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posted: 3/2/2014 6:22 AM

Healthy food sold at Wal-Mart v. Whole Foods

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  • Whole Foods, one of the largest health-conscious grocery stores in America, maintains a list of "Unacceptable Ingredients for Food." In fact, approximately 14 percent of food items sold at Wal-Mart could not be stocked on the shelves of Whole Foods simply because they contain high fructose corn syrup.

      Whole Foods, one of the largest health-conscious grocery stores in America, maintains a list of "Unacceptable Ingredients for Food." In fact, approximately 14 percent of food items sold at Wal-Mart could not be stocked on the shelves of Whole Foods simply because they contain high fructose corn syrup.
    Daily Herald file

 
Slate Magazine

Whole Foods, one of the largest health-conscious grocery stores in America, maintains a list of "Unacceptable Ingredients for Food." The store's blacklist is 78 ingredients long and contains many well-known villains in the eyes of health-conscious eaters -- aspartame, MSG and high fructose corn syrup, to name a few.

Though Whole Foods has grown over the years -- it currently boasts more than 300 locations nationwide -- it's still a small operation in comparison to Wal-Mart, which runs more than 3,000 food-selling supercenters in the U.S., making it the largest grocery store in the country and indeed the world.

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Walmart does not ban any of the ingredients on Whole Foods' restricted list. In fact, approximately 14 percent of food items sold at Wal-Mart could not be stocked on the shelves of Whole Foods simply because they contain high fructose corn syrup. When all 78 ingredients banned by Whole Foods are considered, roughly 54 percent of food items sold at a Wal-Mart would be prohibited at Whole Foods.

Wal-Mart posts on its website the ingredients of 19,900 food products it carries in its grocery sections. To create my data set, I matched the ingredients of each product against Whole Foods' "Unacceptable Ingredients for Food" list. It should be noted that while 19,900 products constitutes a large sample, it does not represent all of Wal-Mart's food offerings, as there are many products for which the chain does not provide nutritional information on its website, and other products it doesn't list at all. The Food Marketing Institute estimates that the average supermarket stocks approximately 42,000 items. When I asked a Wal-Mart spokeswoman via email if the 42,000 figure held true for its stores, she responded that the number varies from store to store, based on format, and declined to provide an average.

Many of the ingredients banned by Whole Foods are ones that frequently show up in processed foods, products that have been prepared and packaged in a way that allows them to be sold on a mass scale at a later date. Given the popularity of processed foods among American shoppers, and the disdain for preservatives in health food circles, it's perhaps not surprising that one out of every two products sold at Wal-Mart has an ingredient banned by Whole Foods. Consider the soft drink category. Of the soft drinks sold at Wal-Mart, approximately 97 percent contain ingredients that Whole Foods considers "unacceptable." High fructose corn syrup and the preservative sodium benzoate, both on Whole Foods' banned list, are in the majority of Wal-Mart's soft drinks.

If you're trying to avoid unnatural ingredients you may not be a soda drinker. But let's look at the seemingly more natural category of water. More than 36 percent of drinks that Wal-Mart labels as "water" also have ingredients that disqualify them from Whole Foods' shelves. While standard Aquafina and Aquafina FlavorSplash Lemon Water have similar packaging and might even be sold on the same shelf, the latter contains four ingredients (sucralose, calcium disodium EDTA, acesulfame potassium, and potassium sorbate) that would prohibit its sale at Whole Foods.

Water isn't the only surprising category where Whole Foods' banned substances show up. Even Wal-Mart's "Great Value 100% Whole Wheat Bread" contains seven ingredients that Whole Foods considers "unacceptable": high fructose corn syrup, sodium stearoyl lactylate, ethoxylated diglycerides, DATEM, azodicarbonamide, ammonium chloride, and calcium propionate.

Of course, it's important to remember that, while Whole Foods has attached a stigma to the ingredients it's declared "unacceptable," all of these ingredients are approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Whole Foods doesn't offer much of an explanation on its website for why it has banned these ingredients. A representative from the company explained by email that the decision to prohibit an ingredient comes from "many factors including safety, necessity, manufacturing methods and compatibility with our overall core values."

I asked Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University, what she thought about Whole Foods' banned ingredient list and how concerned consumers should be about consuming them. Nestle said that the health effects of artificial ingredients are hard to know with complete certainty. Aspartame, for example, is an ingredient that has been the subject of much public debate. Yet almost all health bodies have concluded it is safe for consumption. "A study proving [aspartame] is safe or unsafe would take years and be hard to do," Nestle said. "It is difficult to prove something is totally safe."

There are some ingredients that Nestle was surprised to see on Whole Foods' "Unacceptable Ingredients" list, including high fructose corn syrup. While high fructose corn syrup is often singled out as a cause of America's high obesity rates, Nestle says that "biochemically it is no different from sugar." Sugar, obviously, is not banned at Whole Foods, and you could eat an unhealthy amount of Whole Foods' own "Chocolate Sandwich Cremes," which contain cane sugar, as easily as an unhealthy amount of Oreos, which contain high fructose corn syrup. "One of the things that Whole Foods is responding to is customer concern," Nestle said. "High fructose corn syrup has a bad reputation among consumers, and Whole Foods is giving their demographic what their demographic wants."

Generally, Wal-Mart's policy is to let the consumer decide: "We serve more than 140 million customers per week in the United States and we believe in giving our customers a wide assortment of groceries so they can decide what is the best choice for their family." Do you prefer laissez-faire shopping (and the lower prices that come with it) or highly regulated shopping (and the peace of mind that comes with it)? The answer likely comes down to your politics -- and your pocketbook.

Online

Full story, including interactive graphics, at http://slate.me/1hvthhr

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