Food Babe Investigates: What to Watch out for at Whole Foods

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Vani Hari (a.k.a. The Food Babe) is a regular contributor on 100 Days of Real Food. To learn more about Vani check out “Our Team” page.

If I could give one piece of health advice to everyone I meet I’d ask them to shop in a place where they can get the best quality groceries and produce available. Changing where I shop has been fundamental in changing my health for the better.

However, going to the grocery store – even natural ones – can be really daunting, especially if you are trying to avoid processed foods. Whole Foods Market stores, known for their organic and natural options, are popping up everywhere…we even got one here in my hometown just last month. People inherently trust Whole Foods because their marketing is almost spotless. Whole Foods emotionalizes the shopping experience with visions of abundant good-for-you-eats the moment you walk in the store. They greet you with an array of fresh flowers that immediately invokes a state of freshness, and the high quality standards are touted to easily make anyone believe they are shopping at the best place possible.

Whole Foods has a laundry list of chemicals, preservatives and additives they do not allow in their stores that should alleviate most of your worries – an “unacceptable” list of ingredients that I highly endorse and wish every grocery store followed (albeit, it’s missing a couple of items). Typical wholesalers and conventional supermarkets are stocked with so many questionable chemicals and ingredients it makes my head spin. This is why I’ve pretty much stopped going to conventional grocery stores all together – it’s just too exhausting to have to avoid all the chemical additives they let into their stores and to have to constantly scrutinize their ingredients.

Whole Foods is far superior to conventional grocery stores in terms of what they don’t allow in their stores, however I uncovered some facts that will shock even the most savvy consumer.

But before we get into the details, Lisa wants to quickly make sure everyone knows about their “100 Days of Real Food” meal planning sponsor, No More To Go…as in No More “To Go” Meals! Through their service you get 5 dinner recipes each week that take the guesswork out of what to cook. Corresponding grocery lists are included and so are modifications for gluten free, vegetarian, and kid-friendly. Be sure to use the discount code “100DAYS” for 30% off and to save you even more time in the kitchen also check out their free page of food tips and tricks.

Okay, so back to Whole Foods and what you need to look out for:

1. Not Everything is Organic 

Don’t let the fact that they are a certified organic grocery store fool you. Being CCOF certified means practically nothing in terms of how much organic produce they actually have to sell you. I’ve been to Whole Foods many times now, and I haven’t been able to find all of the organic produce I want – most of it is conventional and often flown in from other countries. For instance, I use cucumbers in one of my favorite smoothie recipes right now, and on the last three trips to Whole Foods, organic cucumbers were not available along with several other of my staples I buy on a weekly basis. Buying organic vegetables like cucumbers is very important because they are included in the dirty dozen list – a list of fruits and vegetables that are recommended to purchased only organic because of the high level of pesticide residue found in them. Remember that increased exposure to pesticides are in some cases linked to birth defects, nerve damage, and cancer. The President’s Cancer Panel has urged us to avoid food sprayed with pesticides and doesn’t believe any amount is safe.

Chart from Environmental Working Group

I sometimes go to Whole Foods for a quick meal, but it’s not very often because the prepared foods and salad bar are mostly conventional, too. It’s very hard to find an organic meal available at any of their food stations – pizza, deli, sushi, soup, salad, sandwiches, smoothies, etc. Since I’m already at the store in the first place, I usually talk myself into buying the organic ingredients I need and preparing them at home rather than making a habit of eating there. On several occasions, I’ve found less than stellar ingredients hidden in their prepared foods – like GMOs, hidden MSG and the over use of cheap oils like corn, soy, and canola, which I will get to in a minute.

2. Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are Everywhere

If there was one thing I thought I could avoid by shopping at Whole Foods, it would at least be GMOs, especially looking at their quality standards. When you ask the staff about GMOs, like I did just the other day, they will tell you all sorts of different answers on the topic. The inconsistencies in their communications to customers was just recently exposed in an “Organic Spies” tell-all-video, that used hidden cameras to ask Whole Foods employees about GMOs in their stores. This video uncovered that most employees said there were no GMOs at Whole Foods, however in actuality approximately 20 – 30% of their stores’ goods contain GMOs. When I specifically asked the team leader of my store in Charlotte if I could have a list of all the non-GMO products, he said “there are absolutely no GMOs in here, we don’t have a list.” He was so pompous about his answer, that I followed up his bold statements with a couple of questions that were not answered correctly. I did not want to argue with him, so instead, I took pictures of the Kashi, Pirate Booty, Barbara’s Bakery, etc. on their shelves  – all brands I’ve researched that have GMOs.

As I explained in my Chipotle Investigation, GMOs were not studied for their safety on humans before they were approved by the FDA, and they do not require labeling in the United States. A recent French Study revealed that rats fed GMOs during the course of their lifetime and exposed to the pesticide “Round Up” developed tumors all over their bodies and in their internal organs. There has been so much outrage about the alarming results that Russia just last week banned all GMO Corn imports into their country and Europe is considering banning them too.

Whole Foods sources non-GMO ingredients for their 365 store brand and supports GMO-labeling in California, where the issue will appear on the ballot as Proposition 37 in November. However, Whole Foods hasn’t donated a single cent to the campaign – a large percentage (~$2-3 billion dollars) of their profits are directly tied to the sale of GMOs after all. Their support is superficial at best and a company that makes over $10 billion dollars in revenue should put their money where their mouth is, especially since big food corporations are outspending the effort to label GMOs 11 to 1. Whole Foods has stated they haven’t donated because they do not contribute to political campaigns. Our right to know is not political – it’s a basic fundamental human right to know what we are eating. Safeguarding our organic farm land starts with labeling and eliminating GMOs – this is something Whole Foods could have a major impact in protecting and should be committed to, especially wearing the label of a CCOF certified organic grocer.

The Non-GMO project and the Institute of Responsible Technology are two resources that provide non-GMO shopping lists. Also check out a list of my favorite organic snack substitutes for popular conventional GMO snacks. (One of the non-gmo snacks I know is Lisa’s favorite!)

3. Hidden Ingredients

I know I am preaching to the choir when I say this, but reading the ingredients on everything you buy is still critical, even when you are shopping in Whole Foods! Considering the laundry list of unacceptable ingredients Whole Foods does not allow in their stores – I find it appalling that they still allow brands they carry to use rBGH (a.k.a. recombinant bovine growth hormone) in their dairy products. rBGH has been outlawed in 27 countries and study after study links this genetically modified ingredient to many forms of cancers. It is risky buying conventional dairy products from Whole Foods- buy only organic, 365 brand, or other brands explicitly labeled “rBGH free”.

Additionally, Whole Food’s list of unacceptable ingredients does not include propylene glycol, caramel colorcarrageenan and several forms of hidden MSG – ingredients that would make logical sense to ban from their stores.

Carrageenan is used as a stabilizer in dairy and non-dairy like products and consumption is linked to gastrointestinal disorders. 365 brand cottage cheese, soy milk, flax milk and rice milk all contain carrageenan. You also can find it all over the store in different brands of ice cream, sour cream, etc. (Cornucopia Institute created a helpful shopping guide to help you avoid this additive.)

I found “yeast extract,” a common hidden name for MSG, in soups, sushi, seasonings and in many packaged goods. The amount of MSG that can end up in your food is not regulated by the FDA, but Whole Foods consciously allows it throughout their store. MSG is also likely genetically modified and can be listed under several different names. MSG is an excitotoxin that, in some cases, can excite brain cells to death and cause adverse reactions in some people including “skin rashes, itching, hives, nausea, vomiting, migraine headaches, asthma, heart irregularities, depression and even seizures.”  This list of hidden MSG names is helpful in understanding the various names for MSG so you can look for it on the label and avoid it.

Many of Whole Food’s prepared foods contain cheap acidic oils – like corn oil seen in this Borscht soup below. This is something I pay a great deal of attention to, because so many processed foods are using these highly refined oils (which are likely genetically modified too) and creating an imbalance of Omega 6 to Omega 3 fatty acids in our bodies. Furthermore, experts are so emphatic about the unhealthy nature of oils like corn, soy, and canola, they recommend discontinuing all use and throwing them in the trash. Switching to unrefined coconut, olive and sesame oils could drastically improve Whole Foods’ prepared foods and send a loud message that they are putting the health of their customers before their profits.

4. High Prices –

I’m sure you’ve heard the joke that when you shop at Whole Foods you can end up spending your “whole pay check!” This joke may not be far from truth based on the total cost of some common grocery staples.

Prices turned out to only be slightly higher at Whole Foods (depending on what you are buying) when compared to one of their local competitors, Earth Fare. Luckily, you can find many of these items cheaper elsewhere, but it just takes a little effort. I like to keep shopping costs down by buying staples in bulk on the internet, going directly to local farms and visiting farmer’s markets.

[Please note: This section was edited on 10/2/12 with chicken being substituted for beef tenderloin. The original comparison list was generated prior to visiting the stores to eliminate bias, however organic beef tenderloin was not available at Earth Fare and as a result the original comparison was not "apples to apples", causing some confusion.]

