Lost In the Supermarket Confessions of a Whole Foods junkie

“You’ve got some good stuff here, that’s for sure!”

These soft, even words flowed out of the cashier’s mouth as casually as if she had met me, her sole customer, at a party. And with the store emblazoned in dark, exotic colors against a low light, and accentuated by the mild scent of patchouli, who was to say this humble health food store was not an open invitation with four walls, a ceiling, and aisle after aisle of intriguing finds?

New Frontiers, a health food store nestled in the Salt Lake City neighborhood of my early twenties, circa 1992, carried all and sundry of items never to be found at the hardscrabble Albertsons chain of its time. Curried pistachios, almond butter, organic apple juice (replete with misty, mysterious sediment at bottom vouching for its authenticity), red palm oil, and barbecued blocks of soy, hermetically packaged.

This was a culinary shopping experience heretofore unknown in the high-mountain bosom of Mormonism where I grew up. Just walking through the doors of this sleepy little shop, with only one cashier, gave you the feeling of quiet subversion.

“Let the hoi-polloi of suburbia make their way through aisle after aisle of Nabisco, Proctor & Gamble and Sara Lee,” was the vague notion running through my mind. “I will take the shopping aisle less traveled. As a bonus, I will also be healthier.”

That was the line I sold myself. The irony, however, was that I was moving lockstep in the same direction with hordes of other shoppers.

Salt Lake City’s New Frontiers of 1992 is, of course, no more. It moved to a bigger store closer to the city center, this time with four checkout lines. Six years later it was bought by the Boulder, Colorado-based chain of Wild Oats Markets, then moved into a warehouse-size store with nine checkout lines, and three aisles of vitamin and dietary supplements and homeopathic remedies.

“Let the hoi-polloi of suburbia make their way through aisle after aisle of Nabisco, Proctor & Gamble and Sara Lee,” was the vague notion running through my mind. “I will take the shopping aisle less traveled. As a bonus, I will also be healthier.”

By the time my city’s Wild Oats was bought out by Austin, Texas,-based Whole Foods Market in 2007, everyone in Salt Lake City seemed to be “in on it,” so to speak. Words such as “health food” seemed hopelessly quaint alongside more modern iterations of an emerging consumer ideology framed by “conscious” or “mindful” eating. With the dawn of best-selling authors such as Michael Pollen, it was only kicking into overdrive. The waft of patchouli and sincere banter of paisley-clad cashiers working their way through school seemed gone forever, replaced by the stern sounds of credit card readers and often wearisome smiles of “customer service team members.”

So it is that today, Whole Foods Market boasts sales of more than $30 billion annually, dotting every major U.S. and Canadian city within a stone’s throw of professional-level salaries, Range-Rover driving trustafarians, or even teenage allowances hovering near $50 per week. Oh, yes, there’s also that endless stream of celebrity news bits.

Skeptics smirk, deriding the health food store monolith as “Whole Wallet” or “Whole Paycheck.” Those patronizing the chain with blind devotion are “Whole Fools.”

Count me guilty as charged. Through cracks in the seemingly scientific foundations of homeopathy and natural remedies—from ginkgo biloba to fish oil—to the political and business shenanigans of CEO John Mackey, and even my own family’s economic ups and downs, I have remained loyal to Whole Foods Markets, more or less. Not uniformly loyal, given the rise of Trader Joe’s, Costco and natural foods aisles at Target, but loyal enough to wonder out loud if I my shopping habit was more in line with reflex, casual habit or, God forbid, blind adherence.

“We have got to stop shopping at Whole Foods. It is too expensive,” my wife would say whenever we found there was too much month left at the end of our money.

“Yes,” I would chime. “But then where the hell will I get my organic, low-sodium vegetable juice? Where will I be able to shop free of the Muzak-mangled version of my favorite songs?”

Whatever critics thought of socialist experiments throughout history, there is no denying that Marx and Engels hit the nail straight on its head when they argued that the ideas in our heads must be explained in the context of the material conditions of our lives. That’s an idea that stretches far beyond the weekly routine of shopping for groceries, into the realm of the neighborhood we live in and brand of car we drive.

But here is the rub: If you believe that quality food is part and parcel of good health, your grocery store of choice is not just a status symbol. Rather, it becomes a matter of life and death. At the very least, it can be a matter of life and ill health. Mackey, a smart person, knows that when millions believe this, the sweet spot for exploitation—never mind a smoothie in the neighborhood of $7—is wide open.

Like most people, my own motivating behavior for walking through Whole Foods’ doors time, and time again, has a backstory. Fresh out of college and into my first job, albeit without the employee benefit of health insurance, I still have never forgotten the experience of receiving five separate rejection letters whenever I applied for an individual health insurance policy. (A kidney operation at age 14 was the wall of a pre-existing condition that barred my entry.) Gazing at the rows of vitamins and homeopathic remedies I thought to myself, “So what if a bottle of 300, 500 mg Ester-C tablets will cost me $25? What are the chances that, if I don’t swallow one after every meal I would have to call in sick? Even worse, what is $25 compared to the hundreds of thousands I might pay out if I develop cancer?”

