Field of Science

The 3 Dumbest Products Sold By Whole Foods Market

Whole Foods "Whole Body" products.
I have a love-hate relationship with Whole Foods Market. On the one hand, I love their fresh produce, their baked goods, and many other food choices there. On the other hand, they seem to have embraced anti-science positions in the interest of keeping everything “natural.”

Before describing what they do wrong, let’s start with some things they get right. Their seafood sustainability policy supports fishing practices that allow wild fish populations to survive. This is a shining example that other stores would do well to follow, if we want to preserve remaining stocks of wild salmon, tuna, swordfish, and other fish. Whole Foods stores now mark each fish with a sustainability rating shown as a bright-colored label next to each fish. Bravo!

Whole Foods also offers chicken and beef that was raised humanely, following animal welfare standards that they clearly describe on their website and in their stores. For those who care about the way farm animals are treated, this is a valuable option.

But in some areas of the store, especially their “health” section, Whole Foods wades deep into pseudoscience,  So here are the three of the most egregious examples.

1. Whole Foods sells homeopathic medicines that are little more than snake oil. They make claims for health benefits, both on their shelves and on their website, that are based on little more than magical thinking. For example, they sell “homeopathic flu remedies” claiming that “when taken at the first sign of sickness, these can provide temporary relief of symptoms including fever, chills, and body aches.” This is simply false: no homeopathic treatment has ever been shown to be effective at treating flu symptoms. (I’ve written about homeopathy in more detail here and here.)

It’s ironic that on the one hand, Whole Foods proclaimsWe've long believed that consumers have a right to know what's in your food”. But when it comes to homeopathic remedies, they neglect to inform consumers that these remedies do not contain the ingredients on the bottle at all. That's because homeopathic preparations are so diluted that not a single molecule of the original substance remains. Even more absurd, though, is that even if they weren't diluted to nothing, most homeopathic ingredients have never been shown to have any health benefits to begin with.

2. Whole Foods has an anti-GMO policy, adopted across all their stores, that ignores the science of GMOs. They announced last year that they would label all products in their stores to indicate whether they contained Genetical Modified Organisms. They also have announced that they are trying to eliminate GMOs from their shelves. 

Why is Whole Foods opposed to all GMOs? Their answer is simply: 
Crops are currently modified to survive herbicide treatment, produce their own pesticides and resist certain diseases.“
This answer is a true statement, though it does not describe all GMOs, nor does it explain why we should avoid them. For example, golden rice is a form of rice that’s been modified to contain more vitamin A than regular rice - a modification that is designed to prevent blindness in children, particularly in poor, rural regions where rice constitutes a major part of the diet. Golden rice has even been blessed by the Pope. Is Whole Foods opposed to this form of GMO?

And what’s wrong with engineering a crop to resist disease? Some foods would basically disappear from our shelves if we didn’t have disease-resistant versions. For example, the Hawaiian papaya was nearly wiped out by a virus until, in one of the first uses ever of genetic modification, plant scientists created a resistant variety. This saved the industry, and the papaya itself has exactly the same nutritional value it had before.

I suspect that Whole Foods (and many anti-GMO types) are mostly opposed to Monsanto’s Roundup Ready GMO crops, which are modified to allow farmers to use more of Monsanto’s herbicides. I can sympathize with that position - but not with opposing all uses of GMO technology. That’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

3. Whole Foods won’t sell the pain relievers aspirin and ibuprofen, because they’re not “natural." Instead, their Whole Body department sells a wide range of nutritional supplements, for which they make claims such as this
“Not sure which supplement to choose? Grab a full-spectrum wellness or immune support formula. These combinations of herbs, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants are specifically designed to effectively improve overall wellbeing and enhance immune support.“ 
That’s just gobbledygook, but it's carefully worded to avoid FDA regulations. The phrase "enhance immune support" is a common go-to phrase for supplement makers, because it sounds science-y. Not only are supplements mostly useless, but taking megadoses can actually harm you. And there’s no scientific reason to think that “natural” products are better for you. After all, snake venom is 100% natural.

