Natural Selection

Natural Selection

An expert's guide to local organic markets

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Walk into your local supermarket and you may notice some foods labeled “organic” and even more labeled “natural.” Sometimes there’s an entire section devoted to them.

Credit an increasing number of shoppers who care enough about the quality of what they and their families eat to add these pricier food items to their grocery lists. Many people aren’t stopping at the local supermarket to do so, though; they’re driving farther to find the selection they want.

“Organics is not a neighborhood store concept,” says Scott Nash, owner of the 10 MOM’s Organic Markets in Maryland and Virginia. “People come to us from a 10-mile radius.”

Conventional markets are fighting back by adding similar products. But independent stores like MOM’s, Dawson’s Market, Roots and, to a lesser extent, the Bethesda Co-op and TPSS  (Takoma Park Silver Spring) Co-op continue to cut into their business.

These independents learned from the master, Whole Foods, which opened its first store in Austin, Texas, in 1980 and now has 355 stores. Because the independents are smaller, though, they have certain advantages: They can respond more quickly to patrons’ needs, whether it’s a desire for products that are vegan, gluten-free, humanely raised, local or fair trade. Service is often not only friendlier, it’s more personal. And, unlike supermarket chains or discount stores, they can offer beer and wine.

A 2012 survey by the Hartman Group, a market research firm in Bellevue, Wash., found that almost 25 percent of respondents describe themselves as core organic shoppers. Another 25 percent never use organics—with higher prices sometimes being the reason. But the remainder buy organics anywhere from often to occasionally.

“Organic, on many levels, is part of a much larger construct: a major shift in our food culture toward higher quality,” says Laurie Demeritt, CEO of the Hartman Group.

For many consumers, that means buying local ingredients, which are now outstripping organics in popularity, and buying less-expensive “natural foods.” The Food and Drug Administration, which regulates most food, has  no definition for “natural”—or “clean,” as some shoppers call it. But in September, Congress announced a series of proposed changes in how food regulated by the FDA is labeled, setting up strict standards for use of the word “natural.”

The Department of Agriculture, which regulates meat, poultry, and processed eggs, already defines natural as “minimally processed,” with no artificial colors, flavors and preservatives or other artificial ingredients.

Shoppers think “natural” additionally should mean: free of growth hormones, antibiotics, genetically modified ingredients, irradiation, high fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, hydrogenated oils, or trans fats.

For these  shoppers, “bigger is better” has been replaced by “small is beautiful.” They don’t trust big agriculture, given continuing recalls of food tainted with harmful bacteria.

They don’t trust big food manufacturers, given the extensive advertising to sell high-fat, high-sugar, high-salt items that are contributing to the obesity epidemic. And they’ve lost faith in governmental food safety agencies’ ability to monitor the food supply. They’d much rather deal with the farmer down the road, whom they know and trust.

Local and organic is the new mantra. Agribusiness has become a dirty word.

We visited five “natural food stores” in Montgomery County during the height of the growing season to see what they have to offer. We found everything from an impressive array of organic products to hemp-flavored gelato. Statistics were provided by the stores. Some products may not be available at this time.

MOM’s Organic Market (MOMs)

5566 Randolph Road, Rockville, 301-816-4944, www.MOMsorganicmarket.com

Founded in 1987, MOM’s now has 10 stores in Maryland and Virginia. These bare-bones markets keep prices down by locating in lower-rent areas. The chain claims to have a higher percentage of organic products than any other store in the area, though there are no available statistics to support that.

Produce: 100 percent organic; very fresh looking; 30 percent is locally grown in season.

Packaged items: 45 percent are organic.

Bulk items: One of the most extensive selections, including detergents, sweeteners and tea; 64 percent is organic.

Proteins: Organic chicken, beef, pork, lamb; fish is all frozen and sustainable, with certification from the Marine Stewardship Council.

Extras: Free cup of tea or coffee. Counter service at its Naked Lunch Kitchen, with limited seating and all organic and vegetarian dishes. (Among them: a soothing butter-bean kale soup.) Helpful staff. Most environmentally aware store, using only wind power, providing free plug-ins for electric cars and offering free recycling of electronics once a year.

Bottom line: MOM’s is the place to go if you’re looking for basic organic shopping in a store reminiscent of the early days of organic markets (though on a larger scale). The selection is large, the prices are among the most reasonable and the store helps its environmentally conscious customers be green. The food at the Naked Lunch Kitchen, unfortunately, is also vintage 1970s health food store. It wouldn’t cost any more to make it taste good, instead of earnest.

Dawson's Market in Rockville. Photo by Amanda SmallwoodDawson’s Market

225 N. Washington St., Rockville, 240- 428-1386, www.dawsonsmarket.com

Dawson’s opened in 2012 as an offshoot of Ellwood Thompson’s Local Market in Richmond, Va. The inviting exterior, with handsome green awnings, leads into a sophisticated and upscale interior, with warm lighting, wide aisles and attractively presented prepared foods. Signs say: “We listened and have reduced our prices.” Dawson’s claims to have more local products than any other store, with half of them organic.

Produce: Fresh and sparkling, except for some lemons that look old on this particular visit. Signs include information on sources. In season, 80 to 85 percent are organic; off-season, 90 percent are organic.

Packaged items: Extensive shelf signage throughout distinguishes items as local (within 100 miles), regional (250 miles), organic, vegan, fair trade or gluten-free. Everything else is natural.

Bulk items: Includes teas and spices, with 80 percent of them organic.

Proteins: Organic ground beef; organic ground chicken; remaining meat products contain no antibiotics, no growth hormones, and come from animals fed a vegetarian diet. Fresh fish meets Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Program standards for sustainability.

Extras: Good selection of artisanal cheeses, with about 25 percent of them local. Samples of everything in the store available upon request. Salad bar with good-looking organic ingredients (though toppings are not organic); prepared dishes made in house (some with local ingredients, some organic). Among them: nicely seasoned Thai chicken, meatballs, chicken salad, well-cooked zucchini and yellow squash, homey local potato salad, creamy tiramisu, stick-to-the-roof-of-your-mouth peanuty peanut butter cookies. Most sweets are made in house, along with 20 percent of the breads; the rest are mostly local.

From mid-June to mid-August, kids eat free after 5 p.m. on Tuesdays with purchase of an adult meal from the salad bar, hot bar or from the prepared food counter. Pleasant, spacious place to eat with tables, chairs and counter at the front of the store, plus espresso and juice bars. Helpful, though not always knowledgeable staff. Offers a health fair, wine tastings, winery tours, nutrition lectures, cooking classes. Uses wind power.

Bottom line: If I lived closer, I’d shop here. This has the best in-store prepared food I found anywhere. It has modeled itself closely on Whole Foods, but it provides a more enjoyable shopping experience because of its manageable size. And it’s the most attractive of all the stores visited.

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