Why I’m Breaking Up With Whole Foods

Like most relationships, my love affair with Whole Foods started off great. I loved the narrative:  three hippies get together in the mid-1980’s to start a store that’s an alternative to “Big Food”—a store devoted to selling foods that actually make a difference to your health. Beautiful, organic produce. Raw milk. Grass-fed beef. What’s not to like?

We didn’t have anything like Whole Foods in New York City in the 1990’s, just a bunch of small, dark “health food” stores selling Tigers Milk bars and wheatgrass juice. When I arrived in southern California some fifteen years ago and discovered the city-block size Whole Foods right down the street from me in Woodland Hills, I took it as an omen. I knew right then that moving from New York City to Los Angeles had been the right decision.

That was then.

The first sign of trouble in paradise came when I started noticing the “low-fat” and “no-fat” options crowding out real whole foods.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not the food police. If people choose to follow low-fat or no-fat diets, that’s their personal prerogative. As a nutritionist, I think low-fat foods are a huge mistake, and the research shows they don’t do any of the things we think they do. But I certainly don’t want to limit anyone’s access to such foods, despite the fact that nothing about them is even remotely “whole”. Remember, by definition, a “whole” food contains everything that was ever in the food. Does milk come out of the cow without the fat? Removing fat from a whole food like yogurt to make “no-fat yogurt” is the same thing as removing the bran and germ layers from wheat to make white bread. And if that’s what you want, you have every right to have it, and stores have every right to sell it.

What they don’t have the right to do is call it a “whole food”.

It was perfectly fine with me if Whole Foods wanted to sell the adulterated products known as “low-fat” and “no fat”.  It only became a problem when it was no longer possible to find real yogurt in the yogurt department. The no-fat and low-fat options—which are, let me remind us, highly processed foods not occurring in nature—were crowding out the real foods. On two occasions, I couldn’t locate one single full-fat—i.e. “whole food”—yogurt or kefir in the entire store.

 

Then there was the time that Whole Foods decided to rate the health value of their offerings using a system called the ANDI food scores, ANDI standing for Aggregate Nutrient Density Index. Sounds like a cool idea, right?

Not so fast.

The ANDI system was designed by Dr. Joel Fuhrman, a rabid vegan who pretty much believes that if you eat a food that comes from an animal, you will drop dead on the spot. (OK, I’m exaggerating, but you get the idea.) So in Fuhrman’s highly biased system, anything that contains saturated fat gets points deducted, anything that contains cholesterol gets points deducted, and anything that includes pro-inflammatory “vegetable oil” (i.e. industrial seed oils like corn oil and soybean oil) gets extra credit. This is like rating political candidates on an “objective” scale that was designed by the most partisan and extreme politicians in Congress. Asking Joel Fuhrman to “rate” foods is like asking Rand Paul to rate Obamacare, or Nancy Pelosi to evaluate Trump. The point is there’s nothing objective about the ANDI system—it rates vegan foods high and everything else low, and is about as objective about food as the Taliban is about religion.

For me, though, the final nail in the coffin of my Whole Foods romance came when I was buying my favorite curry chicken salad at the prepared foods department, a department where Whole Foods really shines. As she was scooping the salad into the container, the clerk proudly informed me that they were no longer using regular mayonnaise, but had switched to “Veganaisse”, some vegan mayo crap made of soy milk and canola oil.

OK, listen up, Whole Foods. I don’t want your vegan mayo. More importantly, I don’t want you to be deprived of the opportunity to eat whole natural foods that I—and an increasing number of my colleagues in medicine and nutrition—think are perfectly healthy (such as real mayonnaise or full-fat yogurt) just because of the biased dogma of your nutrition guru.

Clearly, whoever makes decisions like the one to substitute “Veganaise” for real food must be unaware that there has been a vocal and outspoken movement among medical and nutrition professionals questioning the whole low-fat madness of the last few decades. A large number of published studies in the last seven years have absolved saturated fat of a causative role in heart disease, and no one—including the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee—still thinks cholesterol in food matters a whit.

Obviously Whole Foods doesn’t agree.

And then, of course, there’s this.

And let’s not even talk about the self-righteous claims that Whole Foods makes about never selling anything with high-fructose corn syrup, while meanwhile crowding the aisles with all sorts of products sweetened with agave nectar, which has far more fructose than even high-fructose corn syrup despite its undeserved reputation as a “healthy” sweetener.