In contrast, ibuprofen and aspirin really work - but you can't buy them at Whole Foods. I continue to shop at Whole Foods for their many excellent food selections. But for anything medical, I shop elsewhere.


  1. "Homeopathic medicines...little more than snake oil." Except that they are just water and perhaps a bit of sugar. At least with snake oil you were getting something that you couldn't get out of your kitchen sink tap.
    Great post, btw. I had no idea you couldn't get aspirin at Whole Foods. You'd think that aspirin should be the poster child of herbalism; the foundational compound comes from plants, it relieves pain and prevents heart attacks.

  2. I must honestly ask why are so many people on the other side of the GMO debate so thoroughly against labeling? This anti-labeling mentality just feeds into the paranoid conspiracy-minded idiocy that so many "natural" and "organic" food consumers buy into. I am not anti-GMO, (though I could easily be described as anti-Monsanto) but I am all for labels. More information is a good thing, more education is a good thing. Maybe if people realized how much GMO food they already eat, without any ill effects, they would realize how non-threatening it is. Or, maybe not. Maybe they would keep freaking out, maybe they would claim that every little ache and boo-boo is caused by the GMO foods they unsuspectingly ate, but that's their problem and their choice. -Christopher

    1. Consumer surveys show that labelling foods as "GMO" will discourage consumers, who don't understand the technology, from buying them. Anything other than "natural" is viewed as a negative. This is why food producers don't want to label. I agree that more education is good, but labelling is not necessarily good if it's going to be misinterpret. Just putting "GMO" is not enough. If instead the label said precisely what was done, that would be far better - but that's probably too much to put on a label, as you need a paragraph at least.

    2. So, sales over science? In that case, what does it matter if Whole Foods sells homeopathetic water "medicine"? The same argument was made by the Dairy industry and the FDA about rBGH, and yet the rubes still take home jugs of industrially produced milk. Tobacco products have very clear warnings yet people still light up. Conversely, "Gluten free" is all over the place, encouraging people to buy something even though they don't have celiac disease, just because pro tennis players and other idiots think it has some sort of health benefit. Most people are too lazy to read labels, but for those who do, they should have a choice, even if their choice is based on ignorance, but I have a feeling we will still disagree on that. In the meantime, I'll continue to enjoy horrifying people by telling them what xanthan gum and cochineal are, knowing full well that they won't be bothered to stop eating it, which is just fine with me. -Christopher

    3. People can demand labeling for any and all of many "objectionable" agriculture practices. Should we label food explicitly as grown using Haber-Bosch-generated nitrogenous fertilizers? Because many people have a problem with that. Should we label grains and grain products explicitly as grown from high yielding dwarf varieties? Because some people are really pissed off over Borlaug's Green Revolution. Should we label foods as having come in contact with aluminum (which is any food really, considering the natural abundance of aluminum in the Earth's crust)? Because some people really hate aluminum. We can't realistically label foods for every practice that someone might object too. These practices and products, along with GMO tech., have been demonstrated to have no influence on nutritional value of the product. The onus is not on the producers to label foods that contain GMOs; let producers who cater to GMO opponents to label their foods as GMO-free. But even then, the issue of GMO labeling is complex. Is cheese made from organic milk but recombinant rennet to be labeled as GMO, when the rennet is of such a low percentage? If you want cheese that's 100% GMO free and not reliant on the ethically questionable veal industry... well you're boned. What about gasoline enriched with ethanol made from the fermentation of GMO corn? The GMO status of that corn that goes into your car has as much effect on your health as the GMO status of the corn that goes into your Cocacola. The reason that I oppose GMO labeling is because there is no compelling reason to do so. Education of consumers? That's not the job of General Mills or Procter and Gamble. If Whole Foods wants to (mis)educate their clientele (a group with which I'd admit occasionally belonging to), that's their prerogative.


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