The weighing of risks and benefits, the costs and options, crept into personal matters far less consequential. As in, “Oh, my God! I’m going bald!” The answer, my friendly Whole Foods supplements clerk informed me, could be a little something called horsetail, the folk name of a vascular plant under the genus equisteaceae that the Greeks and Romans, long ago, used to treat wounds and kidney ailments. (Our modern-day assessment of horsetail’s medicinal claims says you are better off giving your money to charity.) Duly purchasing a bottle of these tablets, I awoke every morning after ingesting one to examine my strands for thickness, luster, and number. If I could not tell any difference—“Maybe it works. Maybe it does. I don’t know.”—I could at least thrill to the experience of some placebo phenomenon hidden from the searching ways of my own five senses.

This search for cures and benefits stretched on into the horizon, through all the 20-plus years I patronized New Frontiers, Wild Oats, Whole Foods and, doubtlessly any other iterations the future holds. If horsetail proved a bust at improving my mane of hair, or I grew bored with it, there was always biotin to sample. “I’ve heard cancer patients say that it helped them keep their hair even during chemo,” a supplements clerk told me. If hefty doses of vitamin C would not delay the grim reaper, as peer-reviewed research has since shown, then perhaps the secret lies in today’s most trumpeted anticarcinogen—when mixed properly with black pepper and olive oil—turmeric. The fact that military physicians from ancient Greece, Rome and India used turmeric to salve wounds and prevent inflammation only adds to its romance.

Therein lies the charm, discreet though it may seem, of stores like Whole Foods Market. In a world where entire stock market indices can be built on castles of sand, where war can break out any moment in the Middle East, or your child’s gaiety can turn on a dime into dread despair, stores such as Whole Foods Market turn us into small masters of our own destiny. Just walking through its doors is a bit like donning a lab coat to read labels that shape, if not reinforce, our ideological fears and hopes, whether founded in science or not.

The list of ingredients to scan, jettison, or enter into a new relationship with is seemingly endless. Bisphenol A (BPA) is bad, although there is emerging evidence that BPA-free plastics and can-liners are not any better. Fish oil was thought to be a panacea. If it did not improve heart health, its Omega-3 fatty acids could at least help ward off depression. In retrospect, I’m rather proud I never bought into “detox” cures or homeopathy, both based on dubious scientific foundations, if any foundation at all. It is embarrassing enough to have fallen for horsetail all those years ago.

Just walking through its doors is a bit like donning a lab coat to read labels that shape, if not reinforce, our ideological fears and hopes, whether founded in science or not.

Of course, Whole Foods Market appeals to perhaps another set of shoppers entirely: the part- or full-time gourmands. If the supplements aisle is not for you, there’s always the stores’ bevy of first-rate cheeses. But read the scientific and food press long enough, and even that seeming indulgence apparently reaps health benefits. For shoppers like me, this is the wonderful, dizzying, fun-house mirror of shopping Whole Foods and similar stores. What is healthy one year is a bust the next. What is hollered from the mountaintops as the answer to all our dietary prayers could, without moment’s notice, be damned as a possible scourge.

What of price, the very fulcrum of our capitalist, supply-and-demand culture? If the cynic knows the price of everything, the Whole Foods shopper knows the value of the shopping experience itself; its atmosphere or milieu. As elitist as it may sound—if we want to be kind, recast it as an aesthetic choice—the privilege of spending more on your grocery bill is also the privilege of dodging the harsh fluorescent light, the garish point-of-purchase publications and products (electronic cigarettes?) at a conventional check-out.

None of this discounts the ridiculous amount of snobbery occasionally on display at these stores. None of this protects you from feeling envious of your fellow Whole Foods shopper, who may regale the cashier or passersby with details of their recent, seven-stop bicycle tour of the British Isles. What a stop at Whole Foods does for struggling, middle-class shoppers is make them (and me) feel that, if only for a little while, they have edged their way up the consumerist ladder.

Marketers and financial analysts see it all differently, of course. For them, the proper context is not one of class anxiety in the midst of foraging for better health. Instead, it is “A re-orientation of consumer attitudes around wellness, with fresh taking center stage.” Science mavens, meanwhile, adore point-scoring exercises in pointing out that most of what the “mindful eating” movement avows is, for the most part, evidence-free folly. There is no danger in conventional, un-organic foods and produce. There is no evident peril in genetically modified (GM) foods, although it sure is high comedy to see the emergence of “No-GMO” labels slapped on foods and products never genetically modified to begin with. And if it is true health you are after, the number of calories you consume is more important than mere quality. To top it all off, the allegations say, some of the most revered figures of the nutritionist jet set are playing puffed-up guru to a guileless cult following. Like The Beatles’ ill-fated relationship with the Maharishi, sooner or later you are bound to be disappointed. The Clash wrote the original anthem of this type of consumerist disillusionment. Mackey, and other enterprising food marketers in his wake, added just a few new verses. He keeps adding them, even up to a new line of similar stores for those who could not afford the original.

But is not life like that? There is a certain symmetry at work when we learn that something so routine as grocery shopping follows the same arc of elation upon discovery, wisdom through trial (or money wasted) and, it is hoped, enlightenment after the fall.

Is there not a certain comfort in the fact that these high-end grocery stores make miniature scientists of so many? The extra expense paid is, in the end, the price of being conscious of what we eat, from its ingredients to its carbon footprint. If we get duped on occasion along the way, we will at least be healthy enough in body and spirit to admit our errors. As the ride conductor warns at every amusement park, “Keep your seatbelt fastened, and your arms inside the ride at all times.”

All I know for certain is that, after 20-plus years and one move from Salt Lake City to St. Louis, even the doe-eyed cashier at Whole Foods still has it in her to say, “You’ve got some good stuff here, that’s for sure.”