Is Whole Foods Market a Health Food Hypocrite?

Whole Foods Market calls itself “America’s Healthiest Grocery Store,” and we pay more to shop there because we want organic food grown by farmers who use sustainable practices. No other major grocery store chain in the country promotes organic farming and the sustainable lifestyle as much as Whole Foods Market.

We are committed to a greater production of organically and bio-dynamically grown foods in order to reduce pesticide use and promote soil conservation. – Whole Foods Market


But how much organic and non-GMO food does Whole Foods Market actually sell?


When I see this “Organic Salads” sign over the salad bar at my local Whole Foods in Los Angeles, I’m optimistic. Yet when I ask an employee if the salad bar is organic, I’m told that only the lettuce is. The mixed greens are clean, but the celery I put on top could have as many as 64 pesticide residues, 10 of which are known or probable carcinogens I can’t wash off.

None of the prepared salads in the deli case are organic, and neither is the deli meat. The juice bar isn’t 100% organic, either. Why am I paying top dollar for cold-pressed cancer-causing pesticide residue swirling around in my green juice? Yuck.

Where do they keep all the organic food they keep encouraging us to choose?

My local Whole Foods Market (WFM) stocks some organic produce, but more often than not I spend time searching through the conventionally grown produce to find what I’m looking for. Sometimes I never do. I guess there wasn’t a farmer in America producing organic cherries or corn this summer. The WFM website claims they are committed to biodynamic farming (a holistic form of farming with stricter standards than organic), but I’ve never seen biodynamic produce at Whole Foods Market.

This is the hot food bar at my local Whole Foods Market. There isn’t one organic option, and most of the food looks like something I could get at any traditional grocery store for a lot less.

I’ve asked numerous employees at different Whole Foods stores  why they don’t sell organic hot food and they’ve all given the same answer: if Whole Foods wants to sell organic prepared hot food, their entire kitchen must be organic. So faced with the decision to sell either all conventional or all organic, Whole Foods chose conventional. How does that increase the production of organic and biodynamic food?


At Whole Foods Market, we believe you have the right to know what’s in your food. So we’re the first national grocery chain committed to providing GMO (genetically modified organism) transparency for our customers.- Whole Foods Market

How do I know if this corn on the cob is Monsanto’s GMO cor, which is sprayed with glyphosate, the herbicide the World Health Organization recently classified as potentially cancer-causing? The sign doesn’t say and the woman behind the counter didn’t know.


I notice “Barn Roaming” on the BBQ Pork Ribs sign. Does this mean the pigs don’t roam outside the barn? They would if they were raised on an organic farm.


When I read “Vegetarian Diet,” it sounds nice, but I wonder if that means the animal is fed Monsanto’s GMO soy and corn, which are both laced with the herbicide Roundup.


BBQ Pork Rib ingredients:
Caramel color (probable carcinogen)
Dehydrated soy sauce (probably a GMO)
Yeast extract (could be MSG in disguise)
Natural flavors (not so natural)
Natural flavor enhancer (probably isn’t “natural”)
Hydrolyzed soy protein (could be MSG in disguise and likely a GMO)
Caramel color (possible carcinogenic)
Natural flavor (again, not so natural)
Tapioca starch (sweeter than flour)

In 2011, the Center for Science in the Public Interest asked the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) to ban caramel coloring because their studies showed that it contained two cancer-causing chemicals (2-methylimidazole and 4-methylimidazole). Due to health concerns, Consumer Reports has also urged the FDA to set national standards for 4-methylimidazole and suggests consumers avoid products with “caramel color” on the ingredient label.

In 2014, a U.S. federal district court judge disagreed with Whole Food’s assertion that their customers wouldn’t mind if a synthetic leveling agent was used in some of their baked goods labeled “natural.” The judge gave the plaintiffs the right to sue for damages, but did not require Whole Foods to change its labeling.

“Natural flavor” is omnipresent on food labels, but often it isn’t as natural as one might expect. Natural flavor can originate with something natural, but often the flavor is chemically enhanced in a lab. Food manufacturers aren’t required to tell us how they make their natural flavor, so consumers need to be wary.



Potatoes (makes sense, but not organic)

Canola oil (highly processed and could be a GMO;
canola oil is not a healthy oil)
Modified corn starch (thickening agent, likely a GMO)
Rice flour
Cornstarch (likely a GMO)
Dextrin (thickening agent, stabilizer or emulsifier, possible GMO)
Sodium acid pyrophosphate (synthetic leveling agent)
Bicarbonate (leveling agent)
Xanthan gum (thickening agent)
Annatto (a natural red dye)
Caramel (probable carcinogen)
Turmeric (healthy)
Natural flavors (probably not so natural)

Whole Foods claims to have high standards, but are they really monitoring what’s in the food they sell us? If so, maybe they should get rid of the caramel coloring, natural flavors, canola oil, and GMOs.