So, sadly, my love affair with Whole Foods (the store) is over.

On reflection, I don’t think I’d be as angry and disappointed if Whole Foods were just another store. Where I live, there are many grocery stores– like Ralph’s, for example—that offer a wide variety of junk foods for those who want them alongside a terrific assortment of first-rate organic produce and other healthy fare. But they don’t self-righteously proclaim that they sell only “whole” foods. They are what they are—a supermarket that offers junk AND good stuff.

That’s also what Whole Foods is. A supermarket that offers both good stuff and complete junk, mostly at inflated prices.

I’d like them a lot more if they’d change their name and stop pretending that they’re something they’re not.

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8 Comments

  1. JULIETTA COCHRANE

    Disappointed that you didn’t mention their predatory policies of opening next to an established health food shop and then undercutting them. Walmart style. That in itself should be reason not to shop there. Wonder why Americans accept these horrendously unethical companies Here in the UK they circumvent employee legislation by some means causing hardship and lower pay. A truly nasty company.

    Reply
  2. Karen

    I shop a variety of food stores – Natural Grocers, local Price Chopper, Wal-Mart and buy my dad’s beef and friend’s eggs. Not one of them has it all. Tried the garden, but haven’t had success yet. Next year travel to farmers market or do a CSA consumer supported agriculture.

    Reply
  3. Midwest Mom

    It is true… even Whole Foods owner, John Mackey, admits, “we sell a lot of junk”- best to buy directly from local farmer CSA, if you can find a good one. But.. I need to add one little correction on Dr. Fuhrman: These excerpts are taken directly from his current website: “Avoiding oils and eating plenty of hemp, chia, flax, walnuts, and leafy greens is likely still not enough(for DHA), since the conversion rate of ALA (short-chain omega-3) in these foods to DHA (long-chain omega-3) is very low… From the evidence we have now, if you eat a modern diet and you don’t eat fish regularly, it is almost impossible to have adequate DHA stores, especially for pregnant and nursing women.” He suggests an algal DHA supplement for vegetarians and vegans and, supports omnivores eating a little fish, but yes, he is not a fan of chicken, pork, bacon, dairy, or oils, particularly those high in omega-6’s. Vegan and vegetarian diets do not work for everyone, but I have yet to find a person who hasn’t thrived on a low or no oil, plant-based diet with a little daily or every- other-day bit of fish.

    Reply
  4. Gwen Lorenz

    Great eye-opening article. I have not been in a Whole Foods market in years BECAUSE of their exorbitant prices! HEB, a South Texas based family owned supermarket chain, has everything I need and at lower prices! I am training myself to really look at the nutritional content of foods. The first two things I look for are amounts of sodium and sugars contained in the food. At age 73, I am really trying to eat healthfully because I don’t do pain very well nor do I enjoy frequent trips to the doctor!

    Reply
  5. Gina Magari

    I agree with your assessment of is company. This company once cared about the ingredients in the products they stocked. Not just high fructose corn syrup but dyes, chemicals and many other unhealthy additives. Today you walk into the store and it’s like walking into any other supermarket. Many time honored organic companies are no longer available now.

    Also, employees were educated regarding micronutrients, herbs and alternative medicines. Today they are not.

    Their new name should be HOLE Foods because something is definitely missing!

    Reply
  6. Mark Bousquet

    Whole Foods is publicly traded on the stock market, so what would one expect?

    If you haven’t, you should catch the Bulletproof Radio interview Dave Asprey did with their CEO John Mackey last summer where he pushed his vegan ideals and bullied Dave. “You really like to experiment on yourself, don’t you!?” SMH

    https://blog.bulletproof.com/the-whole-foods-diet-why-eating-real-plant-based-foods-can-boost-health-longevity-john-mackey-409/

    Now Whole Foods is owned by Amazon. If they get control of the entire food supply, it’s going to be Veganaise for everyone whether they like it or not.

    Reply
  7. Jules

    AKA “Whole paycheck”

    Reply
  8. Michael Thompson

    just a little correction. I was on the Joel Fuhrman plan, and he is anti vegetable oil or any oils. it ened up being way too low fat for me to follow though. while most people have a sweet tooth, I tend to have a fat tooth haha I am doing keto now, and love the food, and actually lost weight, so maybe it wont kill me like plant based docs suggest 😉

    Reply

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