Whole Foods: The Whole Truth
Learn how to get the biggest bang for your green buck when shopping at the pricey chain
By Stephen Gandel

(MONEY Magazine) – Whole Foods, the nation's popular and fast-growing chain of "healthy" supermarkets, makes you feel good about groceries the moment you enter. Its mountains of lustrous produce, farmer's-market ambience and declared mission to provide you with the freshest natural and organic products make it seem as though you're doing a good deed for yourself and the environment. But not everything at Whole Foods is all that wholesome. And buying there could cost you a lot more than at other supermarkets—which is why some dub the store "Whole Paycheck." When you shop there, keep these pointers in mind.

Produce has a carbon footprint

Sad to say, you probably won't help the environment that much by shopping at Whole Foods. Many contend that the real damage done to the earth by fruits and veggies is not how they are grown but how much fuel has to be burned to get them to you. After all, those organic strawberries didn't walk from Mexico. Whole Foods offers only a limited supply of local produce. Even in summer months, no more than 30% of the produce in the average Whole Foods store is grown locally—but it is clearly labeled. On one visit, just the veggies above were local. In early spring, only rhubarb was available.

It's still junk food

Whole Foods doesn't carry any food containing trans fats or artificial coloring. But that's the extent of its nutritional screening. Just because you are in a Whole Foods, don't think that everything you see on the shelves is healthful. Whole Foods Golden Rounds crackers, for instance, have slightly more calories and fat per serving than the Ritz crackers they imitate. Of course, if Whole Foods didn't stock at least some junk food, you'd have to make a stop at another store—burning more gas to get your chips.

Not everything has to be organic

Whole Foods is famous for offering a wide variety of organic fruits and vegetables. But organic produce, which is grown without pesticides, costs 20% more on average than the store's conventionally grown produce. According to the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, soft-skinned fruits and veggies, like peaches, apples and bell peppers, retain the most amount of pesticides. So buying organic versions makes sense. Onions, avocados and corn are practically pesticide-free whether they are organically grown or not. Foodnews.org, the research group's website, lists conventionally grown fruits and vegetables by pesticide content.

The values are relative

To combat its reputation for priciness, the chain recently started tagging good values. And yes, you can get chicken breasts and organic milk at competitive prices ($4.50 a pound and $5 a gallon), and find a bargain on bulk dried cereal. Also, products carrying the "365" label, the store's in-house brand, are generally good deals compared with other options on the shelf (though not with store brands at other supermarkets). However, you will pay plenty for stuff you won't find elsewhere—heirloom arugula, Icelandic low-fat yogurt and organic frozen chicken potpies. But aren't those the exotic items you really came for?

No calorie counting here

With traditional grocery stores now stocking the organic brands that originally drew shoppers to Whole Foods, the chain is adding to its offerings of in-store prepared foods. The store diligently lists the ingredients that go into its meat loaf and macaroni and cheese, but it doesn't provide nutritional information on any of its in-store prepared foods. So while that vegan oatmeal scone tastes delicious and sounds healthy, you have no way of knowing whether it is better for you than the scallion-cheddar one sitting next to it—or, for that matter, the cheese Danish from Dunkin' Donuts down the street.

Don't get taken to the cleaners

In its "Whole Body" department, Whole Foods offers a variety of "organic" soaps and health supplements. But there is no recognized "organic" standard in the personal-care industry. Ditto for household items such as dishwashing detergent. The largest component in most cleaners—organic or not—is water. The "green" soaps and detergents may be less harmful to the environment (because they have no phosphates), but they don't necessarily remove the dirt any better than Tide or Cascade.

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Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2018 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2018. All rights reserved. Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor's Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2018 and/or its affiliates.