Will people pay extra for wholesome, all-natural foods, even in the face of bleak economic times? An easy answer for that one is found inside Whole Foods'(Nasdaq: WFMI) strong fiscal first-quarter results, announced late yesterday.

The Austin, Texas-based chain's sales sprouted 18% to $924 million. Whole Foods' exceptional comps growth of 10.5% boosted results, as did 11% square-foot growth. That's a healthy start for its new fiscal year, following one that saw comps growth of 10% and total sales growth of 21%.

Whole Foods didn't slack on the earnings side of things, either. Net income shot up 27% to $25.6 million. On a diluted per-share basis, the grocer earned $0.42, ahead of last year's $0.34 by 23.5%.

Considering that diluted shares outstanding have blossomed a questionable 10% over the last year, that growth is even more impressive. However, we'd like to see Whole Foods stop diluting current shareholders' ownership so much in the future.

Free cash flow for the quarter was marginally ahead of last year's Q1, coming in at nearly $44 million. The company bumped up its capital expenditures 40%, as it added five new stores during the quarter. It expects to add three more in the second quarter and an additional four to seven in the second half of fiscal 2003.

Whole Foods has yet to show signs of strain from the consumer-spending weakness that has plagued retailers, from discounters to department stores, over the past year. Guess all those soy shakes and tofu burgers really do do a body good. Whole Foods' shares reflect that, too, up from a 52-week low of $35.47 to the current $49 range.

Fool co-founder Tom Gardner picked Whole Foods for both the June and July 2002 issues of Motley Fool Stock Advisor .