Supermarket Showdown: Aldi vs. Whole Foods

October 30, 2018

By Bob Niedt | Kiplinger, Personal Finance

Whole Foods and Aldi have traditionally rested on opposite ends of the supermarket spectrum. The former known for being upscale and expensive; the latter, no frills and cheap. But times are changing.

Since being bought by Amazon last year, Whole Foods has been trimming prices on many staples at its 472 U.S. stores and offering exclusive discounts to Amazon Prime members. Meanwhile, Aldi has been sprucing up many of its 1,800 existing stores in 35 states — with an emphasis on brighter, wider aisles and fresher, healthier offerings — even as it rolls out 700 new stores by 2022.

In the past, Aldi would handily beat Whole Foods on price. But with all the changes happening at both chains, we decided to put today’s prices to the test. We shopped a new Aldi store in Northern Virginia as well as a nearby Whole Foods to compare regular (non-sale) prices on 50 grocery staples, focusing mostly on organics and mostly on store brands: Aldi’s SimplyNature and Whole Foods’ 365 Everyday Value. Here’s what we found in our apples-to-apples comparisons (and yes, we even compared apples).

Fresh Fruits

I’ve reported on Aldi since the 1990s. Back in the day, produce wasn’t the grocer’s strong suit. Stores typically sold unrefrigerated fruits and vegetables (more on veggies later) straight from the cardboard boxes they shipped in. Americans weren’t accustomed to the bare-bones marketing that the frugal German retailer pioneered after World War II, but the low prices made up for the sometimes-suspect quality. Fast-forward to today, and Aldi’s new and newly remodeled locations feature refrigerated produce cases on the sales floor.

Of course, Whole Foods has long been known for its bountiful produce displays – especially organics. Here’s how the two stacked up in our recent price comparisons:

-Peaches (per pound): Aldi, $1.79; Whole Foods, $1.99
-Organic strawberries (per pound): Aldi, $3.99; Whole Foods, $4.49
-Organic red grapes (per pound): Aldi, $4.98; Whole Foods, $3.69
-Green grapes (per pound): Aldi, $1.69; Whole Foods, $2.69
-Fuji apples (per pound): Aldi, $1.23; Whole Foods, $1.79
-Pineapple (whole): Aldi, $2.19; Whole Foods, $3.49
-Organic bananas (per pound): Aldi, 58 cents; Whole Foods, 69 cents

Fresh Vegetables

Like fresh fruits, Whole Foods’ fresh vegetables have the reputation for being higher quality (and higher priced) than Aldi’s vegetables. But Burt P. Flickinger III, a supermarket industry expert who is managing director of Strategic Resource Group, says today’s reality is less clear-cut.

According to Flickinger, the quality of popular, fast-selling produce is actually quite good at Aldi because Aldi’s lower prices mean the inventory turns over faster that at Whole Foods, where produce prices tend to be higher across the board. In other words, popular produce doesn’t spend as long on Aldi’s shelves as it does at Whole Foods. However, Flickinger adds that Whole Foods tends to win the quality battle on slower-selling produce:

-Organic chopped kale (12 ounces): Aldi, $2.99; Whole Foods, $3.99
-Organic tomatoes (per pound): Aldi, $2.89; Whole Foods, $3.99
-Organic broccoli (per pound): Aldi $2.99; Whole Foods, $2.49
-Organic peeled baby carrots (per pound): Aldi 99 cents; Whole Foods, $1.69
-Peeled baby carrots (per pound): Aldi 89 cents; Whole Foods, $1.29
-Avocado: Aldi, 99 cents; Whole Foods, $1.79
-Organic avocados (4-pack): Aldi, $4.99; Whole Foods, $4.99
-Russet potatoes (per pound): Aldi, 44 cents; Whole Foods, 79 cents

Canned Goods

We stayed organic in our comparison of three canned goods, and we focused on Aldi’s SimplyNature store brand and Whole Foods’ 365 Everyday Value store brand:

-Organic pinto/kidney beans: Aldi, 89 cents (15.5 ounces); Whole Foods, 99 cents (15 ounces)
-Organic diced tomatoes (28 ounces): Aldi, $1.59; Whole Foods, $1.99
-Organic chicken broth (32 ounces): Aldi, $1.79; Whole Foods, $2.29

Dry Pastas and Jarred Pasta Sauces

We weren’t looking for fresh, high-end, store-made, chef-created pastas and sauces here. Just the regular boxed dry pasta and gravy from a jar. The only requisite was organic:

-Organic jarred pasta sauces (multiple varieties): Aldi, $2.19 (24-25 ounces); Whole Foods, $2.79 (25 ounces)
-Organic dry pastas (multiple varieties, 16 ounces): Aldi, $1.09; Whole Foods, $1.49

Fresh Fish and Meats

Fresh fish and meats, typically tagged with “natural,” “pasture-raised,” “cage-free” or some other it’s-all-OK-with-the-animals modifier, have been a trademark of Whole Foods for decades. Aldi is going after a piece of that action on the discount end. It recently announced that it will increase its selection of fresh foods, including ready-to-cook and organic fresh meats, by 40% by early 2019:

-Atlantic salmon fillets (per pound): Aldi $7.79; Whole Foods, $9.9
-Ground beef (93% lean, per pound): Aldi $4.49, Whole Foods, $6.99
-Top sirloin steak (per pound): Aldi, $5.79; Whole Foods, $11.99
-Organic whole chicken (per pound): Aldi, $2.49; Whole Foods, $4.05

Eggs and Dairy

Aldi has always had killer prices on eggs and dairy products. Last year we saw conventional milk selling for $1.49 a gallon and eggs going for just 39 cents a dozen. Aldi’s milk and egg prices were higher at our recent check but still lower than Whole Foods’ prices:

-Grade A large brown eggs (dozen): Aldi, $2.29; Whole Foods $3.99
-Unsweetened vanilla almond milk (half-gallon): Aldi, $1.89; Whole Foods, $2.99
-Organic milk (whole or 2%, gallon): Aldi, $5.89; Whole Foods, $6.49
-Non-organic milk (gallon): Aldi, $2.14; Whole Foods, $3.19

Spices

One of the most surprising finds on this comparison-shopping venture was the price of spices. If you’ve ever had to restock a spice pantry or pick up an obscure spice for a recipe, you know how stinging the cost can be to a shopping budget. It’s less so at Aldi – and we’re talking organics, too.

“I’ve talked to five-star restaurant chefs stocking up at Aldi stores,” says Flickinger. “The chefs say for jams, many spices and cooking ingredients, Aldi has exceptionally good quality, while being a low-price leader with B.J.’s Wholesale Club and Lidl.”

-Organic powdered garlic: Aldi, $1.99 (2.75 ounces); Whole Foods, $3.99 (2.33 ounces)
-Organic basil: Aldi, $1.99 (0.62 ounces); Whole Foods $3.99 (0.46 ounces)
-Organic thyme: Aldi, $1.99 (0.75 ounces); Whole Foods, $3.99 (0.67 ounces)
-Cayenne pepper: Aldi, $1.99 (1.62 ounces); Whole Foods, $2.99 (1.76 ounces)

Rice and Grains

Starchy foods including rice and grains offer inexpensive ways to stretch meal budgets. Both Aldi and Whole Foods stock organic versions from which to choose:

-Organic quinoa (one pound): Aldi, $3.49; Whole Foods, $5.99
-Organic brown rice: Aldi, $2.59 (28 ounces); Whole Foods, $3.99 (32 ounces)
-Organic instant oatmeal (multiple varieties, 8-packages): Aldi, $2.29; Whole Foods, $3.69

Beverages

This is one area where we were able to compare national brands toe-to-toe at Aldi and Whole Foods. If you’re in the market for any national brands, remember that Whole Foods will accept manufacturer coupons (Aldi won’t):

-LaCroix sparkling water (12-pack, assorted flavors): Aldi, $4.29; Whole Foods, $4.99
-Organic orange juice (59 ounces): Aldi, $3.79; Whole Foods $4.99
-Organic kombucha (16 ounces): Aldi, $2.89; Whole Foods, $3.29
-Organic coconut water: Aldi: $1.39 (16.9 ounces); Whole Foods, $1.99 (17.6 fluid ounces)
-Devil’s Backbone Vienna Lager beer (6-pack): Aldi, $9.49; Whole Foods, $10.99

