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Problems with Whole Foods and other Health Food Stores

admin March 19, 2010

I love Whole Foods.

I love the experience of shopping there, the smells of wonderful foods, the array of fresh produce, all the local products they feature.  I look forward to going there every other Friday morning to buy the vast majority of my food (except for beef, which I buy from a farm, and produce in the summer).  I almost always get a salad or something for lunch before I leave.  Although…I have a hard time selecting something to eat from their prepared foods.  It’s because they use a lot of low-fat foods, canola oil, gluten, dairy, and other things I can’t eat.  Some of those are simply my restrictions, but some of them are pseudo-healthy, like the canola oil.

Therein lies the major problem with Whole Foods and other health food stores.  They have a lot of products that are perceived as “healthy,” but which are not.  Some are outright NOT healthy, like organic potato chips, organic soda, organic ice cream….  Yes, they’re made with organic ingredients, but they are still stripped of nutrients, full of sugar (real cane sugar instead of HFCS, but still), made with unsaturated oils, etc.  They’re not health foods.  They’re labeled as being “better” because they use sea salt instead of regular salt, or sunflower oil instead of GMO corn oil.  But still, they’re junk food.  They’re not whole foods, they’re not worth eating.  Most health food stores are quite aware that these products they’re selling are not truly healthy, but most people who want to eat health food still want to feel normal, so they want the option to buy “health” food that looks almost exactly like the usual packaged food they’re no longer buying.  Also, these packaged foods make most of the money for the stores, so they need them to survive financially.

Beyond that, though, there are many different ideas about what’s healthy out there.  Soy, low-fat diets, canola oil, etc.  But none of these are healthy.  Non-GMO soy, fermented and used only as a condiment, is not bad.  But there is a huge array of products made from heavily processed soy, like soy burgers, soy “chicken,” soy “hot dogs,” soy yogurt, soy milk…and on and on.  These products are extremely processed and are not healthy.  At all.  There’s soy margarine, which everyone celebrates!  Earth Balance, no trans fats, yay!  But no.  It’s a fake food.

Health food stores are heavily biased towards low-fat and fat-free diets, too.  On Trader Joe’s website, they discuss different types of fats.  They vilify saturated fats far more than they do TRANS FATS!  Look at the text here:

 Saturated fat is a triglyceride molecule that contains only single carbon bonds. They can raise your blood cholesterol, which can lead to heart disease. Animal fats found in meat, poultry and whole-milk dairy products are all high in saturated fats.

Trans fat is a specific kind of fat that is formed when oil manufacturers change a liquid oil into a solid or semi solid fat, such as shortening or margarine. Hydrogen is added to liquid vegetable oil to solidify it. This process is called hydrogenation, and it creates trans fats. Trans fats are also found in nature, but in very small amounts in some animal based foods.

Isn’t that amazing?  Saturated fats are blamed for heart disease and cholesterol issues; trans fats aren’t even labeled as “bad!”  I’ve already written to Trader Joe’s about this, suggesting that they do some research and update their site accordingly.  I would suggest that you all do the same.  However, since their company is highly pro-low-fat diet, I doubt they’ll take it seriously.  They are proudly selling their low-fat granola, low-fat brownie mixes (I haven’t looked at the sugar content on those, but I’d bet it’s extremely high), and other low-fat foods.

Health food stores aren’t catering to a truly healthy audience.  They’re catering to what the mainstream perceives as healthy.  They’re not interested in a real-food perspective.

I’ve read that John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, is vegan.  Whole Foods stores are increasingly leaning towards vegan offerings.  They’ve pulled raw milk from the shelves in several Western states (where it is legal), they’re putting out brochures and programs designed to reduce consumption of animal products and increase consumption of low-fat, raw foods.

This all makes me sad.  Why, as the mainstream begins to notice the “new” real foods movement, is the “health” community pushing back so hard with raw foods, veganism, low-fat diets, and all of the other 90s fads that have been shown by those doing real science to be not that great after all?  (NOT that you shouldn’t consume raw foods; the lifestyle to ONLY consume raw foods is just too extreme.)

I believe we need to fight back now.  The mainstream isn’t going to pick up on the real food movement unless we make a bigger deal about it.  We need to keep blogging about it, keep holding events, write letters to health food stores asking them to have real-food speakers and feature real-food products, and reduce reliance on low-fat, high-sugar products.  We need to let them know we’re out there so that they can cater to us and so that the culture will slowly change.

Stand up, write a letter.  Boycott the stores if you have other options (a lot of people don’t, unfortunately).  Shop at farmer’s markets in the summer and find local farmers you can buy from off-season if possible (for meat, or if they grow in the greenhouse).  Make your presence known.  This is important, because the health community is writing off the real food movement right now.  Last month, Jenny at Nourished Kitchen issued a 28-day Real Food Challenge that was extremely well participated in.  So well, in fact, that it made the news on CNN.  There are 764 comments on that article, and many of them negative.  That’s the view of the real food movement right now.

What do you think of the real food movement?  What do you think of health food stores?  Will you continue to shop at Whole Foods after their latest annoucements?