In Summary -

As you can see – Whole Foods may not have all your best interests in mind. Whole Foods has a tremendous opportunity to make a historical impact on our food policy – if they do the right thing. We could all easily find non-organic products, GMOs, and other unwanted ingredients at the rest of America’s supermarkets so let’s just hope a store like Whole Foods will lead the way and eventually eliminate these items all together.

I’m cautiously still a customer because obtaining organic groceries is hard enough as it is; limiting my store choices even more would be silly. Whole Foods, Earth Fare, and other grocery stores that have eliminated laundry lists of chemicals and additives will always be better than conventional grocery stores. I am thankful they make shopping for healthier alternatives much more convenient. Besides, my husband loves having a local craft beer at Whole Foods while I shop – getting him to the grocery store with me is an absolute miracle that I’m just not willing to give up!

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159 comments to Food Babe Investigates: What to Watch out for at Whole Foods

  • Jim

    Bad bad science. Anyone selling that there’s data to support GMO is bad for you is the same crowd who preached vaccines were causing autism. Upper middle class soccer mom and trendy single who don’t have anything better to waste their money on.

    Drink alcohol? Breath air? Let the sun hit your skin? I assure you that they too cause cancer and disease. Eat sugar in the raw? Your ass will still get fat.

    Wash your foods well, eat reasonable portions, and exercise. Pray you don’t have cancer genes.

    Fact is the only way we feed this over populated world will be through GMO and pesticides. This website is a great example of first world problems. I’m guessing the next topic will be “how am I suppose to fit four cars in my three car garage?”

    • ludwig

      GMO’s do not help feed the world. That is not true. That is just one of the many lies our government has told us based on Monsanto lobby. Go back and research that further. Don’t base your opinions on articles and comments made by Monsanto’s researchers and propaganda people they have on their publicity team. Monsanto is in the buisiness to make money not feed more people. They are poisoning our food and destroying our farmers. They contaminate our environment with round up and our the same company that said agent orange was not a safety concern. Monsanto and their horrible buisiness practices are enough to boycott their dreadful gmo products. If GMO’s are safe why do they need to lobby the government and put people in positions of government to keep them from being liable for future damages. Why would that spend so much money fighting labeling if GMO’$ are so safe??

    • Greg

      Jim… there are so many like you taking the easy way out,did you really think we were enjoying this ? and by the way….. Is there anything you Don’t know. Study

    • David

      Cancer genes? Seriously? It’s people like like you who don’t take responsibility for themselves and look into the human body. Genes are an expression of our lifestyle, we We not victims to anything in our body. Lifestyle is the true cause but god for bid you tell someone that.

      There is a ton of studies on gmos and how how they they affect not only humans but our earth’s soil. Look at at cell deficiency in gmo crops as opposed to organically grown. Cells are everything, and combined with the conscious mind they make up who we are.

      You keep “praying” you haven’t been unfortunately victimized with some bull cancer gene, that’s a very powerful way to live.

    • Ryan

      P.S A bit of a tangent: food is a precursor to population. If you make more food, more population comes. Thus the ratio of fed:starving will probably never change.

  • Whole Foods is my go-to “fast food” joint. I don’t eat their foods that contain crap ingredients… I eat the foods that are just one to 4 ingredients that do not include artificial crap, trans fat, sugar, etc!! No one can ever turn me away from this place lol!

  • alexis

    thank you for writing this, i agree, have noticed most of these things and am happy your helping make this public.

  • I found that (here in the Chicago area) many grocery stores, larger & smaller chains are providing more & more organic options @ better prices so Whole foods is no longer my main grocery store

  • [...] Here’s the look at What to Watch out for at Whole Foods. [...]

  • Christine

    Not sure if you saw this, but Whole Foods has committed to full GMO transparency by 2018 and will require all products to be labeled.
    And I also know that they have made the commitment not to carry GM produce nor GM salmon. That’s a great start… Of course, I would love some price drops myself :)

  • Kim

    Single parent of 3 kids so I don’t have the time to research this stuff anymore – very appreciative of Food Babe and 100 days of real food. I have had a chance to talk to farmers though, and what they have told me is that when the wind blows food gets genetically modified. So I am confused by the discussion around GMO’s. in the movie Food Inc, Monsato puts a farmer out of business because the wind blew and seeds from their crops ended up in a neighboring farmers crops – genetically modifying his food. So, um can you help inform please..

