What to Watch out for at Whole Foods

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.

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.

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 color, carrageenan 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.

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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28 Responses to “What to Watch out for at Whole Foods”

  1. Lisa Leake

    You are sweet Vani…that means a lot. I find your blog to be very inspiring as well (of course)! :)

    Reply
    • Food Babe (to Lisa Leake)

      Awe….I want to give you a great big hug right now!!!

      Reply
      • edward whiteeagle (to Food Babe)

        Hi Vani, Thank you so much for your efforts to fight for our food freedoms. I have created a way to provide a lot of funding to your organization to help you continue the fight. If you have an interest please contact me at 801.577.4103 and I will share it with you. Blessings and peace be with you this day!

  2. David Oshel

    Thanks Food Babe!

    Reply
  3. Kathy Lawrence

    Vani, I was very thrilled to actually meet you last evening at the dinner event in NYC. You are a true inspiration to me. I believe that I have a very important role to take in all of this GMO labeling in New York State. I do not know yet what my total role is but I will be in contact with the rep from Connecticut that spoke at the dinner and I am sure she can guide me through what I can do. If you have any additional tips on how to get more involved, please let me know. I personally know an editor from Pace University who would like to help in making the younger people know more about GMOs, so I am going to help her in gaining the knowledge that she needs to know. I am up for any suggestions you may have, actually, it is both me and my friend Kathy (the 2 Kathy’s) who will be working together maybe in different ways to help make New Yorkers more aware of the dangers of GMOs and all the foods that contain GMOs. Again, thank you for doing what you do. It was a true pleasure meeting you. Best regards, Kathy Lawrence

    Reply
  4. Robert Gavrel

    I am constantly checking all labels at whole foods for gmo’s secretely hidden in all their foods. I have also asked them why they constantly use canola oil in all there hot preared and cold prepared foodsand not coconut oil or even olive oil. Everyone knows that canola oil is a very well known gmo. I suggest to everyone who shops there to check all their labels and ingredient s of anything they want to buy and eat.

    Reply
  5. Alena

    What do you think about SO DELICIOUS coconut milk? It has a NON GMO label even tho one of the ingredients is Carrageenan! What dairy free milk is safe? Thank you

    Reply
  6. Megha Bansal

    Canola and Palm oil in almost everything is my biggest gripe too! I am a bit wary of the latest coconut oil fad too though. People tend to forget that cultures where coconut oil is used for cooking tend to have sour components in their food( think South Indian food or Thai food where Tamarind is a big component in meals).

    Reply
  7. Brandi

    Just wondering if you can tell me what websites you order your bulk health food from? I’m new to no processed foods but also want to be frugal. Thanks!

    Reply
  8. Nina Nicol

    In the spirit of competitiveness, I think Wegmans should make a similar commitment. Other whole food and organic markets could also be contacted to suggest they do the same. Let’s face it, if they didn’t, then everyone that wanted to ensure their food safety and absence of GMOs would shop at the retailers savvy enough to introduce labelling first. We consumers demand it!

    Reply
  9. Renea Harrison

    My son just went to Whole Foods last night so that he could “eat out” with one of his friends. Even though when we researched on the internet Whole Foods claimed that they do not carry products with bromide in them, he went ahead and just asked the person working in the deli section if their pizzas and wraps contained brominated flour. She told him that yes, they do. That they are in the process of trying to change that fact, but as of now they do contain it. So sad. We are finding that so many of the places that are deemed “healthy” and that we pay extra for are not so “healthy” after all.

    Reply
  10. stacey griffin

    Thank you so much for your hard work, concern, and willingness to share it at no cost to your readers. I have learned SO much from your investigations, posts, recipes, and enthusiasm, and am passing every bit to my 10 year old daughter…

    …. who has (in large part because of YOU) thrown out all of her body products containing toxins/allergins such as parabens.. stopped eating foods with the ingredients that are harmful, and has begun to teach her friends about your findings (I had to giggle as I listened to her talking to a friend about McD’s nuggets that bounce, and food with “beaver butt” …and how mad she is at Bath & Body Works for having such harmful chemicals in the products they sell to kids)!

