Is Whole Foods a Health Food Store?

Posted on June 10th, 2008 in food,local produce,organic by Vegan Raw Diet Advocate
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Being a regular customer at Whole Foods for some time, I’ve had a chance to notice what they sell and who normally shops there.

After a recent visit I’ve come to the conclusion that contrary to popular belief, Whole Foods IS NOT a health food store in my opinion.


For many reasons.

First, WF looks more like an upscale gourmet food store than a health store. Walk around any of the stores and you’ll find an extraordinarily large section of chocolates (including large deli-style display cases filled exclusively with chocolate), one of the largest meat departments in town, more prepared foods than most grocery stores, large selection of processed foods, coffee bar, large selection of desserts, large dairy sections, one of the largest selections of seafoods around, and in many WF, a smokehouse and wine bar.

When you walk around the store, you’ll find samples of guacamole (made in a factory) and chips, smoothies made with sorbet (sugar), pizza, chocolates, chocolate powder in juice and sometimes fruit slices.

None of these sections and samples (except for the fruit) would be considered ‘health’ improving. They are normally found in traditional grocery stores as well but WF has upgraded them with a healthy twist. And it seems to be working since most people ‘think’ that since these foods are at Whole Foods, they ‘must’ be healthy, although in most cases the opposite is true.

Processed food is still processed food and not healthy for you. Even though a processed food is organic and heated to extremely high temperatures, it’s STILL a dead, processed food and not health food. Even though a dessert may be ‘sugar free’ and ‘natural’, it’s STILL a processed food made with processed ingredients. Even though coffee is organically grown and fair trade, it still contains caffeine and is a stimulant. Although milk or cheese may be organic, it’s still pasteurized, dead, clogging to your system and not a health food. Although rice and soy milk is a better alternative to milk, it’s also pasteurized and not a health food. Although bottled juice may be organic, it’s also pasteurized, dead and not a health food.

Is sushi a health food? In reading the label of a box of ‘fresh made’ sushi at WF recently, I found it containing conventional sugar, soy sauce, salt, and ‘natural’ ingredients. It also was ‘made for’ WF and not made in the store as they try to convince you with asian employees working in that department exclusively, wearing asian style attire and looking as though they are preparing fresh sushi.

Are smoked sausage, turkey pizza, frozen lasagna, cheese burritos, egg salad, gelato, chicken salad, chocolate balls, chicken and rice soup, Haagen Daz ice cream… all health improving foods?

To their credit, WF seems to carry more organic, range-free and uncured meats than any other store, although again, not health foods. They also carry many alternatives to traditional and conventional foods that other grocery stores do not carry, including a larger number of organic foods and body products.

Second, most WF employees are not educated in health or the benefits of certain foods, herbs or related foods. In traditional health food stores or co-op’s, employees are normally a wealth of information, from health benefits, personal experiences, additional resources and their genuine, personal interest in health. It often shows in the time they take to explain and answer your questions, and they are normally an example of their interest in their own personal health.

This is normally the exact opposite of what you’ll find in WF. The employees are nice and helpful, but they are mostly not well educated in health, don’t have a personal interest in health, and they often aren’t good examples of health as well. The only exception may be in the Whole Body departments where you may find some employees with additional experience in some stores.

Third, watch who shops at WF.

Spend just a few minutes watching customers come through the store and you’ll find a similar cross section of America today with about 50-75% of customers overweight or obese. Contrast that with who you see shopping at a local farmers market or ‘traditional’ health food store and it’s atypical to todays America, mostly slender and average shoppers.

The only place where you’ll find true ‘health’ food in WF is in the produce department where you’ll normally find fresh, raw fruits and vegetables. Although that is changing since most of the produce found at WF is sourced from large organic ‘factory’ farms and only a small handful from local farms. WF tries hard to advertise (and convince you) they are strong in the ‘local’ market with signs throughout the stores, but in truth, they rarely have more than a few locally grown foods on any given day.

