It is growing harder to make the case that shopping at Whole Foods is socially commendable. Whole Foods has faced well-deserved criticism for its effects on the environment, and its employees.
Whole Foods is an "industrial organic" company that has done away with the local distribution that was the center of the 1960‘s back-to-nature movement. There is nothing environmentally friendly about Whole Food‘s practice of importing asparagus in from Argentina in January.
Whole Foods is also the second largest union-free food retailer, right behind Wal-Mart. Whole Foods has taken the position that unions are not valid.
Many of Whole Foods’ canned or boxed items contain MSG, even though it is on Whole Foods list of unacceptable food ingredients. Their dairy products may or may not contain rBGH.
Whole Foods is a Fortune 500 Company that owes its allegiance to its shareholders. It is exploiting a niche market, and has now cleared the field of major competitors, leaving it free to raise prices and reduce quality.
Whole Foods, the largest premium natural and organic supermarket chain in the United States, first entered into a merger plan with its chief rival Wild Oats in February 2007. Their plans were halted by the Federal Trace Commission (FTC) at the time, who contended that the merger violated federal antitrust laws by eliminating the substantial competition between the two close competitors. They also said it would give Whole Foods unilateral market power resulting in higher prices and reduced quality, service and choice for consumers.
Well, money spoke the loudest again, it would seem.
Certainly, Whole Foods Market has helped bring organic healthy and unprocessed foods to the mainstream market, but, like most large corporations, it will have to contend with its shareholders, even if that means cutting corners here and there in order to make a profit.
Are Large Corporations Friend or Foe in the Organic Market?
The creation of the organic market niche is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the involvement of large corporations has turned organic food into a $16-billion business, with sales growing by as much as 20 percent per year. What this means for many Americans is access to more organic foods, likely at lower prices.
Large corporations also have big advertising budgets, which means the idea of eating foods free from pesticides, genetically modified ingredients and raised in sustainable, humane ways is getting a lot of publicity, whereas just a couple of decades ago it was next to unheard of.
The downside, however, might outweigh the benefits.
Because as soon as big corporations dip their hands into a project, it automatically becomes about maximizing profits by churning out the largest amount of product for the least expense. If this means sacrificing some ethics and skimping on some quality, that’s a price they’re willing to pay.
As a result of organic going mainstream in national super-chains such as Wal-Mart and Whole Foods, the term “organic” has virtually lost its meaning, and it is no longer a guarantee that the food is any better for either you or the environment.
You can now buy organic versions of ice cream, potato chips, crackers, soda and just about anything else, but these foods are STILL not good for you; they’re still junk foods with little or no real nutritional value. And, from an environmental aspect, at least one study has found that the transportation of organic produce causes an environmental impact large enough to cancel out any environmental benefits.
So, when you take all these factors into account, buying local is often better than buying organic, because you get fresher foods that didn't use up excess fuel to be transported long distances. They’re also likely to be somewhat less expensive since the rising fuel costs inevitably get passed down the line to the end consumer.
How to Get Your Money’s Worth When Shopping at Whole Foods Market
A 2007 Money Magazine article highlighted the problems of Whole Foods Market and gave several pointers to keep in mind, so you don’t end up spending your whole paycheck on not-so-great foods. Among them:
- Whole Foods offers only a limited supply of local produce, meaning the environmental damage it causes in transportation is just as high as most other supermarkets. Even in summer months, only 30 percent of the produce in your average Whole Foods store is grown locally. On the upside, they’re clearly labeled, which can help you in your purchasing decisions.
- Although Whole Foods doesn't carry products with trans fats or artificial coloring, everything else is fair game, including MSG and rBGH, so being a vigilant label reader is still a necessity. For a great resource on how to find hidden MSG, please see the website www.MSGMYTH.com for detailed listings.
- The in-store prepared foods do list ingredients, but there's no nutritional information provided.
It remains to be seen whether Whole Foods’ CEO John Mackey holds true to his word to develop a new multi-tiered system for rating organic farms and meat producers this year, as he discussed it with Michael Pollan in February 2007. Mackey said he’d like to create more transparency in the food chain, which he believes could become the basis of a new national system.