  • Peter

    Why is there beer, hard cider, wine, and now even tequila, yes tequila, in the produce department at Whole Foods? As though the alcohol section isn’t big enough, maze like, and must be negotiated to move through the store, now even hard alcohol is making its appearance in the produce department at the 2 Whole Foods stores that I frequent. I shop at Whole Paycheck in spite of the high prices because in Suburban Chicago, for much of the year, there really are not that many opportunities to see such selection and freshness of Organic Produce. Even if is consistently true that the organic produce at Whole Foods is outnumbered by conventional produce and most of it is shipped thousands of miles, at least it is available. Theoretically it is not covered in toxic pesticides and was grown in a way that theoretically supports wiser farming practices. I, like many educated people, want to make wise choices that support the health of both my family and the planet. There are many people, such as myself, who do not care to have anything to do with alcohol merely for health reasons and then there are those who are struggling to eliminate alcohol from their lives because of its devastating effects. There are parents who want their children to value a healthy diet who visit the store with their chikdren. All of these people are likely to shop at Whole Foods because Whole Foods presents itself as a place where healthy “whole foods” are available. How dare Whole Foods put their alcohol sales profits before actually supporting the best possible dietary choices, which DO NOT include alcohol. How dare Whole Foods create the subliminal association that alcohol is somehow a part of a healthy diet rich in fresh produce. Is this just marketing science based in greed or something even more nefarious? Shame on Whole Foods.

  • Kelly

    I’m a small vegetable producer who grows 7 acres of toxic pesticide-free and synthetic fertilizer-free vegetables. I won’t spend the thousands of dollars necessary for the mountainous paperwork required for organic certification, but I do believe that if I take care of the soil, the plants fight off disease and pests much better, with a little help from some safe organic spraying occasionally.

    I sell my produce at the farm at wholesale prices, typically half the price of the local supermarket. People who buy from me know that I’ve picked it that day or the day before because I’ll go out to the field and pick it for them while they wait, or they can see me take it out of the cooler where each bin of produce is dated the day of harvest. They can also see where I wash the produce and the cleanliness of the boxes and bins that I use.

    I wish more people realized that buying from a local farmer that you get to know and trust is probably one of the best ways to ensure that you’re getting the quality produce that you want. Large health-food supermarkets are susceptible to using the same misleading marketing strategies as other big supermarkets. It won’t be long, and the label “organic” at the store will have absolutely no value.

  • Martin Wolff

    Whole Foods Cranberry Almond Trail Cookies use PROPYLENE GLYCOL as one of their ingredients. Shockingly, there is more propylene glycol than almonds or cranberries. This is a sad comment on Whole Foods Market that rip us off by using cheap, synthetic and unsafe ingredients where ever they can get away with it! Incidentialy, PG is used in auto antifreeze, brake fluid, airplane deicer and more.

  • Vicki

    THIS is why I make almost everything I eat homemade — from scratch. Heck, I even make my own ketchup. That way, I KNOW what goes into my food. Plus, it is really just as quick to buy only whole foods (nothing processed or pre-made) and cook it yourself. It’s more tasty, too! :)

  • B

    Not a bad article, thanks for taking the time to show that even the hallowed Whole Foods isn’t perfect (they do a damn good job though – not knocking them at all. Full supporter.). The part that got me though was how she claims that it’s a basic human right to know what you’re eating. While this is probably true, I feel compelled to remind people that if you believe that this is the case, that it is a human right, you better support it with your vote (not just on paper, dollars vote too). To knowingly buy foods that aren’t fully labelled and transparent is to knowingly sacrifice that right. You have every right to know what is in your food, sure, but many sacrifice it in order to make their life easier by buying food that’s prepared for them on a shelf.

    The only way to know 100% what’s in your food is to grow and prepare it yourself. Short of that, it’s a trust game, as someone mentioned.

  • Jerry

    There must be labs where you can take a food product and have it tested for GMO, that way all doubt will be satisfied. If each person tested one food product and then post the results, eventually all the products will get a non biased test.

  • Kathryn

    The French GMO Study has been repeatedly shot down as a load of lies. And to the person who said genes are an expression of our lifestyle, you obviously do not know how genetics works. Genes predispose you to many ailments and sometimes no matter how hard you work, how healthily you eat or how often you exercise you can still get sick.

    • Paul

      You need to verify everything you read. Studies on Epigenetics revealed that lifestyle changes affected the genetic read outs just several weeks later. Be willing to challenge everything you ever learned. I know it’s hard but if you are a seeker of truth you will.

  • […] Here’s the look at What to Watch out for at Whole Foods. […]

  • Love whole foods but now I get most of my food from Primal Organic soo good

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