During the NFL postseason frenzy, the only thing that’s (almost) as important as the score is the snacks, because it takes a lot of energy to scream at the TV for three hours. So in the spirit of all-day grazing, we conducted a company-wide blind taste test to answer a very important question: Which supermarket chain has better snacks, Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods?
After consuming 16 bags each of tortilla chips and popcorn, 12 jars of salsa, 20 tubs of hummus, eight boxes of crackers, 15 pounds of trail mix, 20 bars of dark chocolate, a mountain of chocolate chip cookies, and getting a lot of strange looks in the checkout line, we found that our staff preferred more Trader Joe’s snacks than Whole Foods 365—but it was a close race.
Since 2011, we’ve spent hundreds of thousands of hours researching, testing, and writing almost 1,000 guides to help you find the best of everything from headphones to nonstick pans. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that we also have serious opinions about snacks. Our staff’s preferred munchies are as broad and varied as the topics we cover. Some of us chomp on fistfuls of gummy bears, while others reach for hummus with veggies, lightly salted popcorn, or bitter dark chocolate. No matter your snacking style, you’ll likely find tasty bites on this list for your game-day buffet.
By the way, this blind snack test is in no way meant to be on a par with our usual stringent standards. But we had fun doing it, and we hope you have fun reading it! Please bear with us while we poke a little fun at ourselves.
We compared store-brand snacks from Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods because they both have locations in most US states, and their own loyal fan bases. To start, we scoured their websites—as well as multiple brick-and-mortar locations in the New York metropolitan area—and documented their copious snack offerings. As we culled the final foods, we tried to cover a breadth of preferences: for the practical snackers we had hummus, wheat crackers, and trail mix. We also served chips and salsa for the spice lovers, dark chocolate and cookies for the sweet-toothed, and lightly salted popcorn for, well, most people.
We decanted the dips, chips, and everything else into serving bowls so there was nary a label in sight, then gave everyone a survey to complete as they sampled. After hundreds of bites and opinions, we have a verdict.
Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s offer a few different store-brand tortilla chip and salsa styles, and while it was easy to find white corn tortilla chips at both stores, choosing an apples-to-apples (tomatoes-to-tomatoes?) salsa comparison was a little more challenging. After sifting out the “fire-roasted” and fruit-infused varieties, we ultimately chose classic Pace Picante-like salsas: Trader Joe’s Chunky Salsa and Whole Foods 365 Organic Medium Salsa. In our tasting, Trader Joe’s was the winner for both chips and salsa.
Over three-quarters of our staff picked the Trader Joe’s White Corn Tortilla Chips, noting they were lighter, crispier, and saltier (in a good way) than the Whole Foods chips, which were described as thick, starchy, stale, dry, dense, and hard to chew. Another point against the Whole Foods chips: Each bag was, on average, 50 percent broken chip fragments, while the Trader Joe’s chips had significantly less breakage.
The Trader Joe’s Chunky Salsa won by a narrower margin than the chips, getting less than 60 percent of the vote. While many respondents noted their general dislike of jarred salsa, the ones who chose Trader Joe’s thought it tasted “brighter” and “fresher” than the Whole Foods 365 salsa. Fans of the Whole Foods salsa (which closely resembles Pace Chunky medium salsa in flavor and texture) liked that it had more heat and a nicer mouthfeel, and found the Trader Joe’s salsa gritty and cloying. Or as one commenter mused, “[Trader Joe’s] starts with sickly sugar sweetness, followed by an overly acidic finish.”
Both Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s offer their store-brand hummus in various flavors, but we chose to keep it simple with the plain, classic versions. Since eating spoonfuls of hummus didn’t seem appetizing, we added Triscuit copycats from both stores to round out the experience.
The Whole Foods Classic Hummus clobbered Trader Joe’s Hummus Dip by a landslide. Testers preferred the Whole Foods hummus because it was creamier and had more robust chickpea, lemon, and garlic flavors. By contrast, testers found the Trader Joe’s hummus grainy and watery (though they appreciated its strong cumin overtones). Of the three Whole Foods 365 items that beat their Trader Joe’s counterpart, the Classic Hummus won by the biggest margin with about 64 percent of the vote.
Not all woven wheat crackers (Triscuit knockoffs) can hold a candle to the Nabisco classic. Case in point: 88 percent of testers agreed that the Whole Foods 365 Woven Wheats had a dry mouthfeel, and “lacked salt and oil.” The Trader Joe’s Woven Wheat Wafers, on the other hand, “mimicked a Triscuit pretty well,” but we’re sad to report that they’re now discontinued. We’ll stick with the Triscuits.
We love the convenience of bagged popcorn—no microwave necessary! The problem is that it’s often chewy and a little dense. Sadly, such was the case with both Trader Joe’s Olive Oil Popcorn and Whole Foods 365 Organic Classic Salted Popcorn.
Even though the Trader Joe’s popcorn eked out a 15-point win over Whole Foods, testers felt that it was a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils. Said one tester, “I didn’t really like either of them; they both tasted stale to me,” adding, “I preferred [Trader Joe’s] because it was slightly saltier.” We don’t expect the satisfying crispiness, fragrance, or flavor of freshly popped popcorn from bagged popcorn. But both of these brands were chewier and denser than supermarket mainstays, like Smartfood.
In another landslide win, the Trader Joe’s Omega Trek Mix won over our testers with more than 85 percent of the vote. People preferred TJ’s fruit and nut mélange because the nuts were creamier—yet still crunchy—and the dried fruit was plumper and more pliable than that in Whole Foods’s 365 Strider’s Snack Trail Mix.
Testers noted that the Trader Joe’s mix had a nice sweet and salty balance, where the Whole Foods mix tasted bland. They also favored Trader Joe’s “roasted, crunchier nuts” over Whole Foods’s “soft, seemingly raw nuts.” But the variety of ingredients (cranberries, almonds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, pecans, and pistachios) is why most people preferred Trader Joe’s Omega Trek Mix over Whole Foods’s mix (raisins, almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, walnuts).
When analyzing the data from our dark-chocolate taste test, we found that people’s choices hinged more on personal preference than they did for other foods.
The Whole Foods Organic Dark Chocolate was favored by 63 percent of respondents, who were mostly won over by its sweeter flavor. The remaining 37 percent thought the robust and bitter cocoa flavor of Trader Joe’s Organic Dark Chocolate was much more satisfying. Both observations are true: the Whole Foods chocolate is labeled 57 percent cacao, which means the remaining 43 percent is mostly sugar with some flavoring and emulsifiers. The Trader Joe’s bar, on the other hand, is 73 percent cacao. We don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer here. If you like sweet chocolate, go for the Whole Foods bar. For people who love the bitter stuff, Trader Joe’s is your jam.
The Trader Joe’s Crispy Crunchy Chocolate Chip Cookies beat Whole Foods’s 365 Organic Chocolate Chip cookies by a narrow two-point lead. And since this isn’t an election, we’re calling this one a tie. Here’s why: Neither of these brands mimic homemade chocolate chip cookies, and testers downvoted both cookies for the same reasons. If they liked the Trader Joe’s cookie, they thought the Whole Foods version tasted cloying and/or bland; and vice versa.
Like dark chocolate, cookies are a personal preference. If you like the crumbly texture of shortbread, you’ll find the Whole Foods cookies to be just fine. The Trader Joe’s cookies will appeal to people who prefer a bite-sized thin and crispy version. Said one tester, “I prefer the smaller cookies. I feel elegant and beautiful when I eat these.” Touché, my anonymous friend.
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