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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.
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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

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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!

Comments have been closed on this article, which was written by Vani Hari. If you have a question or comment you can reach her at http://FoodBabe.com.

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

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  • Thomas

    I’ve been making hemp shakes with organic Rice Dream rice milk for a while. Today I decided to try Whole Foods “365” brand organic rice milk. I bought it without checking the ingredients. I assumed it would have the same ingredients as the Rice Dream brand. I was wrong.

    I tried a hemp shake with the 365 brand rice milk. First, it didn’t taste very good compared to the Rice Dream. But worse, within about 30 minutes or less I started getting a headache from it. Not long after that I got heartburn or indigestion. I could tell that the headache was an MSG headache. After getting a headache and upset stomach I compared the 365 organic rice milk ingredients with the Rice Dream ingredients and was SHOCKED.

    Here is a list of some of what I found listed in the Whole Foods 365 organic rice milk that is not in the Rice Dream brand:

    Tricalcium Phosphate

    Carrageenan

    Natural Flavor

    Vitamin A Palmitate

    Ergocalciferol

    Cyanobalamin

    I can tell it contains MSG from the headache I got (Natural Flavors). And after reading your article I am assuming that my stomach distress is from the Carrageenan.

    I just searched online for all the words “Whole Foods Organic Rice Milk Chemicals” and ran across your article. I am completely disappointed that Whole Foods would try to pass off this garbage as “organic”. I will never trust the 365 brand again.

    Thank you for your articles, I will be reading your site from now on.