'We can afford to eat healthier food, but we choose not to' - Whole Foods Market co-founder challenges healthy food cost perception

By Stephen Daniells in Chicago

- Last updated on GMT

'We can afford to eat healthier food, but we choose not to' - Whole Foods Market co-founder challenges healthy food cost perception

Related tags Food Nutrition John mackey

US consumers can afford to buy healthy food, but they have been ‘corrupted’ by the availability of cheap food to spend less, says the co-founder of Whole Foods Market.

“I don’t think healthy foods cost more – just look at how little we spend on food,”​ said John Mackey, co-founder of Whole Foods Market.

“One hundred years ago we spent about 50% on food. Fifty years ago it was about 20%. Today, in the US, we spend less than 7% of income on food.”

“We can afford to eat healthier food, but we choose not to. We have been corrupted by low prices,” ​Mackey told attendees at the Taste Tomorrow event hosted by Puratos at the Drake Hotel in Chicago last week.

However the industrialization of the food supply does mean that no fresh fruit and vegetable produce can compete with corn, wheat and rice, which are supported by subsidies, he added.


Mackey presented to attendees on the evolution of food consciousness. Consumers are seeking authenticity, he said, and the market is witnessing a foodie revolution, a re-emergence of food artisans, a consumer desire for transparency, and the desire for food that is natural, organic, local, global, ethical, healthy and sustainable.

Speaking, John Mackey, co-founder of Whole Foods Market, warned attendees that if they don’t understand foodie consumers they “are going to be left behind”.

He defined ‘foodies’ as people who view food as a pleasure, where quality and taste are the highest values, where the story behind the food matters greatly, and who see food as a form of self-expression.

Romantic reaction

Whole Foods Market has emerged as a romantic reaction to industrial foods, he said. ‘Natural’ – which has no official definition – is defined by the retailer as free of artificial preservatives, colors, flavors, sweeteners, or hydrogenated fats. In other words, it is minimally processed, said Mackey.

Despite this reaction to the industrial food supply, Mackey said it would be “insane to go back to pre-industrialized agriculture.”

In 1910, one farmer could feed 27 people. Today, one farmer feeds 155 people, he observed. The industrialization of the food supply has done much to boost productivity and improve safety of the food supply. However, there are huge environmental costs of the system, the food is less healthy, there is pollution of ground water by pesticides and fertilizers, and then there is the obesity epidemic, he added.

“There needs to be a greater synthesis of both types of agriculture, balancing long-term environmental sustainability and productivity maximization”​.


Mackey also noted that 80% of all deaths in the US are due to avoidable lifestyle diseases, and that 50% of people die from heart disease and stroke.

“The trend towards natural and healthy is a challenge and an opportunity for the bakery, patisserie, and chocolate industries,” ​he said. “For bakery in particular it is a great opportunity. For the patisserie and chocolate industries, don’t even try to be healthy. People still want indulgences.”

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