Whole Foods Market Is America’s Temple of Pseudoscience

Michael Shulson says “Americans get riled up about creationists and climate change deniers, but lap up the quasi-religious snake oil at Whole Foods. It’s all pseudoscience—so why are some kinds of pseudoscience more equal than others?”, writing at Daily Beast:

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.

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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 Miracle and 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…

[continues at Daily Beast]


Majestic is gadfly emeritus.

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71 Comments on "Whole Foods Market Is America’s Temple of Pseudoscience"

  1. In the meantime, remember, there’s nothing “psuedo-scientific” about comparing traditional breeding techniques of food crops to modern genetic modification techniques as though they were even on the same level…

  2. BuzzCoastin | Feb 23, 2014 at 5:27 pm |

    It’s gettin real in the Whole Foods parking lot

  3. Tchoutoye | Feb 23, 2014 at 5:37 pm |

    The difference between a placebo accepted by the science community to be effective and a placebo denounced as “pseudoscience” is that the former is manufactured by Big Pharma and the latter not. Perhaps the mysterious “belief in authority” aspect of the effect of placebos works on the scientist’s mind as well?

    • ishmael2009 | Feb 23, 2014 at 6:26 pm |

      “Perhaps the mysterious “belief in authority” aspect of the effect of placebos works on the scientist’s mind as well?”.

      No. That’s why they have double blind trials. If you want to buy snake oil or herbal pills, that’s fine. But don’t pretend it’s based on science because it isn’t. It’s hocus pocus and quackery.

    • Rus Archer | Feb 23, 2014 at 8:52 pm |

      haven’t several studies shown that the placebo effect is just as effective or often more effective than “legit” medicines?

      • Woobniggurath | Feb 25, 2014 at 1:53 pm |

        One of my favorite conclusions from placebo controlled study on acupuncture for back pain: paraphrasing- ‘Acupuncture was not significantly better than placebo but both placebo and acupuncture produced better results than conventional treatment.’

        Of course this was pimped with the headline “Acupuncture ineffective for back pain.”

        Too lazy today to find the citation.

  4. Thurlow Weed | Feb 23, 2014 at 5:40 pm |

    Whole Foods is the Walmart of the post New age petite bourgeoisie, replete with anti-union campaigns and psuedo-scientific books written by people who have talked to god. That’s why you pay $8.00 US there for a portion of deep fried potatoes sprinkled with Dead Sea salt.

  5. Daniel Gill | Feb 23, 2014 at 5:41 pm |

    Fucking hipsters . At least my wife’s $900 dolls are whole doll .

    • Calypso_1 | Feb 23, 2014 at 5:46 pm |

      ….oh my.

    • I like how anything that anyone doesn’t like can now be denigrated by the catch-all term “hipster”.

      • VaudeVillain | Feb 24, 2014 at 9:46 am |

        When that thing is woo from Whole Foods, blaming it on hipsters seems entirely appropriate and accurate. Those fuckers have, as a group, bought into “alternative medicine” with gusto.

        • Yeeeees… but who are ‘those fuckers’, really? Young dudes with beards? People with sleeve tatts that don’t fall into any of the old sleeve-tatt demographics? Anyone who rides a fixie bike? Anyone with a sneering, cynical aura of “more alternative than thou”?

          It’s been mutating for about 20 years now, as the Indefinite Definition That Will Not Die. Ten years ago it would have been applied to anyone wearing a trucker cap in inner urban areas… Or someone wearing Buddy Holly-style glasses with clear lenses, purely as an affectation.

          Nowadays ‘hipster’ just seems like lazy shorthand for “anyone that I don’t like, or who’s into anything I don’t like, between the ages of 17 and about 37”.

          Personally I miss the days when it was a clear reference to anyone who was an aficionado of the jazz scene. Ah, the good ol’ 1940s… 😉

          • VaudeVillain | Feb 25, 2014 at 9:13 am |

            Sounds like the people you know are lazy and repetitive with their slurs.

            Where I’m from, “hipster” still refers to a very specific subset of fashionably unfashionable young people with money to spare and oh-so-pretentious attitudes.