There is a very small section of ‘raw foods’ in some WF where they offer mostly dehydrated raw and super foods. They also carry nuts and seeds in the bulk department, but only a small selection is raw and organic. Most of the bulk department is made up of mixes, nut butters, grains and conventionally grown bulk foods.

Some deli departments do carry a handful of ‘raw’ salads, although it’s a very small handful.

There are a few sprouted grain products available as well, both fresh and frozen.

To their credit, WF does have one side of their salad bar stocked exclusively with organic fresh produce offered at the same price as all their salad bar items.

Overall, in terms of size, I found about 10-15% of the store to have ‘health’ food. Compare this to your local farmers market which is 100% fresh produce, nothing processed and normally picked fresh within days (or hours).

Although I’m grateful that WF is in my area and do shop there for certain items, I find myself at a local farm or farmers market more often. And since I participate in a raw vegan lifestyle, I also enjoy the local aspect of farmers markets and knowing my food is mostly grown locally, is fresh and mostly organic, and I can speak with the farmers, learning about them and the foods they grow, building a relationship.

What do you think? Let me know your comments below.

To your best health!



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4 Responses to 'Is Whole Foods a Health Food Store?'

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  1. Emily said,

    on June 16th, 2008 at 4:56 pm

    Good post. Agree that WF is not a health food store but a mainstream upscale gourmet foods store. There’s a reason why they call it “Whole Paycheck”. Here in Reno they are closing the old Wild Oats store (since it was bought out by WF) and opening a huge new WF store very soon. Their produce is terrible, often shipped from Chile or the Philippines, and highly overpriced. I can see why things like imported Belgian chocolate and French Camembert cheese are expensive, but a head of romaine lettuce shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg. In Reno they are even more shameful: they are trying to sell off all their produce before they move next week, at full price even when the produce is 2 weeks old. At conventional grocery stores, produce that isn’t fresh is discounted or it’s free.

    But their salad bar is nice. It’s also overpriced, though. $18 for a lunch sized salad with greens and such. One thing not mentioned: WF now has a raw vegan foods section.

    While I will shop there for some select things, anything I can find outside of WF I typically won’t buy at WF. As for produce, farmers markets are always the way to go when it comes to buying locally grown.

  2. Tali said,

    on August 11th, 2008 at 7:22 pm

    Yeah, WFM is a definitely not about health foods, but about profit through power. One of the five core values that WFM preaches to all of her employees revolves around:

    Creating Wealth Through Profits & Growth

    We are stewards of our shareholders’ investments and we take that responsibility very seriously. We are committed to increasing long term shareholder value.

    We earn our profits every day through voluntary exchange with our customers. We recognize that profits are essential to creating capital for growth, prosperity, opportunity, job satisfaction and job security.

    This is ONE of the most important Core Values that management pushes on to the employee. I can say this because in my opinion, while I was a paid servant there, WFM management will fire you if you don’t live up to this core value.

    Also, you are right about the majority of the employees not being knowledgeable. Nevertheless, I would reframe this concept because you end up thinking that ALL employees are NOT knowledgeable when some are FAR more knowledgeable than you. Be careful not to fall prey to becoming a hypocrite. The same concept goes for making a judgment on who shops there. Having been on the other side of the observation spectrum, I can say that even some Raw-Foodist could be douchebags.

    In essence, WFM cares only about profits for future investments to monopolize power. For this reason, and only this one, WFM is not about health foods.

    So, in

  3. pearly baker said,

    on September 26th, 2008 at 3:13 pm

    Okay, so I have a TON of qualms with Whole Foods. I may never shop there again for personal reasons. But I also like it when people are truthful in their writing… and I see a lot of problems with your article.

    Wow. Where do I start… first off, let me say that your article MAY be true for the store you are talking about, but there are a ton of things you say that are not true for the stores in my area (Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti, MI). And I would bet they aren’t true for many other Whole Foods stores around the country.

    Some Whole Foods stores do make their own sushi. I have seen it with my own eyes.