Bread

If you like the carbs, you can spend less – sometimes a lot less, depending on your bread preference – at Aldi:

-Organic whole grain bread: Aldi, $4.29 (Simply Nature Seedtastic organic 21-grains bread, 27 ounces); Whole Foods, $4.49 (365 Everyday Value Early Bird multi-seed organic bread, 28 ounces)
-White bread: Aldi, $1.19 (L’oven Fresh whole grain white bread, 20 ounces); Whole Foods, $4.79 (Vermont Bread soft white, 24 ounces)

Frozen Foods

We didn’t find any organic versions of pizza or chicken nuggets in our research trips to Aldi and Whole Foods — we looked — but here’s the best we could come up with for comparison sake:

-Pizza: Aldi, $2.69 (Mama Cozzi’s supreme or pepperoni rising-crust pizza, 27.5-31.5 ounces); Whole Foods, $4.99 (365 Everyday Value supreme or pepperoni thin-crust pizza, 14.5 ounces)
-Chicken nuggets: Aldi, $3.79 (Kirkwood chicken breast nuggets, 29 ounces); Whole Foods, $6.99 (Bell & Evans breaded chicken nuggets, 12 ounces)
-Beer-battered cod fillets: Aldi, $4.99 (Sea Queen, 13.1 ounces); Whole Foods, $6.99 (365 Everyday Value, 12 ounces)

Crackers

Despite Whole Foods’ rep for natural and healthy fare, we did check out a few salty snacks. Both chains carry their own knockoffs of some national brands such as Wheat Thins and Ritz. The major difference, other than price, was that Aldi’s knockoffs aren’t labeled as organic while Whole Foods’ knockoffs are. It’s your choice whether it’s worth paying significantly more for the organic versions:

-Wheat crackers (Wheat Thins knockoffs): Aldi, 99 cents (8.5 ounces); Whole Foods, $2.99 (8 ounces)
-Golden round crackers (Ritz knockoffs): Aldi, $1.39 (13.7 ounces); Whole Foods, $2.99 (8 ounces)
-Saltine crackers (one pound): Aldi, 75 cents; Whole Foods, $2.99
-Pretzel sticks (one pound): Aldi, 79 cents (Clancy’s); Whole Foods, $2.49 (365 Everyday Value)

Flowers

We didn’t have flowers on our original shopping list, but after spotting roses for sale in both stores we decided to add them. A supermarket floral arrangement is affordable and serves well as a last-minute gift. While Aldi’s roses weren’t long-stemmed like the ones at Whole Foods, they’d do in a pinch, though we’re willing to admit long-stem roses say “romance” a bit more loudly than a rose bouquet. The flowers at both stores appeared to the eyes (and nose) to be fresh:

-Roses: Aldi, $3.99 (rose bouquet); Whole Foods, $11.99 (dozen long-stem roses)

And the Winner Is…

Aldi.

The total bill for the 50 items on our shopping list added up to $136.98 at Aldi; it was $205.66 at Whole Foods – a difference of nearly $69. In some cases the difference was pennies per item, but in others it was dollars. It adds up. Flickinger, the retail consultant, says his research shows that a family of five can save perhaps between $3,500 and $5,500 a year by shopping for groceries at Aldi over Whole Foods.

What you will actually end up paying at checkout depends on a host of factors including how carefully you shop and, in the case of Whole Foods, whether you’re an Amazon Prime member. Remember, the prices we quote are everyday, non-sale prices, but both chains run weekly sales on select items. Keep up on sales by signing up for email alerts or downloading the retailers’ mobile apps. Our prices also don’t reflect the additional savings at Whole Foods offered to Prime members, who receive exclusive discounts on select items as well as an additional 10% off sale items. Just be sure to factor in the $119-a-year cost to join Amazon Prime. Aldi doesn’t have a customer loyalty program.