How do health-conscious stores Fresh & Easy, Sprouts, and Sunflower compare with the mainstream?

Call me a shopaholic.

I didn't realize I had a thing for grocery stores until I sat down to write this column, reflecting on how strolling the aisles of brightly lit supermarkets has been such a relaxing pastime over the years.

As a kid, I had fun shopping with my dad, who'd indulge my impulse buys and make me laugh as we pondered what to cook. During my 20s, I loved to seek out grocery stores in every foreign country I visited, marveling at unusual products and package design. (Actually, I still love that.) And nowadays, I leisurely kill time checking the ripeness of avocados, reading the labels on new items, and weighing the merits of different kinds of balsamic.

Stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe's are especially intriguing, not only because, alas, they're off the beaten path for me (I live in Central Phoenix), but also because they tempt me with products I just can't find at the corner Safeway. Recently, though, a British chain called Fresh & Easy swept into the Valley, offering a different kind of shopping experience — one that's in the health-conscious tradition of Whole Foods, but smaller-scale, like Trader Joe's.

There may not be a Fresh & Easy in your neighborhood — yet — but the place is expanding like crazy. Not to mention, Sprouts and Sunflower Farmers Market, two other distinctive grocers, also have a burgeoning local presence.

So how do these places measure up against mainstream markets? Read on.

Fresh & Easy
(19 Valley locations, freshandeasy.com)
The first time I set foot inside one of these stores, I notice how different it feels from the typical sprawling mega-mart. It's compact, but still airy and bright. Lower-than-usual shelves are well organized, and there's a surprising amount of variety, since no particular item gets much space. Even in the produce aisle, fruits and vegetables are stacked up in small bins that don't take up a lot of room. (They're individually packaged, though — a waste of plastic.)

I don't know about you, but sometimes I have to stop at Safeway on the way back from Trader Joe's, just to pick up my favorite major brands. But at Fresh & Easy, the selection seems really smart, as if these folks figured out the popular brand-name items that people want (such as Ben & Jerry's ice cream), and then filled in with their own Fresh & Easy-brand stuff, some of which is quirky enough to lure me away from the brands (hello, Fresh & Easy roasted banana gelato).

There's a lot in the way of fresh ready-to-eat and heat-and-serve foods, most with a healthy, gourmet spin. Beet salad with goat cheese and candied pecans catches my eye in a fridge near the front of the store (where the check-out area is entirely self-service), while a section of pre-cooked dishes along the back features mango chicken with basmati rice, shrimp siu mai, half a dozen soups, and fresh pastas. I like the vaguely international slant. Even back in the baked-goods area, I find bolillo rolls next to olive loaves, and a dessert case stacked with tiramisu and Belgian chocolate mousse.

In the way of pre-assembled dishes you cook at home, I'm impressed by bags of raw pizza dough, chicken and seafood entrees that look like you could just throw them in the oven, and components for shrimp ceviche. I could see myself being lazy if there were a Fresh & Easy in my 'hood, but even if I were motivated to cook, I'd still find most of the basics here — even organic, fair-trade coffee, hormone-free meat, and free-range eggs.

Bottom line, Fresh & Easy appears to live up to its name, with lots of fresh foods geared to convenience. It's not destination shopping by any stretch, but for a quick snack, a simple dinner, or even an impromptu party (there's a great selection of wines in the $5 to $10 range, although the beer selection's weak), it's a welcome addition to the retail scene.

Sprouts Farmers Market
(14 Valley locations, sprouts.com)
If the name "Sprouts" gives you visions of health food and natural products, you're right on the mark. From aisles of vitamins and heaps of beautiful organic produce, to niche items like gluten-free muffin mix, this place is a haven for the health-conscious, as well as anyone with dietary restrictions.

Don't hold that against it, though. Surprisingly, Sprouts is also a haven of otherwise hard-to-find goodies for the gourmet cook, and a wonderland of weirdness for novelty-seekers like me.

Now I know where I can find goat's milk butter, organic ghee, and whole-grain spelt pasta. There are dozens of kinds of olive oil and vinegar (pinot grigio vinegar sounds tasty), exotic herbs, spices, beans, and dried fruits by the pound, and so many types of flour that I could only imagine what you'd make with them (quinoa flour, coconut flour, and so on). Even the somewhat ordinary-looking butcher section features organic, sustainably farmed chicken.

An in-house deli and cases of pre-packaged foods are along the lines of what you'd find at a Safeway — predictably convenient, but not a main attraction.

Sprouts has the same kind of not-too-high shelving as Fresh & Easy, although somehow the lighting and atmosphere isn't as slick — last time I was there, they were actually playing obscure '60s garage rock from the Nuggets compilation. It's a very mellow place to shop.

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