Whole Foods Market, Healthwashing, and Magical Thinking

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I give Whole Foods credit for great marketing and positioning (although they’ve lost ground lately). On the other hand, pretty much inventing healthwashing is nothing to be proud of.

Whole Foods customers typically say they prefer natural, minimally or unprocessed, organic and local foods. They say added sugars are undesirable.

But look at what those customers buy, and by extension, what Whole Foods thinks they’ll buy, and therefore stocks in its stores.

Fresh produce? Yeah, my nearest Whole Foods store has it. But the produce section is skimpy, mostly fruit, and not especially local. Nor is there much variety. In fact, the nearby mainstream Tom Thumb grocery store has a better produce section (and lots of organic products throughout the store, in fact). Sure, there’s the requisite bulk foods aisle at Whole Foods, and a few of those items are indeed actual, whole, mostly unprocessed foods like whole grains and dried beans. But that aisle was empty — no customers.

The rest of the store looks like 7-11 for the healthwashed. Mostly, heavily processed ‘convenience’ and junk foods. Behind the healthwashed labels were cookies, crackers, cereals, and highly processed nutrient-lite snacks. Plus sugar, fat, and indeed calories galore, most of it added and very little of it naturally occurring in nature or “whole foods.”

So where were the customers? Standing in front of row after row of frozen dinners, all branded and packaged in ways designed to evoke healthy, natural, “clean” and green.

The checkout lines were busy. Folks were buying stuff. Mostly, those frozen entrees plus bags and boxes of what we’d all be quick to call junk food in any other store.

So what really set my experience apart any other upscale mainstream grocery store? Not much — except the 10 – 15% premium I paid for the privilege of shopping in a store designed to make me feel good about my politics.