decor is definitely early funky—it is overdue for the remodeling they are now undertaking. Perhaps because the clientele isn't much on cooking, there’s a lot of emphasis on ready-to-eat (fruits and nuts) and just-heat-and-eat (noodles), though there are a few bulk barrels in back.

Vic Gerardi, the owner manager, has studied nutrition for years and has his Master's degree (he’s working on his PhD). He is an unlikely candidate for nutritional guru, yet he does nutrition counseling for athletes from high-protein gobbling bodybuilders, to 70-year-old vegetarian marathon walkers.

The store is well worth visiting, if only to talk with Vic, who (as opposed to most nutritionists) fits the diet to the person and not vice versa.

Prices: limited selection of comparison goods, but milk at 95¢/half gallon and bran at 29¢/lb are moderate.

Windmill

6091 University Avenue

East San Diego

Perhaps because it started as a produce (and antique) store which somehow found itself in the health food business, the Windmill is often inconsistent. Though there are attractive wooden fixtures (the outside is paneled in planks), there is also the constant low hum of insipid Muzak. Right above the dried fruit display is a pile of absurdly un-“healthy” candies—in vivid artificial flavors and colors.

Their produce display is dazzling—they have everything the supermarket has, and more (peaches in January—but at an astonishing $1.59/lb). Their produce prices are generally good to very good -head lettuce was excellent at 19¢.

The cheese counter is another asset with both domestic and imported offerings. They also carry a line of low-sodium and low-fat cheeses for people on restricted diets.

While the “how-to-use” labels on some of the bulk food bins are a nice touch—not everyone knows brown rice takes twice as long to cook—some are misleading. The soy flour bin suggests use in cakes and cookies, without specifying in what proportion. The person who uses all soy flour will never be back for seconds.

Their health food section will undergo a much-needed reorganization in the near future—it will be interesting to see what direction it takes.

Prices: erratic. Hain All-Blend at $2.15/qt. whole wheat flour at 21¢/lb, and milk at 79¢/half gallon are all low; yet most noodles are relatively high at 91¢/lb, and Deaf Smith peanut butter is very high at $2.35 28 oz.

Plantation Traders

6371 El Cajon Boulevard East

San Diego

A confusing store. They have a good spoken philosophy: “We carry what we have a demand for, but we’re not trying to be a shelf-item store or a pill factory.” Maybe because their stock was low I wasn't sure how they differed from most small health food stores—a lot of jars and boxes, a few bulk foods.

Their best feature is that they are organic produce wholesalers and can provide ungassed bananas and other exotic and mundane fruits and vegetables. They will gladly deal with buying clubs and co-ops.

Prices: Few comparison foods available. You pay for the pre-packs. Dairy prices a few cents higher than average.

Green Grocer

3837 Mission Boulevard

Mission Beach

The new- manager owner took over barely a month ago (“when you couldn't even get a meal out of the store”) and is trying to change the store's direction. He has some intriguing notions, considering that he’s in the health food business. “Your focus about health is more important than what you eat. Some healthy people don’t eat good food and some people who eat good foods get sick. They don’t have the right state of mind.” If his plans materialize, the store will have only all-natural and homeopathic supplements, as well as sandwiches to go.

There is a limited but adequate selection of beans, seeds, and grains—some in bulk and some in pre-packs. Until the old stock is used up. you'll even be able to find some “convenience store” items: paper products, canned tomatoes, and relish.

Prices: Reasonably priced produce (not organic).

Ocean Beach People's Food

4765 Voltaire

Ocean Beach

Not only is the concept of a communally-run “people’s food” store appealing, but it has concrete advantages for the consumer— their bulk food prices are some of the lowest in town.

There is a big produce selection—all the typical fruits are imported from Mexico and are, to the best of their knowledge, unsprayed and un-gassed (not artificially ripened).

They choose not to stock meat or foods made with white flour and or white sugar, but they do have (mostly rennetless) cheeses, and both fertile and unfertile eggs—though a sign explains the difference. They even have a sign on bottled items (carried for some customers' convenience) explaining that the same stuff is carried in bulk at substantial savings.