    This particular article is perfect because we are now making trips to Whole Foods at least twice a week. So, again THANK YOU….. and when critics try to knock you down, please remember that there are many of us who respect you and who you are truly having a impact on.

    Please keep up the amazing work!

    Stacey (and my little Sofia)…

    Reply
  11. Darius Lewis

    Hi Vani… I was curious to know if shopping at a farmers market is safe to purchase food? Please email me

    Reply
  12. kathy decanto

    love your work

    Reply
  13. Wes

    I have been buying the sandwiches at lunch for a couple weeks so that I get a healthy organic meal. I just looked when I was in there today and the sandwich I was eating was not organic and had NO organic ingredients. I went to the sandwich counter and asked if they had any organic sandwiches. She said No, but some of them have some organic ingredients. What a tricky store.

    Reply
  14. Jonathan Thompson

    Please put lemons high on the list for buying organic. Lemons are treated more than almost any other fruit. Thanks. Love your website!

    Reply
  15. Sal

    I hope that people see the deception and horror our elected officials allow to go on in every facet of our life. So go to these stores and spend all your money on the so called organic foods which come from other countrys (good luck with that) no regulations or oversight and enjoy breathing in the Chemtrails on your ride home. I have a little farm of cows,goats,chickens,ducks,pigs here is what I learned, good luck finding feed that has no gmo and if you wanted to purchase my chickens for food you better pony up $8 a pound for chicken breast My chickens free range (eat bugs,grass) and still eat pellets (gmo) made by purina or nutrina. It is impossible that you go to the store and find chicken breast on sale for $1.99 on sale. God only knows what that is and you hamburger lovers they can slaughter horses in the U.S. now for animal food and can EXPORT it to mexico which in turn can repackage it and sell it back to us for consumption Check ALDI store for horse meat allegations

    Reply
  16. shelly

    Just wondering if you can tell me what websites you order your bulk health food from? I’m new to no processed foods but also want to be frugal. Thanks!

    I’ve copied this question from another poster, because I didn’t see that you had answered it in the feed, and I would also like to know.

    Thank you,
    Shelly

    You are changing the way I eat, and feed my family. :)

    Reply
  17. Whole Food

    well , you want to know the truth about Whole Food from an actual Employee ?
    I was with Whole Foods with over 11 years , Its a great place to work without a doubt , and all we do there is very different from what corporate America is up to.
    In the grocery business you have to be competitive and yes Food Babe is right in some of the instances for example shopping at the store doesn’t mean you getting the Organic product , since without conventional products there won’t be any Wholefoods at all. Its unfortunate nature of business, but the fact that Whole Foods employs the worlds most Fanatic Food Inspectors (the employees , its in their culture I know this from inside , because we feed ourselves and our families from this stores ) thats the fact.You can be assured that even conventional produce has much higher quality than any other products out there in regular grrocery stores. Also keep in mind that convention in whole food means not Organic however it may be organically grown since to grow organic most farmers have to wait 5 years to qualify their land for the ORGANIC initials .Overall its a good place to shop , little pricy though , but I rather pay the price now than later pay to the doctors. The choice is ours. Strongly recommend to look for Organic Label on the product and if you shop at produce dept. look for the products starting with the code (9) its the code of ORGANIC. Example 4567 is conventional apple 94567 is organic .
    I don’t work at Wholefoods now , started my business but was really great experience for me and my family to be a part of healthy culture. Hello to all vegans!!! Love You All …

    Reply
  18. Tracey

    Hi Vani~
    Wish you were here when we had a food labeling ballot measure on our ballots in Washington last fall! We only lost by 2%! I expect that the proposal will be offered up to our voters next season so please come a talk to our multi-ethnic communities (especially here in Seattle) so that we can build our community of supporters to be as inclusive and educated as possible! Cheers!

    Reply
  19. chris

    Hey Vani my name is Chris. I just recently discovered your website and find it absolutely amazing. For new years I didn’t want a typical resolution of going to the gym then never sticking with it. My resolution was something I created to change me as a whole for the better, 12 months 12 bad habits. Every month is a new habit I have to work towards eliminating. One of them was completely eliminating fast food from my diet and I have to tell you I’ve never felt better. I’m starting to use your blog now as a guide to what I can and should be eating and what I need to avoid. I’m looking now into juicing could you give me any advice where to start , etc? Thank you so much for your time and keep up the amazing work!