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8 Comments

  1. My Dad always says, "Everything is politics and follow the money." So until companies start making "real" money off of "real" food, nothing will change. Our country has to gain more than good health to change mainstream. I do not intend to shop at Whole Foods exclusively, ever. I hope to be able to grow most of our food and store it via canning or freezing and to shop locally for meat, honey, etc, etc. As you said, WF and TJ do not actually carry that many "whole" or "real" foods anyway so what’s to be bought? I try to support my local somewhat-ghetto Kroger and buy as much organic foods there as possible so that at least maybe the prices will be more competitive in the future. Plus, as no one else is really purchasing what I buy, there tends to be a lot of Manager’s Specials to be taken advantage of.

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  2. WOW! You have suscinctly said what I have been thinking for a very long time. I am not putting my real name because I work at one of these two stores you mention. I think Mackey is a fraud. He’s promoting veganism because there is a high profit margin in those foods. Trader Joes would sell you "organic plutonium" if you wanted to buy it. They are opportunists and tend to sell people what people think is healthy. The sad thing is that so may people who are trying to be healthier end up in these stores looking for better food and get sold processed crap. I get customers who ask me health questions all the time and I have to look both ways, lean in close and whisper "put all that crap(lowfat granola, organic cookies, fat-free salad dressing) back on the shelf and get real food!" I dont expect these companies to change any time soon and would love to see a resurgence of co-ops and locally owned stores that sold real food. Then again mom and pop "health food" stores are full of soy everything and the one I shop at refuses to carry fresh meats or evil substances such as organic heavy cream.

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  3. Amen! Thanks for posting this. I’ve been trying to explain this exact fact to many folks. Now I can just forward this link to them : ).
    JenE

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  4. I was just in both of those stores this morning, and you can do a reasonable job shopping if you follow old, traditional grocery store rules, such as sticking to the perimeter and buying ingredients, not convenience foods. However, it makes my blood boil to think that it is somehow any better to shop at TJ or WF than a local grocery store. Processed organic food is still processed food.

    I think the primary problem is that we live in a "sound-byte" society where everyone gets their information in 20 second snippets on NPR instead of actually researching what they put into their bodies. And, of course, who wants to take the time to actually bake or cook? Even women who stay home with their children look at me as though I am from outer space when I say that I make all of our baked goods, canned goods, and meals. When I mention that I grind my own flour, they are completely lost for words.

    TJ and WF capitalize on our rushed society by offering items consistent with the sound-bytes without requiring any actual work to make the food.

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  5. I agree with Liesel. Eventually I would like to not shop at any grocery store. I’d like to grow our own, can our own, and supplement with produce from the Farmer’s Market. We already try to buy our meat locally and we have our own chickens. There is a locally owned bulk store in town for spices and flours and pantry stuff.

    For now, our local store has most of the organic, whole foods that I need. There isn’t a Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods in probably 100 miles of me anyway. 🙂

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  6. THANK YOU for this concise, awesome post! I was literally just about to embark upon a similiar post after a VERY frustrating trip to Whole Foods yesterday. You are spot on in all of your observations. Other than there being more local, organic choices at places like Whole Foods, Sprouts, and local non-chain health food stores, there is still mostly processed crap. Drives me insane. And then, I cannot even find WHOLE MILK YOGURT or COTTAGE CHEESE! Sure, they have organic but it is all low and non fat. The only Whole Milk yogurt at WF was a cheapy brand – not even organic. I needed to make some quick whey so it was fine for that but seriously…there seems to be less and less that suits my needs at health food stores. They are not following any sort of traditional foods plan.

    I am trying very hard to step away from grocery stores as much as possible but with a toddler, I do have to cheat sometimes. I cannot make every little thing from scratch. I am a mommy first! I just wish that there were more options for traditional foods at a decent price.

    Thank you again for this post! Loved it and now I can link to yours and write about something else. 🙂

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  7. I understand how people are being manipulated by these chain stores, but there are some stores out there doing a fantastic job too. Our food co-op here in Bellingham is a prime example. They offer very clear labeling and explanations, some classes and have staff to answer questions. A lot of the product is local too so u know your source. When it comes to the raw milk issue I have no idea if u can still find it….but I know at least here in Washington state there are some concerns regarding it do to sicknesses that have been linked to raw milk. Nothing like a good health scare to make people concerned, people still remember the Jack-in-the-Box E. Coli fiasco from years ago around here.

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  8. I shop at WF weekly (for less items every year as I find more local sources and eat more true whole foods) and I hear the workers giving out health advice. I want to interrupt and say NO! This is not right! the CEO is giving out his personal diet not well researched, true “whole food” advice! They heavily promote the China Study. My son, at age 5, asks every week if we can write a comment. The comment he wants to write, “how come the store is called “Whole Foods” when you don’t sell very much whole food”? He gets so tired of seeing something that looks good and being told no, bad ingredients. We have been soy of any type and of any amount free and canola oil free for over 15 yrs. We are also strict on possible GMOs and grain feed dairy/beef. We don’t even chance soy feed eggs. So, we do buy just ingredients at Whole Foods with occasional meat, rare yogurt … and occasionally soy free chocolate – hey, I am not perfectly self controlled! 😉

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I’m Kate, mama to 5 and wife to Ben.  I love meeting new people and hearing their stories.  I’m also a big fan of “fancy” drinks (anything but plain water counts as ‘fancy’ in my world!) and I can’t stop myself from DIY-ing everything.  I sure hope you’ll stick around so I can get to know you better!

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