The Whole Foods Market “5-Step Animal Welfare Rating System” was developed to give shoppers more information about how animals sold for meat are raised.

However, it’s a bit unclear how consumers are meant to use this rating system. Are we supposed to pick and choose what level of humane treatment we want to support? Yes to “Step 1: No cages, No Crates, No Crowding” but no to “Step 3: Enhanced Outdoor Access.” And what exactly does “Enhanced Outdoor Access” mean? Enhanced from what? If I choose Step 3, does it mean that Step 1 & 2 are included or are all these steps independent of one another?

I asked the butcher at my local Whole Foods to explain the rating system and he was just as confused as I was. I emailed Whole Foods to see if I could get some clarity, but I haven’t heard back.

Here’s a simple solution. Forget the confusing 5-step rating system and buy USDA certified organic. USDA certified organic covers each of those 5 steps and more (you can check out the USDA organic standards for animals here).

I am an organic devotee. So I feel duped when I walk into a Whole Foods Market and see signs telling me to “Choose Organic” when I can’t find organic food at the hot food bar, salad bar, juice bar, or deli. Whole Foods claims to “seek out and promote organically grown foods,” but where are they? Their signs tells us to “Choose Organic” for a variety of noble reasons. Yet when given the opportunity to sell organic food to us, they far too often don’t.

Every time Whole Foods Market chooses conventionally grown food over organic, it means more harmful chemicals are sprayed on our food and harm the environment.

Whole Foods’ tote bags ask us to “give bees a chance.” Yet the conventional farmers they support likely use pesticides and herbicides that harm bees. Whole Foods, will you give bees a chance?

It might be more difficult to source organic produce from local farmers in every city that has a Whole Foods. It might be more expensive to have an all USDA certified organic kitchen. But if Whole Foods Market is as committed to increasing the production of organic and biodynamic foods, as their marketing claims they are, they should do it, even if it’s hard.

We can make food more nutritious and farming practices safer, but we need partners like Whole Foods Market to live up to their words. Do more than just tell us organic food is good for our health and the environment. Sell it to us in every department of every Whole Foods store across the country. That’s how we really increase the production of organic food and create sustainable farming practices that reduce the effects of climate change, regenerate the health of our soil, limit the use of chemicals, and protect our animals and our health.

This message from Whole Foods Market’s
 website is an important one. It’s a message Whole Foods Market may want to more seriously consider. 

When you choose organic food and other products, you’re helping more than yourself. You’re supporting farmers and producers who work hard to meet the standards because they believe in good health, quality and sustainability. It takes a lot and pays it forward.

Organic Standards in Brief
– No toxic or persistent pesticides or herbicides
– No sewer sludge or synthetic fertilizers
– No GMOs (genetically modified organisms)
– No antibiotic
– No synthetic growth hormones
– No irradiation

What You Can Do
Contact your local Whole Foods Market

Contact the national Whole Foods Market

Learn More
Whole Foods Market – “All About Organic”
Whole Foods Market – “Core Values”
Whole Foods Market – Quality Standards
Whole Foods Market – “What Are GMOs”
Whole Foods Market – “Prepared Foods
Whole Foods Market – “5-Step Animal Welfare Rating”
CNN – “What are natural flavors, really?”
International Business Times – “Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s Lawsuit At Center Of ‘All Natural’ Labeling Debate”
Natural News – “Whole Foods sued over false ‘all natural’ claim on baked goods”
FDA – “Natural Flavor”
Center for Science in the Public Interest – “Caramel Coloring”
Center for Science in the Public Interest – “FDA Urged to Prohibit Carcinogenic “Caramel Coloring”
Consumer Reports – “Caramel color: The health risk that may be in your soda”
U.S. Food & Drug Administration – “Questions & Answers on Caramel Coloring and 4-MEI”
Northern California Record – “Pepsi named in a class action for alleged use of cancer-causing chemicals in soft drinks” Livestrong.com – “Foods that Contain Yeast Extract”
Livestrong.com – “What is Hydrolyzed Soy Protein?”
Harvard School of Public Health – “Ask the Expert: Concerns about canola oil”
Authority Nutrition – “Canola Oil: Good or Bad?”
The Washington Post – “Whole Foods’ expensive, ‘humanely treated’ meat is a ‘sham,’ PETA lawsuit claims” Harvard University – “Why Roundup Ready Crops Have Lost Their Allure”
Christian Science Monitor – “Long-term study shows pesticides are killing bees”
The Epoch Times – “Sorry, Corn-on-the Cob Is GMO Too” 

Whole Foods logo courtesy of ekkun on Flickr @ Creative Commons

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