    Reply
  20. Lauren

    Vani- I love reading your blog & becoming more informed on what I am putting into my body.

    You mentioned in this post you purchase a lot of your staple grocery items online— do you have any recommended online vendors to order from?

    Reply
  21. Renee

    I just recently learned for your site and I LOVE IT! I’m a mom and Birth Doula in NY, specializing in health & wellness. Having up-to-date & easy access to important information all in one place is paramount for someone like me and families I support, THANK YOU!
    An immediate question pertaining to this article is: IN NY, the farmers markets are seasonal ;( When they are here (usually May/June – November) Some farmers claim to be organic and other farmers who are not claiming to be organic say “there is no such thing, we all have to follow the same standard” This contradictory information is very……well, contradictory and confusing to the consumer. If the farmer is NOT organic, can a consumer be sure that they are getting a healthy produce without the chemicals? Or is buying local, non-organic fine as well. Your thoughts please ;)
    Also – I’ve been in the process of compiling a list for myself of ingredients and products to avoid. Do you already have a list or file with this sort of information for people to take along with them when shopping?
    Thank you in advance.
    Renee

    Reply
  22. Henry

    I would like to know if any one know any thing about the new Tasti-Lee Tomatoes that’s on the market now. They taste good, but are they real ? The company states they are naturally-developed….??????

    Reply
  23. Kathy

    Vani- Thank you so much for posting. The last time someone at Whole Foods said we don’t have any MSG in this store it was all I could do to not go balistic. Even the potato chips as a healthier alternative have maltodextrin or other MSG alternatives. Basically at this point I try to avoid all canned, bagged and boxed foods. I am a migrainuer and it is just so hard to fetter out the secret ingredients. Thank you for publishing the list. I have been telling people for years to look at this. Most roll their eyes…some are interested…thank you for all you do!

    Reply
  24. Mike

    I was at Whole Foods yesterday (Jackson, MS)…Love that place.
    You are correct, I have to look at the ingredient list like a hawk as one should. I was admiring their pizza yesterday and thought to myself, maybe I’ll try a slice. Of course as suggested by the ‘babe’, I asked first what they used as ingredients. Quite honestly, they really couldn’t answer it, but did say that all their crusts and breads were made in a bake house in Georgia and then trucked here which was alarming. Little did I know an ingredient list was provided next to each cook pizza. I took a gander and the first 5 ingredients out of what seemed like 20+ were bad things. Anything from GMOs and MSGs. I was really saddened to be honest. I can’t understand for the life of me why it’s so difficult for pizza makers to make crust without adding all the garbage to it. Why is that so hard? I’m not a bread maker, but I’m guessing pizza crust doesn’t take more than organic wheat/white flour, water, yeast, salt, maybe organic sugar and milk?
    Anywho, I do have to attribute the presence of a Whole Foods in our market as a major contributor to my overall well-being. I’ve lost 15-20 pounds over the last 2-3 months and feel great simply by throwing out all processed foods and eating organic and cutting out known GMOs and MSGs. Our family has made the decision to change our eating habits for the better.

    Reply
  25. Nagore

    Hi there!
    What I’ve noticed is that they always use canola oil in everything they cook or prepare. When I ask whether is it organic or contains GMO’s they don’t really know the answer so I have to go from the bakery section to the customer service to another assistant that might know… and so on, just to get a lame answer. I don’t get it as they are so proud they produce their own foods they should know what they contain, right?
    We all should sign a petition so they change the oils they’re using. I bet they are very willing to make a change if a lot of people ask for it, customer service is really good.

    Reply
  26. nagore

    Hey guys,

    I just found this piece of info at WFM website: http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/how-shop-if-youre-avoiding-gmos
    “All canola oil used in the preparation of products made in our stores and our commissary kitchens is Non-GMO Project Verified. (We are working with our vendor partners on this as well.)”, does it means we should trust it? I’d rather have them using other types of oils.

    Reply

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