It doesn’t get any, er, tastier than this. I’m referring to the amazing little piece (of m-bait) that appeared on The Daily Beast this past weekend, “Whole Foods: America’s Temple of Pseudoscience” by Michael Schulson. We’ve been down this road a number of times before, but Schulson outdoes himself here, highlighting the undeniable religiosity that lies at the heart of so much of our culinary and health culture these days. That is, food is much more than food–and always has been, though perhaps not to the current extent. Purity, Status, Mortality, Justification, even Atonement–these are the subjects we find ‘messaged’ at us in the aisles of certain grocery stores and farmers markets with ever-increasing transparency, usually under the guise of science (and rationalism!). That Schulson’s “kosher” bells would go off is no big surprise. As the refrain goes, regardless of outward belief, everyone is religious.

Of course, when it comes to the food-as-both-art-and-idol phenomenon, at least there are some awesome upsides here, e.g. incredible produce and delicious soup. In fact, on the list of “religions that aren’t called religions”, this is definitely a favorite. It certainly trumps the blinding ideological attachments that inspire the outrage and self-righteousness he references below–not that we have much choice in the matter. Though for what it’s worth, on the scale of smugness, I’ll take the self-deprecating ‘honesty’ of Trader Joe’s marketing over the self-seriousness of Whole Foods any day, ht PW:

FFF-00257-2You 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.

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…

At times, the Whole Foods selection slips from the pseudoscientific into the quasi-religious. It’s not just the Ezekiel 4:9 bread (its recipe drawn from the eponymous Bible verse), or Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, or Vitamineral Earth’s “Sacred Healing Food.” It’s also, at least for Jewish shoppers, the taboos that have grown up around the company’s Organic Integrity effort, all of which sound eerily like kosher law. There’s a sign in the Durham store suggesting that shoppers bag their organic and conventional fruit separately—lest one rub off on the other—and grind their organic coffees at home—because the Whole Foods grinders process conventional coffee, too, and so might transfer some non-organic dust. “This slicer used for cutting both CONVENTIONAL and ORGANIC breads” warns a sign above the Durham location’s bread slicer. Synagogue kitchens are the only other places in which I’ve seen signs implying that level of food-separation purity…

william-hamilton-sweet-but-a-little-too-more-organic-than-thou-new-yorker-cartoon

By the total lack of outrage over Whole Foods’ existence, and by the total saturation of outrage over the Creation Museum, it’s clear that strict scientific accuracy in the public sphere isn’t quite as important to many of us as we might believe. Just ask all those scientists in the aisles of my local Whole Foods…

We often have it stuck in our heads that science communicators have only failed to speak to the religious right. But while issues of science-and-society are always tied up, in some ways, with politics, they’re not bound to any particular part of the spectrum…

Bringing sound data into political conversations and consumer decisions is a huge, ongoing challenge. It’s not limited to one side of the public debate. The moral is not that we should all boycott Whole Foods. It’s that whenever we talk about science and society, it helps to keep two rather humbling premises in mind: very few of us are anywhere near rational. And pretty much all of us are hypocrites.

In other words, when it comes to the food we eat, there are options galore, some better than others. But when it comes to why we eat the food we eat (or don’t), it might be that, as Bono sings in his new song, “there’s no them, there’s only us”: