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Is Whole Foods America's Temple of Pseudoscience?

Fun read from the Daily Beast:


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  1. This a curious complement to the much discussed Slate article (WF v Walmart)
    Early on in that discussion I commented on the prominent display of homeopathic remedies at WF.

    Check out author's profile page
    He's not a food writer or crusader, but one who has written mostly about the intersection of religion and science.

    1. don't see how any of that is qualitatively different than the books sold in the PHARMACY department of my local ralph's (kroger's) supermarket.
      those books, of course, have a different angle (i.e. "praying away" the illlness, and biblically based nostrums) than the stuff being sold at WF, but, arguably it is worse because it is all about selling BS to people who are already sick (the PHARMACY dept, remember), who are trapped waiting for their prescription, and who may well be desperate.

      1. The fact that the author calls any of this "homeopathic", which it absolutely isn't, at all, makes me not want to consider anything else the author is saying. Yes there's a lot of nutritional gimcrackery out there but this guy is more interested in being clever than insightful about it.

        20 Replies
        1. re: ennuisans

          WF does promote and sell homeopathic remedies

          The natural remedies and cosmetics section (at my local store) consists of 3 or 4 half aisles prominently located in the center of the store by the cash registers.

          1. re: paulj

            Maybe I'm showing my own biases here, because I would agree that homeopathy has little scientific basis. But for the author to lump homeopathy, the Paleo diet, and organic food under the same "pseudo scientific" umbrella, as the author deliberately does in one paragraph and generally through the article, is nonsense.

            But I confess I'm interested now about what claims are being made in the probiotics area these days. I thought it was just about certain beneficial bacteria found in yogurt, not a general cure-all. Unfortunately, the only scientific evidence Schulson offers against probiotics is a buddy who looked at the marketing claims on the packages and said it was nonsense. That's some high-level science, kid.

            1. re: ennuisans

              You read it differently than I. He didn't say that all of these things with aspects of pseudoscience were equivalent. With respect to organic food, he only ridiculed (rightly, I think) the "Organic Integrity outreach." I don't see where he said there was no value to organic food. He didn't say that everything about organics was pseudoscience.

              I don't see any "nonsense" here. He is writing that WF sells a lot of things that are promoted with psedoscience, and that's accurate. He's not writing a scientific article himself — that isn's the purpose and it isn't necessary to get his point across.

              Addendum: and it wasn't just "a buddy" who gave him an opinion on the probiotics labels, it was a biologist.

              1. re: GH1618

                "all of these things with aspects of pseudoscience"'

                implies that all of these things have aspects of pseudoscience. As did this paragraph, which I mentioned:

                "Look, if homeopathic remedies make you feel better, take them. If the Paleo diet helps you eat fewer TV dinners, that’s great—even if the Paleo diet is probably premised more on The Flintstones than it is on any actual evidence about human evolutionary history. If non-organic crumbs bother you, avoid them."

                In this, he makes a rhetorical equivalency between homeopathy, Paleo, and organic food. This is no accident.

                And in this case, he implies that each example he gives is one of pseudo science, whether it be homeopathy or, in a later paragraph, resistance to GMO, as if the claim that each is pseudo science is as self-evident as a museum dedicated to the notion that the planet is 6000 years old.

                This is barely even an opinion piece. It is a culture war broadside click bait hack job, albeit by a clever and observant young writer. I do hope that at some point he learns how to use his talents for good rather than to confuse and obscure the conversation. And I hope I learn not to respond to such bait in the future, as it only raises my blood pressure.

                1. re: ennuisans

                  They are equivalent in that they all exhibit aspects of pseudoscience, although not necessarily to the same degree. Homeopathy is 100% quackery. The Paleo diet may be only 98% quackery, or even less.

                  He must have ridiculed something you believe in for you to take it so personally. My position is that ridiculous ideas deserve to be ridiculed and that he did a fine job of it.

                  1. re: GH1618

                    You didn't mention the organic part. What part of organic food do you find pseudo scientific?

                    What I take personally is bad reasoning, on his part and on yours. Please don't make assumptions about my motives.

                    1. re: ennuisans

                      The author doesn't claim 'organic' is pseudo scientific. It's WF's Organic Integrity program that is described as pseudo religious.

                      1. re: ennuisans

                        As I wrote earlier, the writer did not criticize organic food, he ridiculed the idea of "Organic Integrity," which means that you should use separate bags for you organic and non-organic items so your organic items don't become contaminated. It is ridiculous. Whether it is pseudoscientific or not depends on whether asserts a scientific basis for it which is false. I'm not going to argue that point — it just doesn't matter. What matters is that there is plenty at WF worthy of ridicule. I write that as someone who occasionally goes there myself.

                        1. re: GH1618

                          imho, there is plenty at almost any grocery store, wf included, that is worthy of ridicule.

                      2. re: GH1618

                        The specific statement about Paleo is "If the Paleo diet helps you eat fewer TV dinners, that’s great—even if the Paleo diet is probably premised more on The Flintstones than it is on any actual evidence about human evolutionary history. " - with a link to a Scientific American blog article looking at the anthropological evidence.

                        1. re: paulj

                          You mean the blog that completely dismisses humans and diet... and talks about monkeys?

                          1. re: sedimental

                            I wouldn't describe it as 'completely dismisses humans'. He's questioning whether stone-age humans are sufficiently 'paleo'. He also looks at adaptations to a post-stone-age diet, such the ability to produce enzymes that digest starches and lactose. He also talks about gut bacteria. Isn't that what the WF probiotics aim to tweak?

                            1. re: paulj

                              He is talking apples to oranges.
                              But monkeys are cute.

                        2. re: GH1618

                          I don't think ridicule particularly advances a discussion. Neither does arguing in circles. Some of these discussions never seem to move forward. They just circle and then become focused on the pedantic or lean toward personal attacks. Then it becomes a battle for who can repeat themselves the most.

                          I like to read other people's opinions when they are backed by how those opinions are formed. If I judge them as ill informed or based on a premise that I don't share-then the conversation is really over. No need to ridicule anyone.

                          1. re: sedimental

                            The writer's purpose was not to "advance a discussion," but to ridicule snake-oil salesmen. This is a legitimate journalistic practice and a worthy one.

                            1. re: GH1618

                              I was referring to the discussion of the article here. Not the article itself or the writer of the articles motivation.

                              It is clear what the writer of the articles motivations are.

                        3. re: GH1618

                          That is how I read it too. I am a kombucha and kiefer swilling probiotics fan and live within spitting distance of a WF. All the same, I think it is good to keep in mind that WF is a profitable corporation beholden to its shareholders just like SAfeway, Walmart, etc.

                  2. Actually I think the article has a lot of food for thought. I do prefer my apples uncontaminated by pesticide, however. And I know of people who truly cannot eat glutin. So I think there is a legitimate market for their foods.

                    The stuff in the medicine aisle--I think a lot of it is iffy.

                    1. In my opinion, Whole Foods is merely a for-profit corporation which has made a good business out of exploiting a market based, in large part, on pseudoscience. I wouldn't call it a "temple," but I see the analogy.

                        1. Didn't really think much of the article. There is, of course, plenty of pseudoscience on display at Whole Foods, but the article doesn't make especially good points about it, and paints with too broad a brush.

                          OTOH, the article took a broad swipe at the Paleo diet and backed up its claims with links to another article. This other article was better considered, and interesting enough of read to be worth a link in its own right.
                          The title is a bit misleading, admittedly.

                          1. there's tinfoil hat stuff everywhere -- magnets at the drug store, books touting prayer cures for everything at the grocery store...

                            Homeopathy has at least never been shown to *harm* people -- and full disclosure -- I read the papers about homeopathy and my scientific mind says horseshit. However -- when living in Europe, a friend pestered me to try Oscillococcinum when I felt a cold coming on. Sure as anything, I *did* feel better. We keep taking it -- placebo? Maybe -- but if I chase off a cold for the cost of a little tube of sugar balls, well, okay. It's the only homeopathic remedy we take.

