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If Whole Foods Sells the Same Junk as Everyone Else, Then What's the Point?

Not long ago I made one of my periodic forays to Whole Foods, the all-natural-groceries conglomerate. My assignment was to buy a Christmas ham from a pig that had not suffered unduly, and that was relatively free of chemicals and antibiotics.

I was somewhere between the Amy's organic soups and the own-label cans of vegetables when I came upon an unexpected sight: bottles of Heinz regular ketchup that, like much of the industrial food that comprises the American diet, is sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS).

As you may know, HFCS is among the laboratory-created synthetic foods targeted for elimination by activists, most notably the journalist Michael Pollan in his influential book The Omnivore's Dilemma. Though scientific opinion differs on whether HFCS is any worse for you than regular sugar, there's little doubt that its cheap ubiquity - a consequence of misguided government farming subsidies - has contributed significantly to our epidemics of obesity and type-two diabetes.

Thus I considered it a breach of faith that Whole Foods would carry such a product. Shopping there means you're going to pay more and drive farther than if you simply stocked up at the nearest supermarket. In return, it doesn't seem too much to ask that you be spared from having to worry about ingredients such as HFCS. So it was with a perverse sense of anticipation that I started reading Nick Paumgarten's 9,100-word profile of Whole Foods founder and chief executive John Mackey in the current issue of the New Yorker.

As Paumgarten observes, Mackey has stepped in it several times in recent years, engaging in embarrassing (and legally dubious) internet sock puppetry with regard to his acquisition of Wild Oats, a rival chain, and writing a commentary for the Wall Street Journal in opposition to government healthcare reform. The latter enraged his largely liberal customer base, engendering brief calls for a boycott.

What makes the New Yorker article valuable, though, is the way Paumgarten captures Mackey's "crazy uncle" and "right-wing hippie" personae and places them in the context of his radical libertarianism. In the course of talking (and talking, and talking), Mackey reveals an important contradiction that illustrates why Whole Foods simply isn't as good as it should be. On the one hand, Mackey, now a vegan, is absolutely committed to healthy food. On the other, his naive belief in individual responsibility informs not just his contempt for government but, in a sense, for his own company as well.