            The details of what, precisely, they do or look like are ever-changing largely because it is a fashion-oriented subculture and constantly changing aesthetics are an integral part of any such group. I’m sorry if you find that frustrating, but it is what it is.

          • Not so much the people I know, as the people whose opinions I encounter daily in the media, be it on the intermawebs or more ‘traditional’ media.

            I get where you’re coming from specifically now, with that elaboration (thanks!), but in the broader world it’s just become such a lazy collective insult, IMHO. I can picture the type you’re describing, but for example I could easily take out the “money to spare” bit (which seems key to your definition) and you’d still have every cooler-than-thou barista with sleeve tatts and a neck beard (which seems to have largely replaced the faux-ironic 70s porn-moustache) in my neighborhood. They’ve got the pretention and the look, but a lot certainly don’t have too much disposable money.

            Anyway, yes, frustrating. But I’m going to have a lie-down now, maybe eat some chocolate with “a meld of rich goji berries and ashwagandha root”… Or possibly I’ll just finish this bottle of whiskey, listen to some vintage jazz, and dream of a better world… 😉

          • VaudeVillain | Feb 26, 2014 at 2:17 am |

            Whether or not they actually HAVE money to spare is never really important. It’s really about whether or not they find a way to spare it. Most do, then gripe about how broke they are.

          • Woobniggurath | Feb 26, 2014 at 6:20 pm |

            It’s they who aren’t who they are.

  6. Simon Valentine | Feb 23, 2014 at 5:49 pm |

    pseudo correlation between pseudo pseudo science and pseudo science is science and pseudo science. binary retardation stations aren’t not anywhere.

  7. You know I have a few mildly open and honest questions about homeopathy. Not that I’ve ever cared to deal with it, but there’s always been a little thorn in the side of the argument against it in my mind. The standard convincing factor against homeopathy is “there is no molecules of the substance and it is basically just diluted water.”

    But back in my college days, i learned that water, when it encounters a substance, due to it’s polar structure, surrounds the substance in a manner that it mimic’s the molecular structure: The positive parts of the molecule get surrounded by the negative ends of H2O molecules, and thus have again, a positive side facing out, and the same happens but backwards for the negative parts of the molecules. Since it is essentially the same configuration, yet larger, water molecules will again surround the molecule with aligned water around it, and continue doing so. So its like a layered shell of water. Now my questions are as follows: First, is it possible that there may be a molecule-specific structures, dare i say crystalline structures, albeit fluid, for each solvent in the water? Second, is it possible that these structures could remain stable despite the solvent being more and more scarce as it is diluted? If any of the answers are yes, that would make the seemingly ridiculous claims of water-memory hold a little weight, wouldn’t it?

    • Thurlow Weed | Feb 23, 2014 at 6:29 pm |


    • Calypso_1 | Feb 23, 2014 at 6:44 pm |

      These are the ideas that are used for many pseudo-science claims related to ordered-water.
      The ordered structures are largely a result of van der Waals forces which are weak w/ a small radius. It doesn’t take much thermodynamic instability to break these bonds.
      Ordered water on a very small scale is important in many biochemical reactions – a lot of study has been done with enzymes.
      The idea that water holds ‘memory’, um – holds about as much water as a trying to leave a handprint in it.
      Homeopathy at its most true concept is essentially arguing for an unknown or mystical property that the absence of a physical substance imparts.

      • thats what i suspected. so you’re saying due to the weakness of the forces they cannot scale up as i presented, at least not significantly, and will break down without the source molecules. I just wish we could look at the mass of water dipoles and put this to rest… but i suspect we can’t because heisenberg.

        • Calypso_1 | Feb 23, 2014 at 7:17 pm |

          of course water is capable of significant macro pattern formation on it own, ie crystallization but in wet environments the scale is limited by all the other chemical & physical kinetics at play. H20 forms fairly stable tetrahedral clusters because of shared H bonds. This is what gives you all of waters cohesion/adhesion effects.
          Can’t really look at them but simulations are run. There are two basic scenarios: 1) a macro-molecule 2) dynamic coherence.