Why and When to Buy Organic
Conventionally grown food is often tainted with a multitude of chemical residues, including synthetic chemical fertilizers, insecticides, and herbicides. These pesticides can cause a wide variety of health problems, including:
- Disruption of your endocrine system
- Immune system suppression
- Male infertility and miscarriages in women
However, you can easily overspend on purchasing organic now that everyone is jumping on the organic bandwagon, so let me give you some tips on how to prioritize your spending.
Meats and Poultry -- Since animal products tend to bioaccumulate toxins, concentrating them to far higher concentrations than are typically present in vegetables, it would make sense to make sure all your meat choices are organic.
When choosing organic beef, you should also go the additional step and make certain the cows are grass-fed exclusively, especially the three months before they are slaughtered, as this is when they are typically given grains to fatten them up.
For chickens, it would be important to make sure they are cage-free, or free-range, chickens.
Fresh produce – When it comes to produce, buying local may be more important than buying organic since freshness is so very important. You’re better off buying fresh, vibrant, conventionally grown produce than wilted organic.
As a side note on this issue, I am currently in the process of examining some VERY interesting technology that can destroy all the pesticide residue on produce in less than a second. It is really amazing, relatively inexpensive and may become a virtual necessity for all of us. I hope to report on this by the end of the year.
That said, organic produce has been shown to have a much higher nutrient-content than conventional fresh produce, which should be a pretty good motivator to locate organic produce that has also been grown locally. On average, conventional produce has only 83 percent of the nutrients of organic produce.
Personal care products – As reported in the article above, many personal care products contain ingredients listed on Whole Foods’ unacceptable food ingredients’ list. Remember: if it’s not safe to eat, it’s not safe to put on your skin either as it is absorbed directly into your blood stream.
An additional concern that was recently raised by the Organic Consumer’s Association is that a whopping 50 percent of “natural” and “organic” products were found to be contaminated with 1,4 Dioxane – a petrochemical carcinogen. The results of their testing of 100 “organic” personal care products are listed on their website and worth checking out to make sure you’re actually getting what you think you’re paying for.
The only way to ensure your personal care product is truly organic is to look for the USDA Organic seal, which certifies that it complies with organic standards and is free of petrochemicals.
Essentially, although you may spend more money on organic food and personal care products, your payoff of good health should more than make up for it – and reduce your health care costs in the future.
It makes sense to me to invest a little bit more now so I can avoid paying LARGE hospital bills later on, but more importantly, I can avoid the disability and dysfunction from not being healthy. (If you don’t believe me on this one you simply must see the video of Michael J. Fox to show you what is possible if you consistently violate this principle.)
Where to Buy Organic and Locally-Grown Food
To assist you on your way to Taking Control of Your Health, here are some great resources to help you obtain wholesome food that supports not only you, but the environment as well. Combined with the tips on how to prioritize your spending, these resources can help you to put the very best food money can buy on your table.
- Farmers' Markets -- www.ams.usda.gov/farmersmarkets
A national listing of farmers' markets.
- Local Harvest -- www.localharvest.org
Find farmers' markets, family farms, and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area.
- Eat Well Guide: Wholesome Food from Healthy Animals -- www.eatwellguide.org
The Eat Well Guide is a free online directory of sustainably raised meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs from farms, stores, restaurants, inns, and hotels, and online outlets in the United States and Canada.
- Chicago's Green City Market -- Chicago's only sustainable market with the highest quality locally farmed products. May through October. (Wednesdays and Saturdays, 7 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.)
Community Supported Agriculture programs (CSA’s)
- Alternative Farming Systems Information Center, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) -- http://www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/csa/
- Weston A. Price Foundation -- www.westonaprice.org
- FoodRoutes -- www.foodroutes.org
The FoodRoutes “Find Good Food” map can help you connect with local farmers to find the freshest, tastiest food possible. On their interactive map, you can find a listing for local farmers, CSA's, and markets near you.
- Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) -- www.buylocalfood.com
Grass-Fed Beef Ranchers
- Panorama Meats – Black Angus and Red Angus -- www.panoramameats.com
- Country Natural Beef – Hereford and Angus -- www.countrynaturalbeef.com
- Tallgrass Beef -- www.tallgrassbeef.com
- Niman Ranch – A network of more than 600 independent farmers and ranchers, and probably the easiest to find locally -- www.nimanranch.com
- Pacific Village – Entirely grass-fed cattle since 2002 -- www.newseasonsmarket.com