It’s no doubt disheartening, sometimes, for people who have specific dietary needs, that it is usually the cheapest foods that are the least healthy or contain food allergens. This is a by-product of our Industrial Age; food has been designed to be cheaper, not better. In recent times, western civilization has been transforming away from using our food merely to keep us alive, or to sate over-indulged taste buds, to something that can actually keep us healthy. For those who suffer from allergies or gastric disorders, this is a necessity. Fortunately for us, there is hope in several places. One place we’ve found that can help both the palate and the wallet is the global food store chain Aldi.
1. Two Brothers and A Cigarette Dispute
Founded originally in 1913 in Essen1, Germany, Aldi became a “chain” when the owner’s two sons took over the food store in 1946 and began opening stores of their own. In 1960, the two owned three hundred stores around Germany, and then split them over a dispute whether to sell cigarettes. They soon thereafter named the company “Aldi” (from Albrecht, their last name, and “Diskont,” the German word for “discount”). The divisions became Aldi Nord (north) and Aldi Süd (south), and became financially separate operating divisions, except for special regional relationships and volume buying. At first, the stores were ridiculed as the place that people went who couldn’t afford to go elsewhere. This has changed dramatically, as now over 80% of Germans shop at Aldi regularly.
2. ALDI Runs Trader Joe’s (sort of)
In the United States, the two divisions of Aldi are still separate: Aldi Süd runs the stores we all know as Aldi. Aldi Nord runs the stores we all know as “Trader Joe’s.” Aldi as a branded entity still strives to be a low-cost leader, and maintains expense control through well-known measures as charging for bags, only accepting cash and debit cards (true credit cards charge the store a surcharge), and the infamous “coin carts” – the coin used to release the cart from the corral at the entrance to the store is an incentive to return the cart and get the coin back. Even if someone decides that the trip back to the door is just too far, someone else can still get the quarter for returning the cart. All these tactics help keep operating costs low, so they can pass along savings to the customer, who will be hopefully loyal.
3. ALDI Meets The Challenge of Economy and Quality
As far as their offerings are concerned, Aldi has been steadily increasing their healthier fare for some time. This author has been enjoying their “Fit & Active” brand since around 2007 – their turkey franks are tasty, healthy, and very South Beach Diet-friendly (phase one, if you’re wondering). They have also added lines called “Specially Selected” and “Simply Nature” that tend toward more basic ingredients. On my last trip there, I was able to find uncured bacon, preservative-free lunch meat, organic fresh apples, organic frozen blueberries, wild-caught cod, both almond and soy milk, gluten-free pasta, soy-free organic marinara sauce, and the list goes on.
4. ALDI Improves Itself and Pays Employees Well
To be fully open about it, Aldi has had its share of missteps over its 38 year history, including firing an HIV-positive worker, having questionable labor practices over management staff, and an incident of horse meat contamination in a beef product (which the product manufacturer has corrected). While certain actions are always inexcusable, Aldi seems to have genuinely attempted to correct these mistakes, which is what we can hope from any company.
When it comes to staff pay, new hires start with a wage that is “significantly higher than minimum wage.” Store managers seem to be provided with fair management wages upon promotion. As with any store, product line, or food item, always perform due diligence and examine the ingredient list on the products closely, and pay attention to the reputation of the store for ethical behavior. Ultimately, Aldi makes our list of grocers as a place that meets fair practices, offers choices that are healthier in general, including options for those with special dietary needs, all while managing to keep prices down.
5. Room to Grow
Over time, ALDI keeps adding more products that are healthier for many families. Keep in mind that some products are seasonal and not always on the shelves. But when we compare Aldi’s offerings today to ten years ago, the selection has improved remarkably. We do still have a bit of a wish list for Aldi. Those with soy and corn allergies will no doubt run into the same frustration as they do at any food store because these ingredients are so prolific. We hope that one day, they’ll offer packages of tuna without soybean oil. That said, we can still come home with the bulk of our groceries and our wallets still happy.
1. This is only a note because the German word essen translates as “food” or “to eat”