Whole Foods

The hallmark of Baby Boomer culture in the late empire America is turning consumer products into religions. Steve Jobs, the quintessential Boomer guru in many ways, made owning an Apple product a social statement. His revival shows were nothing more than his confirmation that the assembled were chosen from eternity to be with the oneness of Apple. There’s a reason why their mobile products sold well, while their back office stuff was a dud. They were statements, not actual products.

The same thing is true with Whole Foods, a temple of post-modern consumerism for those who pretend they oppose consumerism. That makes this post a bit of a surprise, given that the Daily Beast is for the sorts of people who shop at Whole Foods. The typical reader is the type buying organic bananas or free range chicken. All of which costs twice what it would at a normal market. Maybe that’s why the author largely misses the religious angle and instead stumbles around the science-y stuff.

If you want to write about spiritually-motivated pseudoscience in America, you head to the Creation Museum in Kentucky. It’s like a Law of Journalism. The museum has inspired hundreds of book chapters and articles (some of them, admittedly, mine) since it opened up in 2007. The place is like media magnet. And our nation’s liberal, coastal journalists are so many piles of iron fillings.

But you don’t have to schlep all the way to Kentucky in order to visit America’s greatest shrine to pseudoscience. In fact, that shrine is a 15-minute trip away from most American urbanites.

I’m talking, of course, about Whole Foods Market. From the probiotics aisle to the vaguely ridiculous Organic Integrity outreach effort (more on that later), Whole Foods has all the ingredients necessary to give Richard Dawkins nightmares. And if you want a sense of how weird, and how fraught, the relationship between science, politics, and commerce is in our modern world, then there’s really no better place to go. Because anti-science isn’t just a religious, conservative phenomenon—and the way in which it crosses cultural lines can tell us a lot about why places like the Creation Museum inspire so much rage, while places like Whole Foods don’t.

My own local Whole Foods is just a block away from the campus of Duke University. Like almost everything else near downtown Durham, N.C., it’s visited by a predominantly liberal clientele that skews academic, with more science PhDs per capita than a Mensa convention.

Still, there’s a lot in your average Whole Foods that’s resolutely pseudoscientific. The homeopathy section has plenty of Latin words and mathematical terms, but many of its remedies are so diluted that, statistically speaking, they may not contain a single molecule of the substance they purport to deliver. The book section—yep, Whole Foods sells books—boasts many M.D.’s among its authors, along with titles like The Coconut Oil Miracleand Herbal Medicine, Healing, and Cancer, which was written by a theologian and based on what the author calls the Eclectic Triphasic Medical System.

You can buy chocolate with “a meld of rich goji berries and ashwagandha root to strengthen your immune system,” and bottles of ChlorOxygen chlorophyll concentrate, which “builds better blood.” There’s cereal with the kind of ingredients that are “made in a kitchen—not in a lab,” and tea designed to heal the human heart.

Nearby are eight full shelves of probiotics—live bacteria intended to improve general health. I invited a biologist friend who studies human gut bacteria to come take a look with me. She read the healing claims printed on a handful of bottles and frowned. “This is bullshit,” she said, and went off to buy some vegetables. Later, while purchasing a bag of chickpeas, I browsed among the magazine racks. There was Paleo Living, and, not far away, the latest issue of What Doctors Don’t Tell You. Pseudoscience bubbles over into anti-science. A sample headline: “Stay sharp till the end: the secret cause of Alzheimer’s.” A sample opening sentence: “We like to think that medicine works.”

Organic food is a boondoggle, of course. There are no standards for labeling something organic and there is a lot of fraud. Is using an “organic” fertilizer better than using a chemical created in a lab? How does one define better? Then there is the fact that the produce gets mixed up on the way to the store. The retailers just put the good looking stuff in the organic bin and the beat up stuff in the regular bin.

Customers are not there to get food. They are there for salvation. The food is just a part of the ritual. Whole Foods is not selling produce, they are selling grace. Everything about the operation is pure capitalism, but it is aimed at bourgeois people, who need to feel like they have purpose beyond making money. In the 60’s, New Age gurus made money off of these people selling made up eastern religions. Today, corporations like Apple and Whole Foods are doing the same thing on an industrial scale.

Food cults are not new. The Jews are well known for their dietary laws. Catholics used to have dietary laws too. Muslims have dietary rules, similar to Jews. There’s something in the human psyche to make a religious fetish out of food. What’s happening today, in the great bust-out that is modern America, is this quest for grace, whether through food or consumerism, is turned into a big business.

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10 years ago

Nah – there’s a difference between the factory farms and the alternatives. Although cage free eggs are a scam. The chickens are allocated fewer square feet when they are cage free vs. when they are caged. And yet the cage free eggs cost more.

10 years ago

“humane treatment” of animals as defined by the priesthood of activists is part of the religion too.

10 years ago

The food part of Whole Foods is bullshit (no Total cereal!?!) but they do right by labor (insurance, 401k, paid leave), the environment and animals (humane treatment) so they’re not too scorn worthy in my book.