        • Calypso_1 | Feb 23, 2014 at 7:26 pm |

          This is a better example of water in a biochemical reaction.

      • Woobniggurath | Feb 25, 2014 at 2:02 pm |

        I have heard of fMRI studies showing distinctive water clustering in homeopathic preparations, but have never been able to find any reports thereof. Do you have any knowledge of such studies?

        • Calypso_1 | Feb 25, 2014 at 2:23 pm |

          It would not be fMRI. That is temporal resolution of other contrast media. I don’t think the spacial resolution of molecular MRI would be small enough to resolve water clusters & it seems to me the activation energy of hydrogen oscillations at that focal strength to create the resonance imaging of water would be enough to break the weak bonding of any water cluster.
          A cursory search for such studies did not yield any results and the only references to MRI and clustered water were on Alt-Med clustered water sales sites who were trying to prove their claims by stating that MRI involved water resonance.

  8. I am suddenly craving a Clif bar and a completely organic guava drink.

  9. Apathesis | Feb 23, 2014 at 7:07 pm |

    Whole Foods is too bougie for my poor white ass.

  10. Whole Foods Market America Is America’s THE Temple of Pseudoscience

    Fixed that for you

  11. Something is only “pseudo science” if it’s claiming to be science.
    TCM and Ayurveda, for instance, do not claim to be science. These are different modalities from different cultures. Science is only one sort of story, not the only one, and millions and millions of people have found validity in these other modes. So, get off the cultural bias mobile, ratched down the hubristic tendency to assume you have all the answers, and try other practices to see if they have efficacy for you.

    Such pro-science bias is really rather unscientific, is it not?

    • Thurlow Weed | Feb 23, 2014 at 11:25 pm |

      To all the hubristic haters I recommend a walnut milk high colonic, a hooker and a shower. You’ll never question we shamans again after that.

    • Woobniggurath | Feb 25, 2014 at 2:11 pm |

      Ortho-doxy. [C16: via Church Latin from Greek orthodoxos, from orthos correct + doxa belief]

  12. Rus Archer | Feb 23, 2014 at 8:50 pm |

    creationism isn’t inherently dangerous
    but the people who buy into a specific type of creationism in the u.s. also tend to espouse a lot of oppressive ideals such as anti-abortionism, anti-women’s rights, anti-homosexuality, anti-healthcare, etc

  13. misinformation | Feb 23, 2014 at 9:46 pm |

    Whole Foods is overpriced and carries a bunch of useless shit, indeed. Therefore I wouldn’t be one bit surprised to see this garbage piece of pseudo-journalism found there.

    “My friend who’s brother’s aunt’s step-granddaughter knows a scientist was like, ‘whatever'” – fucking pathetic.

  14. Hoarfraust | Feb 24, 2014 at 2:00 am |

    Quasi-religious snake oil what??? Disinfo articles are falling falling in quality I say.

  15. We will most certainly go down as the generation of wishful thinkers…..highly educated well meaning wishful thinkers : )

  16. If I hadn’t once watched homeopathy work in person, I’d still doubt that it was anything but hucksterism, too. But…I did see a lady get stung by bees, swell up like a balloon, recieve nothing but a glass of water and a homeopath remedy for bee stings, and within 15 minutes you’d have been hard pressed to tell she’d been stung at all.

    I might poo-poo some of the corporate-driven mass marketed cure all culture that dominates ‘alternative’ food culture…but aside from unilaterally supporting opposition to GMO and pesticide heavy foods, which far from psuedoscience are genuinely distrusted by scientists, farmers, food experts and governments around the globe….

    …theres also the nagging reminder that some of those funky home remedies occasionally work like gangbusters. Not always and not every product…but theres a deep streak of corporate refusal to market any alternative to massive medication with side effects, even when something less dangerous has been proven measurably effective.

    It would be a fine thing if we could get the university crowds to break away from the desperate corporate funded exclusive research game and back into just looking at what might work…but in a culture that has left higher education strapped for dollars unless they guzzle corporate cum we can’t expect research dollars to get wasted on potentially low profit solutions involving ingredients that can’t be patented…so the hope for thorough evidence falls by the wayside and we all just settle for playing a guessing game.

