By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

You’re on your own at Whole Foods

In my latest for the Guardian, I detail my love-hate relationship with Whole Foods — prompted by an unwelcome encounter with high-fructose corn syrup between the soup and the vegetables.

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  1. Doug Shugarts

    … and so much of Whole Foods’s groceries are available at Trader Joe’s for half the price…

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Doug: Yes. And we do far more of our shopping at Trader Joe’s than at Whole Foods. Market Basket has also improved a lot in carrying local produce and natural meat. So Whole Foods deviates from its niche at its peril.

  2. Ben

    I haven’t seen any convincing evidence that HFCS is any worse than table sugar. (Or that ketchup made with table sugar is somehow good for you.) I agree with your argument that gov’t policy has encouraged people to eat too much sugar by making HFCS artificially cheap. That’s a good reason to withdraw corn subsidies, but not to remove it from your diet, much less Whole Foods store shelves.

    But you’re right that this may be a poor business decision. If the cult of Health Living deems HFCS to be evil, then Whole Foods is guilty of a venal sin indeed.

  3. LFNeilson

    HFCS in ketchup is probably the most extreme example of the invasion of our foods by unneeded additives. Tomatoes are sweet enough with no additive. Adding HFCS to so many foods is a serious health issue for diabetics who must avoid sugars, especially for those who don’t understand what HFCS is. Excellent article.

  4. lkcape

    Start reading labels.

    You will be surprised at how many products contain HFCS, corn starch and/or soy derivatives.

    And it doesn’t matter what store you are in.

  5. Newshound

    I’m not surprised. It is in everything, almost. A horrible product. A real killer. A horrible detriment to health care.

    All of the advancements in medical care has not resulted in extending the longevity of life substantially because of our atmosphere, stress and poor quality of food.

    This horrible substance is very cheap to make and great to use because it actually tastes good.

    The money in food is in the conversion and processing, using cheap ingredients that make a tasty concoction with an attractive wrapper for marketing.

    This poison is actually in one of the healthiest of all foods: yogurt.

    Like Larz writes, it is bad for diabetics. But it also contributes to diabetes Type 2, and many other illnesses that result in the horribleness of poor health and the predatory burden of insurance and health care costs.

    Children today are growing up on this stuff. People in their 80s did not.

  6. George Williams

    Unnatural meat? Artificial meat? Tofu, soy??

  7. Aaron Read

    Dan, read this bit from and then tell me it’s not the EXACT same thing.

  8. Michael Pahre

    Why is Whole Foods being critical of trans fats, while not being critical of high-fructose corn syrup?

    Whole Foods sells no products containing trans fats — nor any containing petroleum products — so why draw the line to keep HFCS within their four walls?

    If the argument is that individuals should be choosing healthy foods on their own, then… stock those shelves with Twinkies, too!

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Michael: Exactly. In his zeal to embrace individual choice, Mackey has forgotten that the most important choice his customers have made is to shop at Whole Foods so that they don’t have to think about laboratory-created substances like HFCS.

      By the way, I do read labels fairly closely, and I have never run into HFCS at Trader Joe’s.

  9. Ben

    Michael, of course Whole Foods sells trans fats – they’re found naturally in meat, dairy, butter, etc.

    BTW, Dan, your “unwelcome encounter with high-fructose corn syrup between the soup and the vegetables” reads like a true Bobo tale of woe…I mean, that’s almost as bad as when they put whipped cream on my soy latte!

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Ben: Do you work for ADM? Making people think that caring about food is for effete weenies is a well-known tactic of the food industry.

      As for whether naturally occurring trans fats are the same as the synthetic ones, here is a starting point.

  10. Paul Bass

    Sounds like Dan is proposing a grocery “aggregator” much like our emerging web news aggregator. Sounds good!

  11. jvwalt

    I suspect that Whole Foods is also suffering the inevitable transition from up-and-comer to mature business. It’s relatively easy, given enough capital, to build a national franchise; it’s a lot harder to maintain an established one.

    Whole Foods has captured its core market. Now it has to find ways to add to its customer base — the challenge of increasing “same-store sales” as opposed to growing by simply adding new locations. The usual tactic is to dilute the original mission and add products like Heinz ketchup in hopes of attracting new shoppers. It seldom works, and it risks alienating the core.

  12. Dunque

    Dan – You have voted with your feet. At the end of the day that is the correct response if you feel as you do. Time will tell if Mackey has made the correct choice.