Their spices are unfortunately in pre-packaged plastic bags. While the prices are still comparable to bulk, the freshness is questionable—but they are going to switch to bulk soon, anyway.

The grains, flours, and beans are all in bins—the noodles are hidden under the bins and I almost missed them. They package their own fruits and nuts to discourage expensive nibbling and therefore keep the price down.

Prices: Low. Bran at 19¢/lb. Organic whole wheat flour(pre-milled)is 23¢/lb, and wheat berries 17¢/lb. Deaf Smith peanut butter incredibly low at $1.67/28 oz.

Loma Portal Natural Foods

2180 Chatsworth

Loma Portal

By stocking only a few of each item on the shelves, Loma Portal manages to offer a broad selection without looking crowded. Instead of being concentrated in one area, the bulk bins are distributed all around the store—I was surprised to discover 75 bulk offerings in addition to a large selection of pre-packaged foods. They have a wide variety of vegetarian meat products, though the manager said, “Loma Linda brand is poor quality and full of additives—I stock it because it's a staple among Seventh Day Adventists.” The prices are generally a few cents higher on several food items, but they carry a house-brand food supplement line which is considerably less expensive than their name-brand selection. Tucked away where you might not notice them are the following bulk items: honey, vinegar, maple syrup, soy sauce. Dr. Bronner’s soap, oil, and an understandably limited selection of spices, herbs, and teas. I had never before seen “honey flakes,” which may prove a boon to bakers who have been frustrated by liquid honey’s inability to cream properly with sugar—brown, of course.

Prices: Whole wheat flour (organic) moderately high at 36¢/lb. Bran was high at 29¢/lb, and Hain All-Blend no bargain at $2.49/qt.

Grossmont Nutrition

5500 Grossmont Center Drive

La Mesa

If you stand in the middle of the store, looking toward the front, you'd have to check carefully to discover you’re not in a drugstore. There is a whole wall of supplements, a large display of lotions, soaps and cosmetics, a candy counter, and here and there, some food. Along with a large selection of low-sodium and sugar-free foods in cans and jars, there are also candied, colored fruits (red and green cherries); citron mixes, etc. There are even food flavoring extracts, at least half of which were prominently labeled “artificially flavored”—the justification for those being in a health food store escapes me.

They have the biggest selection of food machines I've seen. In addition to the grinders, yogurt and sprout makers, they had dehydrators and water purifiers. In a small room in the rear are the grains, flours, and seeds—mostly pre-packaged. They have a full line of dairy foods, meats, and vegetarian products, and will order organic turkeys for you on request.

Prices: Raw butter moderately high at $1.75/lb. Also cottage cheese at 95¢/pt. Hain All-Blend moderately low at $2.37/qt, but currants very high at $1.75/lb. Lecithin granules an extraordinarily high $4.99/lb.

After visiting nearly every health food store in town, the ones which all looked alike tended to blur together. The following stores did not have anything particularly noticeable—which doesn't mean that they’re not adequate for casual shopping. Only things which stood out are recorded.

North Park Healthfoods

3934 30th Street

North Park

A juice-and-snack bar. Lecithin very cheap at $2.75/lb. The wheat germ is not— refrigerated. Bulk, sunflower seed an astonishly high $l.29/lb. Most of their Christmas fruit trays are topped with a giant red cherry.

Vitality Health Foods

3821 Ray

North Park

They keep all their fruits, nuts, and grains in the freezer, but rice was 82¢/lb for their own pre-pack. Bran is an all-time high at 40¢/lb.

The Nutrition Center

158 E Main

El Cajon

A little bit of the usual everything the first time I'd seen vegetarian “fish.” A good selection of dried fruits and nuts in their own pre-pack.

Health Tree

Nearly everywhere

The chief virtue of this chain is its omnipresence. If you run out of something, and are willing to pay the premium for the package, they may have it.

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