    I might hate the Whole Foods snooty culture and hyprocritical posturing while pimping a pure profit driven paradigm…but be that as it may, it doesn’t make the other side of the coin a place of noble motives, pure intent, and genuine scientific honesty either. It’s nice to be reminded that theres bunk on both sides of the street, but Shulson’s one sided article seems to leave blank the long list of very legit complaints about the ‘modern’ food and medicine paradigms.

    • I think that the author’s concern is, in this case, purely scientific. I would disagree that GMO’s are distrusted by scientists, at least with the biologists and food scientists I’ve talked to. Instead, the overwhelming concern is with the crummy business practices that are tied in with GMO farming. Along with that hate is going to come smear campaigns. I just wish people would focus more on the business aspect more, purely because there is more meat on that bone.

      • Rey d'Tutto | Feb 27, 2014 at 8:09 pm |

        I personally have issues with GMO Types like RoundUp Ready ™ as a concept. Make the food resistant to poison, so we can dump ginormous amounts of the toxin we also produce & sell to kill every other life form within 10-30 feet of the Crop fields. It’s not like it’ll get into the water supply, contaminate acres of watersheds & cropland, and produce Superweeds…

    • Rus Archer | Feb 24, 2014 at 12:37 pm |

      placebos work
      it doesn’t mean homeopathy works
      people have powerful brains

  17. emperorreagan | Feb 24, 2014 at 10:25 am |

    I don’t shop at Whole Foods because every one I have been in is laid out such that it feels like a trap. Narrow aisles, lay-outs seemingly designed to force you to walk down every aisle, people milling around in said narrow aisles who won’t get out of the way…

    All I usually want is rice, beans, and vegetables. Why does that have to be so fucking hard?

    • Rus Archer | Feb 24, 2014 at 12:33 pm |

      it doesn’t
      you’re just a crybaby

      • emperorreagan | Feb 24, 2014 at 1:41 pm |

        Ha. Well, the actual answer is that Whole Foods invests a lot of time and effort in priming people to shop and maximizing the time you interact with products. They’ve really been a leader in that field.

        • Rus Archer | Feb 24, 2014 at 1:45 pm |

          yeah, most markets have it worked out to suck you into spending more time and buying more crap you don’t need
          easiest way around it (most of the time) is stick to the outside aisles where you have less prepackaged stuff
          vegetables, meats, etc
          skip all that other junk
          all these people complaining about stuff being expensive are just buying the wrong shit
          learn to cook, bitches

  18. Calypso_1 | Feb 24, 2014 at 12:04 pm |

    Placebos are well known to cause the side effects of the medicines they are substituted for . It is as aspect of nocebo response.

  19. If this author would’ve bothered to do some research, he would’ve realized that things like ashwagandha have been for thousands of years by cultures in India, Africa and elsewhere. His myopic view of “science” obviously only included that small window of pharmaceuticals that have been synthesized and developed in some sterile lab. Duh. Way to o Daily Beast, perpetuating ignorance and helping feed the right wing anti-science, anti-intellectual machine. I used to read your stuff a lot but you’ve been disappointing me as of late, especially with this author/article.

    • Rus Archer | Feb 25, 2014 at 2:02 pm |

      also, a lot of us were doing “paleo”
      before idiots decided to call it that
      unfortunate name

  20. Woobniggurath | Feb 25, 2014 at 2:04 pm |

    What’s the dude’s problem with probiotics? That shit is strictly mainstream these days. Anti-Inflammatory what what?

  21. Forbidden Fruit | Mar 1, 2014 at 3:39 pm |

    Homeopathy is a massive scam. But the supernatural/alien shit you guys post about is also nothing more than science fiction.

    Vampires, aliens, witches, zombies and other “entities” are not real. Why can’t Americans let go of their fascination with this childish fantasy crap? It stopped being interesting somewhere around age 13.

  22. lchris33 | Mar 3, 2014 at 1:13 pm |

    Remember, there’s a reason this site is called Disinfo.

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