    You say that “most WF employees are not educated in health or the benefits of certain foods, herbs or related foods.” I suspect you don’t have any proof of this statement. In fact, I know for certain that all employees working at the stores in our area are trained about the benefits of their foods including organics, the benefits of local foods, the benefits of wild caught vs farm raised seafood, the benefits of hormone free and antibiotic free meats, and a lot more. If you want to make negative statements about Whole Foods, that’s fine. But why risk the integrity of your article by saying things like “most WF employees are not educated in health or the benefits of certain foods, herbs or related foods,” when you really have zero proof of such a statement?

    About sweets and prepared foods. Just because they also sell chocolate and prepared foods does not take away from the health factor of the healthy foods they do sell. Some people are going to buy prepared foods no matter what they are told. I am not the referee for the world’s habits, and I don’t see how anyone can feel as though they are. However, the prepared foods at Whole Foods are much more healthy than any other store in our area… and I ASSUME they are probably more healthy, or at least as healthy, as the prepared foods in any other store of even slightly comparable size. And for the record, there are some health benefits to eating dark chocolate occasionally. Just like there are health benefits to drinking a small amount of red wine on a regular basis.

    Also, I am not sure about your store in particular, but I know that some of the guacamole they sell at the Ann Arbor Whole Foods store is made in the store as well. They also sell stuff that is not made there, but it is clear which is and which is not.

    You also say this: “The only place where you’ll find true ‘health’ food in WF is in the produce department where you’ll normally find fresh, raw fruits and vegetables.” Coming from a vegan, this doesn’t surprise me one bit. But is it actually true as far as trained nutritionists are concerned? No. It isn’t. And it shows your absolute bias towards your own choices in life.

    Get over the meat is murder aspect of meat, and most nutritionists will tell you that some meat is good in your diet. It provides a level of protein and amino acids that are not found in vegetables or grains. Plants don’t contain the full range of essential amino acids. That’s a fact. So if you are not eating any meat, you are absolutely not getting all of the necessary amino acids unless you are supplementing with shots or pills. Many people don’t have the money, time or insurance coverage to feasibly get the shots they need to supplement these amino acids. In their cases, a small amount of chicken, turkey and/or seafood may be the only way for them to get the complete spectrum of essential amino acids.

    Nuts, seeds and beans do supplement some of the needed amino acids, but definitely not the full spectrum.

    I don’t expect you to agree, because most vegans aren’t willing to accept this as they had to deny it to become a vegan in the first place. But it’s true, and I expect that as you get older you will likely find this out if you haven’t already.

    Now, if you want to say that “everything in Whole Foods is not healthy”, then I agree 100%. Or, if you want to say that they have prices that are way too high, I agree as well. Or if you want to say that they treat their employees like shit, I would agree with that as well. And if you want to say that there is a false perception that everything they sell is healthy, well… I agree with that as well.

    But you can’t totally leave out facts such as “all meats are hormone and antibiotic free” if you are going to asses the matter objectively. It seems to me that objectivity wasn’t your point. You set up a paper tiger for the sake of being able to easily tear it down. Well, you succeeded in that, but any rational and knowledgeable reader is going to see through this article like a glass of water with refined sugar in it. Full of bad stuff, but still transparent.

    One other thing to note… before Whole Foods was in every town in America, it was really hard to get good, healthy, organic or local foods in a lot of smaller towns. Since they have succeeded in creating a demand for such products in places where there wasn’t a sure enough demand for a smaller company to set up shop without huge financial risk, it must be acknowledged that they were integral in helping a lot of smaller towns moved towards a time (like now) when there actually are ways to easily get good and healthy food on a regular basis.

    I usually like the writing on this site… but I have to say that sometimes the bias towards a vegan lifestyle totally clouds the objectivity of the writing.

    Why not just present the facts and not cloud them with subjective statements?

    Cheers to helping learn about their health in a truthful and honest way.

  4. Vegan Raw Diet Advocate said,

    on October 21st, 2008 at 9:39 pm

    Thanks for your comment.