    It is his business to run after all. If the shareholders and board of directors see customers making similar choices to yours then Mackey will lose his job. And Heinz Ketchup will disapper off the shelves.

    Ain’t capitalism wonderful?

  13. Ben

    Dan, I wasn’t calling you an effete weenie (that’s not what a bobo is, see “Bobo’s in Paradise”). And if you’d notice, I actually included myself in the characterization. My point is only that these health concerns are driven by a culture (and media!) that makes us easily mislead and obsessed by the trivial.

    I do care about what I eat, but I’ve come to believe as Michael Pollan — eating well is mostly common sense — your immigrant grandmother is a better guide than most health gurus.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Ben: I read a good chunk of “Bobos in Paradise” and liked it. But if memory serves, Brooks was definitely mocking us, even if he was including himself. Pollan is the best. But both of my grandmothers have long since passed on, and neither was an immigrant. The best solution is to eat real food, locally grown and raised. (Our local dairy does not participate in any sort of “organic” program, and I couldn’t care less.) But most of the time it’s pretty hard to get more than part of the way there.

  14. lkcape

    No… No…. Heinz ketchup will disappear from the shelves?

    John Kerry might lose his ride on the Ketchup Executive jet!

    How will he get to Nantucket?

  15. Quantum Mechanic

    Sorry, Dan, but your Grauniad article is nothing more than and has no more worth than a blog commenter who whines that the blogger isn’t blogging about what the whiner wants him to blog about.

    Where do you get off constructing this strawman of what you think WF should be and then whining (or should that be whinging, since your article appears in the UK?) that it’s not what you want it to be?

    Get real.

  16. Michael Pahre

    @Dan: You might try asking the “sales associates” (=employees) at both Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. They are trained and educated as to what their store does and does not sell by company edict/policy.

    That is how I found out that WF sells no products that include trans fats or petroleum products: an employee told me. It turns out that they have company policies for both.

    It might save you time in the future, although I suspect you would still read the labels anyway.

  17. Sam

    Alright, WF sells Heinz ketchup. Do you have other examples, or is this just about ketchup?

  18. Lafcadio Mullarkey

    My copy of the New Yorker was late so I just caught up to this. (I want my hardcopy dammit.)

    According to the article Mackey’s “We sell a bunch of junk” remark, made in August, was a repudiation of earlier WF practice, and the beginning of an effort on the store’s part to “go on a diet”. Doesn’t mean his Big Idea-type declaration will make it all the way to the shelves (he doesn’t get involved much in the day to day, the article says), but on the other hand it wasn’t a declaration of cavalier libertarianism either. As in “WF customer, you’re on your own, good luck!”

    He does say that consumers are responsible for their own health. I don’t find this much of a contradiction. Plenty of stuff considered unhealthy by some will sneak into any store of that size. They sell sausage, beer, ice cream…

    Trader Joe’s is great but on a different scale. They can’t get much bigger without similar compromises I think.

    I find Whole Foods intimidating, and am not convinced the higher prices for “organic” anything are worth it. The NY article mentions Pollan’s example of “organic” asparagus flown 6000 miles from Argentina. I think transport cost is less of a factor than locavores claim. Still, you’re no more likely to find local produce at Whole Foods than at MarketBasket, which is a shame. Again, a scale issue I think. A nationwide chain simply cannot provide locally-produced food.

  19. Brian

    I can’t believe you read that New Yorker article where Mackey claimed the “jury was still out” on global warming, shopped in a store where they sell $8 marshmallows, and yet the breaking point for you was discovering that they sell cheap mainstream ketchup AS WELL AS the organic stuff you want. This is like something out of a Seinfeld episode.

    I’m curious: do you avoid going to restaurants, do you try to pre-screen them and only go the ones that (claim to) have the same organic and healthy principles you live by at home, or do you just order something relatively healthy and cross your fingers?

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Brian: Whole Foods is a grocery store. I care about the groceries. I couldn’t care less what Mackey thinks about global warming — that’s his business. And where did you get the idea that I had reached a “breaking point”? I never said I would stop shopping at Whole Foods. I don’t shop there that much anyway — it’s too far from our house and too expensive. But I was certainly disappointed to learn that there’s really no such thing as a Whole Foods seal of approval.

      We try to be conscious about what we buy, but by no means do we limit what we eat to what is “organic and healthy.” Organic is something of a scam in any case. I’ll take local over organic any day, but too often we are able to do neither.

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