Whole Foods Quackery

Source:  The Quackometer

Source: The Quackometer

Fortune has a puff piece out on Whole Foods Market (WFM, a stock in which I have no interest and no intended interest), the up-scale purveyor of excellent prepared food, overpriced groceries with multiple claimed but unsubstantiated benefits, phony health remedies, and the oxymoronic concept of “healthy indulgence.” It made its reputation by pushing healthier living and selling food that doesn’t contain the pesticides and additives that are often staples of “regular” food.

The Whole Foods approach has worked in that its share price is up about 12-fold since its November 2008 recession-era low versus 130 percent for the S&P 500 index. “Great brands impose a view on you,” WFM consultant Kevin Kelley says, and Whole Foods is no exception. “One of the faults that traditional groceries have is they believe the customer is always right.” Today, Whole Foods has a list of 78 banned ingredients, ranging from aspartame to foie gras to high-fructose corn syrup. You may want a Coke, but you can’t get one at Whole Foods.

However, when I took a look at the ingredients that provided Whole Foods its success, the whole thing became far less appetizing. The Whole Foods emphasis on “natural” foods is obviously silly. There is no such thing as non-natural food. Moreover, at least in the United States, it has no consistent meaning. Indeed, the federal Food and Drug Administration explicitly discourages the food industry from using the term. But that doesn’t stop Whole Foods. After all, it’s working.

Oh that a bit of silliness were the only problem. Despite broad scientific consensus that genetically modified food poses no greater health risks than other types of food, Whole Foods says it will require all its vendors to label products with GMOs by 2018 and suggests (at least by inference) that such food isn’t really good for you. Whole Foods would also have you believe that organic produce (which is, not so coincidentally, much more expensive than “regular” produce) will help you stay healthier, even though a major study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine (nicely summarized here) examining hundreds of scientific studies over many years found no evidence of health benefits from organic foods. “There’s a definite lack of evidence,” emphasizes Crystal Smith-Spangler of the Stanford University School of Medicine and an author of the study.

But these issues aren’t all that much to be really upset about. If people want to overpay for something they think will make them healthier, the fact that it doesn’t isn’t too big of a deal. Nobody’s getting hurt and people are stupid all the time. However, the Whole Foods story gets still worse – much worse.

As reported by Michael Schulson in The Daily Beast, Whole Foods pitches homeopathic remedies (such as homeopathic remedies for allergies, homeopathic remedies for colds and fluBoiron homeopathic medicines and even cures for cancer) as well as other foods and “drugs” that make medical claims that are simply false. Homeopathy is, after all, pure quackery. Whole Foods also sells probiotics — live bacteria given to (allegedly) treat and prevent disease – but it’s a total scam: “If you are a normal human, with a normal diet, save your money. Probiotics have nothing to offer but an increased cost.”

Phony claims such as these are far more damaging than simply pushing “natural” and organic foods. That’s because such fake remedies often cause people to forego substantive medical care that might actually help. For example, such an approach may well have cost Steve Jobs his life, to his obvious regret.

Sadly, it isn’t just customers who have fallen for the Whole Foods hype. “They’re a leading national authority on health and nutrition,” says BB&T Capital Markets analyst Andrew Wolf, “and unequivocally the leading retailer on the link between food and health.” As if.

My friend Josh Brown even fell for the WFM nonsense: “There’s a lesson in the Whole Foods brand that I think carries a great example for my organization and possibly yours as well: The customers are not always right and, more importantly, they sometimes wants [sic] to be told what’s best for them and to have harmful options taken away from within their grasp.” Unfortunately, what customers are told is all too frequently in error and obviously bad for them, as Whole Foods so aptly demonstrates.

Happily, I have every confidence that Josh is doing right by his clients. And I completely agree with Josh’s conclusion: “Zealous advocacy is not fascism, and steering a customer away from something they don’t need or shouldn’t want is just as important as the actual suggestions you are making.” But Whole Foods is far from a good example of “doing [what] is superior and in the clients’ best interest.” In fact, Whole Foods should be a cautionary tale rather than an exemplar.

Maybe there really is a sucker born every minute and Whole Foods will continue to survive and even thrive despite its bogus marketing. But I’d like to think that truth will out, at least eventually.

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19 thoughts on “Whole Foods Quackery

    • Who is the author and why has he not taken credit for this idiotic article? The author of this story is selling something by calling people stupid. These “stupid” people are such because they admire a company that has decided to not sell coke and many other items with nefarious ingredients. Talk about stupid, to suggest that the American medical establishment is a reliable source for health guidance and nutrition. There are members of that organization that actually smoke cigarettes and drink diet coke, they have questionable credibility. The author should just eat what he wants and enjoy. As far as overpaying at whole foods this is further misinformation. The exact same thing, same brand, same size, at whole foods is consistently cheaper then at any other conventional store. The reason for this is that these quality products sold at whole foods are primary and they purchase volume. The conventional stores provide quality foods as a secondary thought and as a consequence of seeing how whole foods has thrived and would like to participate. To suggest that whole foods is more expensive is absurd as they do not sell the same products as the conventional stores do. The author of this article wants you, (for some odd reason) to believe that it’s the people paying for quality food that are stupid, however he is simply interested in YOU being stupid.