                            I think any time you have thinking that's not under a bell-shaped curve you're going to get some things that are quite a few deviations from "normal" (whatever that is).

                            But WF gets people to actually contemplate what they're putting in their mouth...and that cannot be a bad thing...even if it means someone wearing a tinfoil hat once in a while.

                            14 Replies
                            1. re: sunshine842

                              Honest homeopathy isn't harmful.

                              But FDA has a lengthy list of natural remedies that have been spiked with real meds...and sometimes ones that are dangerous.

                              Can't necessarily trust the provenance.

                              1. re: sal_acid

                                when people say "Oh, it's a natural remedy" or "this food is all natural" my usual response is that poison ivy is 100% natural but that doesn't mean I'm going to eat it or rub it all over my body.

                                Like all things, it's ultimately up to us to do our own research.

                                1. re: sunshine842

                                  I hate that "natural" claim. The most potent toxins known, like tetrodotoxin and botulinum toxin, are 100% natural.

                                2. re: sal_acid

                                  But does it do any good? And at what price?

                                  1. re: sueatmo

                                    I think it can be harmful when people turn to homeopathy instead of established medical treatments. I mentioned to an acquaintance that I was getting chemo, and she told me all about this wonderful book about homeopathic treatments. There is no way I would trade the treatments that are saving my life for homeopathy, no matter how crappy those treatments make me feel. There are people out there though, who for whatever reasons reject proven medical therapies for homeopathy, and in many cases will die because of that. Of course using homeopathy in addition to established medical treatment is harmless.

                                    1. re: EricMM

                                      Somebody will surely come in and start arguing what is homeopathy and what is naturopathy and what is wholistic.

                                      Who cares?

                                      I'll right now say that most, if not all of it is mideval thinking. Use it at your peril if you have a real disease.

                                      1. re: EricMM

                                        Oh, I so get it, EricMM. I had a former neighbor shove a book at me whose cockamamie diet was "guaranteed" to cure my Crohn's disease. For those of you unfamiliar with Crohn's, there currently is no cure, just treatment for symptoms. The only thing that diet would have guaranteed is that I'd have ended up hospitalized for malnutrition. That and from not taking my meds. But you couldn't convince her that it was BS because it was Biblically based. It had to be real! I don't know about her, but my Bible doesn't advocate eschewing proven medical science in favor of wishing and hoping.

                                        1. re: rockycat

                                          i wonder if your former neighbor got that book from the pharmacy department of my local Ralph's grocery store (krogers). they stock plenty of that clap-trap there.

                                          1. re: westsidegal

                                            that's what I meant upthread -- there's pseudoscience available at any retailer (food or otherwise)...WF certainly isn't special because they carry their "all-natural" (wink-wink) brand of pseudo.

                                            1. re: sunshine842

                                              For that matter the ads on CH are pretty high on the BS meter. Lots of superfoods

                                              1. re: sal_acid

                                                I use AdBlock Plus -- I don't even see them. It's awesome.

                                                1. re: sal_acid

                                                  Every time I read or hear the word "superfood", I do a reflexive eye roll.

                                                2. re: sunshine842

                                                  It isn't equivalent. Mainstream supermarkets do not have a section of homeopathic quack nostrums. There is a clear difference in the extent and depth of quackery at WF as compared to most supermarkets, and that is what led the writer to single them out as worthy of an article.

                                                  Others may think that other markets are likewise worthy of ridicule. They may write their own article — there is no reason this writer need do so.

                                                  1. re: GH1618

                                                    The groceries and pharmacies near me all have a section of books touting how prayer cures all, and how vinegar cures all, magnets for therapy, copper bracelets, and even homeopathic remedies.

                                                    WF is just a different brand of tinfoil -- no less, but no more, deserving of ridicule.