It had been awhile, maybe over a year, since I had last been inside a Whole Foods store. The one closest to my home—in Tucson, Arizona—is over 40 miles away. But I needed to stock up on some bulk items.
With 291 stores spread across the United States, as well as six in Canada and five in England, Whole Foods has evolved into a unique shopping experience for many believing that they are buying groceries in a health-conscious environment. Unlike a Walmart or Costco, the public perception of Whole Foods is one of a forward-thinking, eco-aware chain dedicated to selling food that is organic, tastier, more natural and nutritious, and less processed. Prices might be higher, but that’s okay for the “enlightened shopper.”
Yet, as reported in a 2010 New Yorker magazine profile of Whole Foods’ co-founder and chief executive, John Mackey, the chain has been criticized from all sides, as either “an overpriced luxury for yuppie gastronomes and fussy label-readers. Or it is Holy Foods, the commercial embodiment of environmental and nutritional pieties. To hard-core proponents of natural and organic food…Whole Foods is a disappointment—a bundle of big-business compromises and half-steps…It’s a welter of paradoxes: a staunchly anti-union enterprise that embraces some progressive labor practices; a self-styled world-improver that must also deliver quarterly results to Wall Street; a big-box chain putting on small-town airs; an evangelist for healthy eating that sells sausages, ice cream, and beer.”
Mackey, in a moment of open candor, even told the Wall Street Journal in August, 2010, “We sell a bunch of junk.” Judging from my limited experience inside the Tucson store, Mackey is completely right, though he vowed in the interview to reduce the amount of unhealthy products.
Walking through the open front doors of Whole Foods, you’re hit with visual and sensory overload. To my right was a display of sale items leftover from the holidays, including organic candy canes made with organic sugar. A large display of cat and dog food was nearby. On the other side, there was a generous spread of colorful fresh fruits and vegetables. Normally I avoid the center aisles because that’s where the junk food is found, but I was curious. I wandered down some of them to see what was being sold. The first one was lined with cereals boxes. I looked closely at the “nutrition” labels. Almost all contained highly processed wheat, corn and other processed grains. Sugar seemed to always be high up on the ingredient list. Yet many of these cereals were being marketed as “organic,” and almost all were fortified with synthetic vitamins.
Over in the next aisle were cake, brownie and other boxed mixes. You just need to add water, mix the batter, and turn on the oven. And these too were being sold as “organic,” containing sugar and processed flour as the main ingredients.
There seemed to be bakery items perched on display racks at the end of every aisle. Some featured trays of organic cookies made with white flour and sugar. A large glass display had fancy croissants, or at least the American or non-French version. A small line of customers was waiting at the main bakery counter, which was full of large cakes, pies, and oversized cookies covered in rainbow sprinkles. I glanced at the ingredient lists of many of these baked goods—white flour and sugar mostly.
I wandered down another aisle, first passing by the frozen section which contained mostly prepared microwaveable “health-food” versions of TV dinners. There was nothing I would eat even though many said they were organic. (Then again, I don’t own a microwave, or see the purpose of having one.) As I passed the dairy section, I stopped and checked out the soy yogurt—most were processed soy made with organic sugar.
Nearby were shelves of chips—almost all made with potato and corn. Surprisingly, I didn’t see any organic potato chips. In addition to being high glycemic, non-organic potatoes are among the more toxic foods—they absorb the herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides they’re treated with during growing, and afterwards are treated with chemicals again so they don’t sprout. Just as bad were the oils contained within—typically the more unstable vegetable ones, safflower and sunflower oils.
It was too painful to walk down the juice, beverage and soda aisle, so I avoided it altogether.
The bulk food section reminded me of the old co-ops that I sometimes shopped at in the early ‘70s. Except that here, the bulk section was usually full of highly processed unhealthy products. I even saw the same ingredients that were staples everywhere I turned in Whole Foods—white sugar and white flour. There were also bins filled with white rice, and lots of chewable candies.
I did find beans, lentils, whole grain wheat and rye, and other healthy items. These organic real foods are how people can significantly reduce their food bill. If you steer clear of expensive (per pound price) and unhealthy items—juice and soda, cereal, bread, frozen dinners, packaged sliced meats and cheese, chips, and sweets, whether you buy organic or not—you can drastically cut your costs by buying whole oats, lentils, whole pieces of meat and chicken, eggs, and fresh fruit and vegetables. And to be fair, these expensive junk food items are not unique to Whole Foods—most other health food stores carry them too. But Whole Foods deliberately banks upon the public image of being a place where you buy “whole foods.”
At the checkout counter were small boxes of high-fructose energy bars and more candy. When the young cashier asked me if I had found everything I needed, I said, “There’s too much junk food and too few organic items.” She cheerfully replied, ”But we’re adding more organic items all the time.” “Like what kinds,” I asked? She smiled and said, “I really don’t know,” and continued ringing up my groceries.
As I drove away, with several bags of groceries in the back seat—filled with lentils, sesame and flax seeds, extra virgin olive oil, Balsamic vinegar, and Granny Smith apples—I reflected on how the health food industry had been taken over by purveyors of junk food. It wasn’t always this way.
In the early 1900s, as big corporate farming grew with its pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers, the mass manufacturing of packaged and processed foods evolved too. While small groups of citizens protested these changes, America’s food supply was now different—there was more corporate profit and less nutrition for consumers. The few who saw this as a health problem continued relying on local farmer’s markets for fresh unadulterated safer food, searched out the difficult to find unprocessed whole foods, and the phrase “health food” was born. The movement also attracted vegetarians, those with special dietary needs, such as those allergic to wheat, or diabetics, and others in search of natural living.
Out of this movement came the rise of health food stores and co-ops, where hard-to-find items could be found in one store, although a 1870’s Philadelphia-based retail store, Thomas Martindale Company, may have been the first. Originally, health food stores were small retail shops or home-based co-ops that had bulk items such as whole grains, soybeans, dried fruits, and granola. Blackstrap molasses, brewer’s yeast, and coffee substitutes became popular. And, there were lots of dietary supplements, and unknown to many store owners and customers, they contained virtually all synthetic vitamins made by pharmaceutical companies. Other items were not healthy either, like dried bananas coated with sugar. The word “organic” was used, but casually here and there as the U.S.D.A’s organic program had not been conceived yet. What little fresh produce was to be found was usually old, weepy and double the price of grocery stores. Yet somehow, the health-food store concept survived long enough to grow up, spurred on by the ecology movement of the 1960s.
But many of the small health food stores couldn’t survive when a Whole Foods, or its rival Wild Oats—both were founded in the 1980s—moved into town. They were either bought or went out of business. In 2007, Whole Foods gobbled up Wild Oats for over a half-billion dollars, despite initial resistance from the Bush Administration for anti-trust violations in a supermarket sector that the Federal Trade Commission artfully designated as “premium natural and organic.”
The publicly traded Whole Foods now has sales of over eight billion dollars a year. Of that revenue figure, one wonders just how much is a result of selling junk food?