  1. I would have to disagree with one point here. Probiotics are helpful to those who had to take antibiotics and are coming off of them. Obviously, antibiotics kill the flora in your gut. I am talking about the probiotics sold as a powder and not those in yogurt. I think your wording gives the wrong idea about probiotics. Yes, total scam if people say they cure cancer.

    • Actually that’s largely myth. ‘Probiotics’ are good food, but they do NOT replace the critical gut fauna. They are completely different species (gut fauna are highly specialized). People who lose gut fauna need to go through a fairly complex and difficult procedure to re-establish it. Eating some yogurt does NOT accomplish that.

  2. Forgive my cynicism, but the author of this article is either an employee or huge fan of Big Pharma’s ‘Better Living Through Chemistry’. The criticisms made can easily be debunked as ‘straw man’ arguments. The majority of our food sources come from nutrient deficient soils, just for starters.

    • Yes, I wonder what his motivation is for putting in writing something that is so bizarre. In the 80′s people were writing about how the non smoking population was buying into nonsense and doctors would say smoking is ok, unless you begin to have trouble breathing. EAT WELL, LIVE WELL. Support stores that provide you with undeniably good advice. Whole foods is a pioneer, a trail blazer whereby other grocers will follow and ultimately we will be healthier. The American standards are far below those of Europe and we need to make federal policies that clearly mark products containing harmful ingredients no matter where they are sold. Even the poor misguided bufoon author will benefit.

  3. I have an idea, don’t go and be agitated.
    psst they have the best deli sandwiches and a most fantastic cheese selection.
    Other than that I got to Trader Joes.

  4. I think this article is rather strange. Whole Foods is not marketing quackery. Even if you accept the premise that there is no benefit to eating their “natural” foods, they are serving an existing market. Vegetarians and especially vegans (and “ethical omnivores”) are obsessed with controlling the quality of their food consumption, and Whole Foods is meeting their demand, at a hefty profit (obsessive behaviors often result in huge profits for those who cater to the obsessed). The non-GMO labeling is because their customers want that, not because Whole Foods is thrusting this upon their customers. If my children and their friends are any indication, food-obsessives are a growing market. We’ll be seeing more urban agriculture, “farm to table”, etc. Invest in “ethical” seed companies, gardening tool manufacturers etc.

  5. That’s not why I am buying organic. I am buying organic because modern non-organic agricultural practices are not conserving the soil, are not conserving the water, are not conserving the wildlife, and have harmful impacts to people following long and complex chains of cause and effect that may be far removed from the actual farms. I am buying organic as a matter of social responsibility, trying to do what I reasonably can to minimize harm to others.

    • “Organic” methods produce less food per acre than modern methods. So in fact organic processes are far more destructive.

      Basically you are flat out wrong and should do some actual non-whackadoodle research instead of coming across as a fool.

      • Yes, but that additional productivity comes at a very heavy price, and a price that is usually not borne by either the producer or the consumer.

      • Consuming Organic foods are a very good idea. It is difficult to get cancer if you do not consume chemicals found in pesticides. Pesticides kill bugs and logically they kill you as well. The yields are much lower and therefore must be more expensive. This is common sense.

  6. F-e-e-e-lings….Every wackdoodle is free to distribute his/her wealth as they see fit. Different strokes, etc. Let’s have some more humorous articles analyzing First-World nitwittery!

  7. There’s a sucker born every minute. And apparently they are willing to rationalize the fact that they are being suckered, beg for the opportunity to over pay, and defend the store that is suckering them … if the above comments can evidence.

    Whole Foods = Whole Paycheck

  8. The author of this story is selling something by calling people stupid. These “stupid” people are such because they admire a company that has decided to not sell coke and many other items with nefarious ingredients. Talk about stupid, to suggest that the American medical establishment is a reliable source for health guidance and nutrition. There are members of that organization that actually smoke cigarettes and drink diet coke, they have questionable credibility. The author should just eat what he wants and enjoy. As far as overpaying at whole foods this is further misinformation. The exact same thing, same brand, same size, at whole foods is consistently cheaper then at any other conventional store. The reason for this is that these quality products sold at whole foods are primary and they purchase volume. The conventional stores provide quality foods as a secondary thought and as a consequence of seeing how whole foods has thrived and would like to participate. To suggest that whole foods is more expensive is absurd as they do not sell the same products as the conventional stores do. The author of this article wants you, (for some odd reason) to believe that it’s the people paying for quality food that are stupid, however he is simply interested in YOU being stupid.

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