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Whole Foods CEO on Veganism

September 4, 2010

I read an interesting interview with John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Markets, the other day in USA Today, which I’ll contrast with another writer later. A couple of surprising factoids came out of the interview: the company’s top category is “all brands of water” and the single best-selling item? Bananas. I never would have guessed it.

Now, I love Whole Foods stores, but I was dismayed by their decision earlier this year to pull raw milk products from their shelves, and more recently, raw kombucha. Although, the latter is officially just temporary, but then, so was the raw milk ban at first.

The most revealing part about the Mackey interview was his account of his own diet:

I’ve cut out all oils. I don’t eat olive oil or canola oil. I’ve reduced the salt I consume. We don’t cook with salt at home. I’ve cut way back on concentrated sweeteners and sugar. And I feel great. I’ve lost 20 pounds. My vitality is higher, my cholesterol plummeted, and my blood pressure has dropped. I’m healthier today than I was 20 years ago.

That’s not all bad; I don’t eat canola oil, either, and I’ve also generally cut back on concentrated sweeteners and sugar. But no fat or salt? Both are nutrients, as well as major flavor enhancers. Fats also help us absorb other nutrients in food, and salt is necessary for digestion (it’s raw material for stomach acid). And this is just way too ascetic. That approach neither builds health nor enjoyment. He disingenuously says the “wellness” line of products to be introduced next year is not being driven by his personal lifestyle, although it echoes his own diet: “We’ll introduce a private-label line in 2011 based on the healthy eating book The Engine 2 Diet. We’ve licensed that brand. It’s vegan (no animal fats) with no canola or safflower oils, and low in sugar and salt.”

His cholesterol plummeted? Unless it was in the stratosphere, I know of no good reason you’d want it to plummet. Can he really be so ignorant of the re-evaluation of the whole cholesterol and saturated fat theory of heart disease? He doesn’t know that our hormones, neurotransmitters and brains need fat and cholesterol? He never found time to peruse Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes? This is just sad. As long as Whole Foods still makes butter, meat, and full-fat dairy available, I guess I don’t care what John Mackey eats, but it’s troubling that Whole Foods will use its influence to peddle veganism under the guise of providing a wellness solution. Human animals need animal food, according to my research and personal experience, and the evidence from our evolutionary heritage.

I know so many former vegetarians, myself included, who suffered health problems under that regime that improved only when we started eating animal foods again, which are the best sources of minerals and of the vital nutrients A, D, E and K. Grain-based foods are poor sources and also rob the body of minerals.

As a former vegetarian, I do have some sympathy with the reluctance to eat animals. I know all the slogans — “I never eat anything with a face/that had a mother” etc — but those seem rather immature. We should only avoid eating cute foods? What about baby carrots? I’m joking, but to a certain extent, I’m not sure I totally trust someone who’s never gone through a vegetarian phase, or at least questioned the ethics of eating meat. I truly love animals, and I take seriously the needs of those in my care (3 dogs, 3 cats, 4 goats and 14 chickens), but I now realize that our species is part of nature,  not apart from it, and eating and being eaten is part of the web of life. And humans evolved on a diet based on nutrient-dense animal foods supplemented by plant foods. Grains entered the diet only recently and we’re not that well adapted to them.

As for the cruelty of animal feedlots, factory farms and the CAFO system (confined animal feeding operations) and many slaughterhouses, those are indictments of that system, not of  eating meat per se. I do believe that we owe it to the animals we domesticate to provide them with a good life, one where they can have their physical and psychological needs met as much as possible, and have a humane death. Or, as the Temple Grandin character says in the HBO biopic, “Nature is cruel, but we don’t have to be.”

Today I reread a wonderful essay by Charles Eisenstein that’s available on the Weston A. Price Foundation website, The Ethics of Eating Meat: A Radical View. Highly recommended. If that stimulates your thinking, don’t miss The Vegetarian Myth, by Lierre Keith.

(Incidentally, I was at Whole Foods in Petaluma, California, about two weeks ago, and they had several brands of raw fermented drinks (kombucha, a kefir soda, Rejuvalac, etc) for sale, just not KT’s Kombucha or KT Synergy. Since I make my own kombucha — a double batch every week to 10 days — I’m not deprived, but it’s always nice to be able to buy it at the store if I need some, and that’s my routine stop on the way home from a visit to San Francisco.)


  1. Sorry to hear about Cubalaya. It’s one of the hardest things to lose an animal.

    I agree with most of what you say here, but I will point out that Mackey didn’t say that he doesn’t eat fat – he said that he doesn’t eat oil. If he eats nuts and avocados and coconut, he’s still getting lots of good fat, in a complete package. Fat is essential – extracted oils are not essential. Of course, he’s vegan so he’s not getting fats rich in all the vitamins you mentioned, but he’s not on a fat-free diet, which is good, at least.

    What really depresses me is that the product WF moves the most is water. Water in plastic bottles that’s probably tap water most of the time. So much for that “green mission.”

    • Jeanmarie permalink

      It’s hard to know exactly what he meant by “no oil,” it could have meant “no fat” (the way it sounded to me) or it could have meant specifically no liquid oils, as you point out. From what I’ve read of his comments on food before, he definitely has a “fat is bad” attitude. I know most vegan cookbooks etc at least advise avocados and coconut oil. For his sake, I hope you’re right!

      Yes, all that water is pretty shocking. Most of it is in plastic, too, I think. The bananas also surprised me. Not some of the amazing things they carry that are hard to find elsewhere, but bananas is the single biggest seller!
      Thanks for stopping by.

      • Yes, it’s good to have some back-and-forth with you again now that I’ve left Facebook. 🙂

      • Jeanmarie permalink

        I didn’t realize you’d left. Are you taking a stand on Facebook privacy? Or it was wasting too much time?

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