Whole Foods to stop selling junk

Whole Foods (WMFI) is, much like Starbucks (SBUX), a reflection of the out-sized personality of its CEO. Both companies expanded madly in the early part of the 'oughts, at about the same time the CEOs' waistlines were expanding, and their health was declining. Working all the time, eating Top Pot doughnuts and 365 chocolate sandwich cookies, can't be great for you. This is 2009: time for a more sober outlook. We'll close stores. We'll stop haranguing competitors in online forums. We'll tighten our belts. We'll start helping our customers eat like us. So yesterday's revelation to the Wall Street Journal, that the company will refocus on healthy foods -- reflecting John Mackey's own recent diet that eliminates refined fats-- fits the pattern.

Sure, Whole Foods has always been about (well, duh) whole foods; those foods that don't really have ingredients, or if they do, it's obvious and clear that they come from nature. Apples. Broccoli. Shrimp. Milk. Nuts. And even today, the produce and meat aisles of Whole Foods are surely some of the stores' brightest attractions. But those make up only a small fraction of the typical Whole Foods store's square footage, and probably an even smaller percentage of the profit.

If you've been keeping up on the latest food media, you know this: the stuff that's bad for you is cheap. On one end of my local Whole Foods store is the beautifully-displayed organic onions, potatoes, cabbages, Tuscan kale and star fruits; on the other end is the deli/bakery, where the foods (while yummy) are decidedly un-whole. Fried chicken shares a display with oil-roasted rosemary potatoes. Pastries range in decadence from the extreme to the unbelievable. There are plenty of refined fats over here on this side... and refined sugars and flours and chemical additives of all sorts... and in every aisle in between.

There is a whole aisle, shelf after deep-stacked shelf, both sides, of cookies and sweets. Another aisle has a dizzying array of chips, each with a dubious claim on nature -- this one is cooked without trans fats, that one is organic, the other one is baked, not fried, still another is made of dried, pulverized, and re-formed vegetables. There's a lot of "value-added" (in other words, markup) here. There's also a lot of evidence that most of the food on Whole Foods' aisles contributes to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other diet-related conditions.

So Whole Foods will return, as Mackey says, to its roots. "We sell a bunch of junk. We've decided if Whole Foods doesn't take a leadership role in educating people about a healthy diet, who the heck is going to do it?" For a dedicated whole-foodie like me, this idea is thrilling. Many others don't share my excitement; Gabriella Stern spends a short post singing the praises of cheesecake and pizza, writing, "A genuine and dramatic inventory shift could send customers running back to old-fashioned supermarkets... let's not forget that good food is an affordable luxury of the sort Americans just might not want to forego as the economy recovers."

Gabriella may have a different definition of "good" than I do. But I'm drinking Mackey's kool-aid, I suppose, having just finished a "dessert" of a fresh nectarine and whole wheat honey shortbread I baked myself. In my book, "good" can taste delicious and be healthful. Isn't that the appeal of the whole foods of Whole Foods' brand?

I doubt Whole Foods will immediately jettison all of its junk food. In its third quarter 2009 results released yesterday -- in which the company exceeded analyst expectations, with earnings per share of $0.25, or $35.0 million, and sales up 2% over the year-ago quarter, to $1.9 billion -- Mackey made a point of the company's commitment to competitiveness in its 365 private label products (including plenty of cookies, crackers, chips, and other food making a small claim on the concept of "health"). "We have a policy that our 365 private label has to match Trader Joe's prices, unless there is a significant difference in quality, in which case it probably shouldn't be a 365 product," he said. As long as those products are on the shelves, junk will still be alive and well.

But Whole Foods was a leader in asking its suppliers to remove partially hydrogenated vegetable oils and high fructose corn syrup from its snack foods and prepared foods. Now it's harder to find those ingredients, and even mainstream packaged goods and beverage companies are foregoing the stuff. The next frontier for food purveyors (now that "local" has become an almost meaningless bandwagon on which to jump) is "refined" -- flour, sugar, fat. Clearly Whole Foods will be forging ahead and giving its customers less-refined products. Whole foods at Whole Foods. It's hardly a stunning and innovative concept, but in my opinion, it's a great place to hang one's hat.

And with pundits like Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver yelling until their voices get screechy that Americans should stop defining "junk" as "food," owning up to the presence of junk -- and making strides to remove it -- could be the forward-thinking move we most need.

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