    First I wanted to address your last comment about the bias towards a vegan lifestyle. YES! This web site is ALL ABOUT the vegan raw lifestyle and yes, I am strongly in favor of it. That’s the point of this blog :). Through research and my own experience I have found that it’s the most natural, nutritional and healthy way of eating by far. I don’t necessarily have a bias towards the vegan raw lifestyle, I seek the truth and always will.

    BTW, the facts are that a plant based diet is the diet best for heart health, weight loss and overall health. You can’t find a study that claims a flesh based diet, or cooked food diet is healthier.

    And in regards to being vegan and learning how failed it is as I’ve grown older, I can only say that I’ve been vegan for 13 years and raw vegan for almost 4, so with 17 years of experience I disagree with you wholeheartedly.

    Being vegan alone was a step in the right direction for me health wise. Then naturally moving towards a raw vegan diet and then 100% raw vegan has allowed me greater health than in my youth and I’ve never felt better, more alive, more clear, more in tune with my body and life than I am now after switching to a 100% raw vegan 80/10/10 lifestyle. I just recently went in for a wellness check after about 5 years just for fun, and all tests were positive, in fact, some markers were too good. You can’t argue with that. In fact, my practitioner mentioned that she should switch all her patients to a raw vegan diet based on my results (although that would drastically reduce the number of her patients so it probably won’t happen!).

    Regarding the WF staff and education, I don’t need proof. I’ve traveled throughout the country and visited over a dozen WF markets to date, and in my experience, what I’ve written is true. And I’ll make a specific distinction as an example to help make the point. In comparing an average WF employee to a traditional health food store or coop employee, I’ve found the staff from a traditional health food store more knowledgeable on topics of health, benefits of certain foods or herbs and more likely than not have a personal interest in health and wellness and study their craft not only for their own interest, but for the benefit of their customers. In comparing this with a WF employee, I’d compare them more to a traditional grocery store employee that has little or just general knowledge about the products they carry, not specifically the health benefits or any additional background information. Of course there are exceptions and there may be handfuls of more health educated WF employees, although they are a minority in my experience. In fact, go into your WF store and ask someone in the produce department or the supplement department about the health benefits, interactions, background or any other health or wellness question you can and see for yourself.

    I speak with the produce department staff at my WF several times a week and they have knowledge about when produce will arrive or be available, but nothing on the benefits of a specific food, benefits of where it is grown, background on a food or anything else. Your WF produce department in Michigan may be an exception and good for you if it is, it’s only a benefit for you and the customers in your area. My experience has been completely the opposite in every store I’ve visited from the west coast to the east and many in between.

    Regarding the meat and protein issue, I have to respectfully disagree. There is no argument that flesh foods have protein. The animals get them from the PLANT foods they eat. They are then processed by their digestive system and when humans eat them have to be broken down again and rebuilt by our systems. It’s a very inefficient way to get protein. And that is the only benefit to these foods and they have more negatives that outweigh them. The difficulty with flesh foods is that they don’t have any fiber, they are fatty and in today’s world, most are polluted, drugged, mistreated among other things. The downsides just don’t justify eating flesh foods. You can get all the protein (actually amino acids) in plant based foods you need without the downsides of flesh foods – only the positives. See:
    Also, flesh foods are the only way you can get cholesterol into your diet – a major health issue in itself. And the fact that study after study for years now have indicated that eating flesh foods is the leading cause of a number of diseases including cancers of all types is reason (and proof) enough that eating flesh foods is just plain unhealthy. Check out:
    for a great DVD that proves a plant based diet is the best way to reverse most all cardiovascular diseases, and that flesh foods are responsible for most all of these diseases.

    Personally, I’ve never had difficulty finding fresh or local foods in the areas I’ve lived before WF, but know that not all areas have fresh and local produce available year round. WF has definitely helped make organic more accessible to a larger part of our country and I’m grateful for that. They’ve also helped the resurgence of local farmers markets for those, like me, that prefer more locally grown produce that WF doesn’t have available. They promote their ‘local’ connections with farmers, but most stores have only a handful of locally grown produce. Sometimes because of the climate, the time of year or other reasons I’m not aware of.

    To your best health!