February 24 2014
Like a lot of people on a budget, I have a love-hate relationship with Whole Foods. There’s a good reason people call it "whole paycheck" and, while I love the fancy food store, I’m not really interested in spending $3.29 on a can of beans (uh huh...I saw it!).
I think I shop at the high-end store the way many others shop there: I do the bulk of my shopping at less expensive grocery stores, leaving a few specialty items for Whole Foods.
Truthfully, I can spend hours at Whole Foods, slowly making my way through the store reading labels, asking questions of the knowledgeable staff, discovering new things. I did a lot of this after my first son was born. I'd tuck him into his Baby Bjorn and we'd walk around the clean and tidy aisles. I'd start in the produce aisle marveling at the fresh porcini and morel mushrooms, which never made it home. I loved the variety of fruits and vegetables, the heirloom tomatoes, fresh berries, herbs and greens. I got a kick out of the baskets of eggs (oddly, in the produce department) -- from duck eggs to ostrich to teeny quails. I'd look over the fish, but could rarely afford any of it. Once, the fish guy gave me a slab of shad roe after I'd wasted 15 minutes of his time asking questions about the odd looking organ-like sack of eggs. He ended up just giving me a small slab for free (a kind gesture but I think he just really wanted me to go away) and instructed me to fry it in bacon fat. I did…and ended up eating the bacon after one bite of the gritty, livery roe.
I'd usually make it out of Whole Foods with two or three things--a small but high quality bottle of olive oil, a bag of wheatberries, a small nugget of cheese (tip: at the olive counter, you can find thumb-sized wedges of cheese for as low as 25 cents. I usually grab 4 or 5 to make a $1 cheese tasting at home) or some other not-sold-at-a-regular-store item.
Yet for all the love I have for Whole Foods, there was always something that annoyed me about the store--the subtle message that higher prices equal higher quality. Since I know there's no nutritional difference between organic and conventional produce, milk and meat, and since I know the famous "dirty dozen list" is a bunch of hogwash, I'm not about to waste my money on organic food but I have always felt betrayed by the higher-ups at Whole Foods who sell this nonsense to women like me.
Whole Foods also pushes homeopathic remedies and boutique cleaners, soaps, shampoos and other personal care products that I found to be nothing more than a waste of store's square footage as well as a smelly annoyance. I simply skipped those aisles although I would always pause to stare at the people eagerly reading those Paraben-free, BPA-Free, Everything-that-makes-cleaners-work-well-FREE labels and shake my head wondering what all that money could do in a interest bearing savings account.
So, it's my complicated love-hate opinion of Whole Foods that drew me to Michael Schulson terrific Daily Beast article on Whole Foods' promotion of quackery. He writes:
I’m talking, of course, about Whole Foods Market. From the probiotics aisle to the vaguely ridiculous Organic Integrity outreach effort (more on that later), Whole Foods has all the ingredients necessary to give Richard Dawkins nightmares. And if you want a sense of how weird, and how fraught, the relationship between science, politics, and commerce is in our modern world, then there’s really no better place to go. Because anti-science isn’t just a religious, conservative phenomenon—and the way in which it crosses cultural lines can tell us a lot about why places like the Creation Museum inspire so much rage, while places like Whole Foods don’t.
Still, there’s a lot in your average Whole Foods that’s resolutely pseudoscientific. The homeopathy section has plenty of Latin words and mathematical terms, but many of its remedies are so diluted that, statistically speaking, they may not contain a single molecule of the substance they purport to deliver. The book section—yep, Whole Foods sells books—boasts many M.D.’s among its authors, along with titles like The Coconut Oil Miracle and Herbal Medicine, Healing, and Cancer, which was written by a theologian and based on what the author calls the Eclectic Triphasic Medical System.
At times, the Whole Foods selection slips from the pseudoscientific into the quasi-religious. It’s not just the Ezekiel 4:9 bread (its recipe drawn from the eponymous Bible verse), or Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, or Vitamineral Earth’s “Sacred Healing Food.” It’s also, at least for Jewish shoppers, the taboos that have grown up around the company’s Organic Integrity effort, all of which sound eerily like kosher law. There’s a sign in the Durham store suggesting that shoppers bag their organic and conventional fruit separately—lest one rub off on the other—and grind their organic coffees at home—because the Whole Foods grinders process conventional coffee, too, and so might transfer some non-organic dust. “This slicer used for cutting both CONVENTIONAL and ORGANIC breads” warns a sign above the Durham location’s bread slicer. Synagogue kitchens are the only other places in which I’ve seen signs implying that level of food-separation purity.
But, who cares, right? Whole Foods is a private company. They should be allowed to stock whatever products they want to stock and label products as they see fit and refuse to carry certain products if that’s what they want to do (they recently announced they'd stop carrying products that contain genetically modified ingredients). They can even mislead people, right?
Well, I guess so. And I would hesitate to suggest otherwise, but as Schulson warn in his piece, promoting psuedoscience has enormous consequences:
Still: a significant portion of what Whole Foods sells is based on simple pseudoscience. And sometimes that can spill over into outright anti-science (think What Doctors Don’t Tell You, or Whole Foods’ overblown GMO campaign, which could merit its own article). If scientific accuracy in the public sphere is your jam, is there really that much of a difference between Creation Museum founder Ken Ham, who seems to have made a career marketing pseudoscience about the origins of the world, and John Mackey, a founder and CEO of Whole Foods Market, who seems to have made a career, in part, out of marketing pseudoscience about health?
I share Schulson’s concerns. The promotion of pseudoscience—whether it’s about health, or food production, or energy—is the biggest contributor to America’s culture of alarmism and the reason we see so many crushing regulations on businesses today. Americans have literally become hand wringers and part of the reason is because of the nonstop junk science promoted not just by activists but by large corporations—like Whole Foods, Chipotle and General Mills.
Private companies can operate their businesses they way they want but they also have some responsibility to be honest with their customers. Telling consumers that danger exists where there is no danger isn't just unethical, it violates the trust between consumers and sellers.
Consumers deserve the truth.