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"Natural" Means...What?

By Joe Dickson, March 20, 2009  |  Meet the Blogger  |  More Posts by Joe Dickson
One of the most important things Whole Foods Market does is expressed in our first Core Value: Selling the highest quality natural and organic products available. You'll find that statement on our walls, our website, our brochures, etc. But what do "natural" and "organic" mean, and who sets the definition? I'll start to get into the nitty gritty details of these questions in this post. For background, you may want to check out my introduction to the topic of quality standards from last week. Organic"Organic" started out as a very informal set of ideas and practices based around the belief that agriculture should be done without toxic chemicals using environmentally beneficial methods. As organic grew throughout the 1970s and 80s, a number of standards emerged. Non-profit groups and state governments, in order to ensure shoppers were getting what they paid for when they bough "organic," began to carefully define organic. As these various standards emerged, and demand for organic grew, Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, which directed the USDA to work with growers, certifiers, food producers, and the public to create a single national organic standard. Over the next twelve years, the USDA's National Organic Program and the National Organic Standards Board (an advisory board made up of growers, certifiers, academics, consumers and industry representatives) worked to create a detailed, strong standard that would ensure that organic products met consumers' expectation that they be produced without toxic chemicals, using earth-friendly methods. Our Vice President of Quality Standards, Margaret Wittenberg, served as the sole retail representative on the NOSB during this time. The USDA's National Organic Standards were released in 2002, and represent one of the strongest governmental organic standards in the world. You can read more about those standards on our website. "Natural," on the other hand, doesn't have a strong governmental definition when it comes to food, so my team (the Quality Standards Team) spends quite a lot of time defining which ingredients make up the natural foods we sell in our stores. The basic tenets of our standard require that our products are free of artificial preservatives, colors, flavors, sweeteners and hydrogenated fats. Getting to that point requires lots and lots of research on individual ingredients. The piles on my cluttered desk are made up of a lot of technical documents about food ingredients - food science textbooks and reference books, ingredient specifications that describe how an individual ingredient is made, governmental and regulatory documents from around the world, and dozens of very messy legal pads. BooksI've heard our role described as that of an editor - carefully "reading" the product selection and crossing out lines that don't belong there - or as a gatekeeper - guarding the gates of our castles and fighting off the evil artificial ingredients attempting to invade. Both of these definitions are okay, but they don't capture a few key features of what we do. First, since our products are picked out by hundreds (if not thousands) of buyers throughout our company, we function more as an army of editors or gatekeepers. And since our structure is so decentralized, our biggest responsibility is to empower the stores and teams that make up our company with information and tools they need to effectively edit the product selection, guard the gates and ensure the products in each of our stores meet our standards. One of the most simple and important tools we give our team members is a list of ingredients, each marked acceptable or unacceptable. This list covers most of the food ingredients on the market and represents significant research into where it's from, how it's made, and what our stance is. For every ingredient reviewed, we try to answer: "Is this something that our shoppers would expect to find in a natural food?" Some ingredient reviews are very straightforward. Artificial colors are banned, as are artificial flavors and preservatives. Preservatives such as citric acid - which is naturally derived - are acceptable, whereas preservatives like BHA and BHT - which are very clearly synthetic - are banned. Other reviews get more complicated. L-cysteine is an amino acid that is used as a dough conditioner in bread products. Even though it's a natural substance, we said no to it because it's simply not necessary. It allows bread bakers to cut corners and replace traditional kneading and dough conditioning practices with an additive. We believed this was an unnecessary ingredient that our customers would be surprised to find in our products, so it got stamped "unacceptable." For another class of ingredients, we allow them but place additional requirements on how the ingredient label reads, so that our customers know what they're getting. Lysozyme is a natural egg white-derived enzyme that's added to certain foods. It's natural and it's safe, but we felt that the name "lysozyme" doesn't make it clear that the product contains egg ingredients, which is important information to vegans and others who avoid egg products. Accordingly, we require that it be listed as "Egg white lysozyme" on the product label. Another great example is caffeine. It's naturally occurring in coffee, among other plants, and is occasionally used to give a boost to other beverages. Since it's a natural substance, we consider it acceptable, but when it comes to energy drinks, we limit the amount and ask that the label give you clear information about what you're getting. The level of caffeine is capped at 150 mg per serving (about what you'll find in a strong cup of coffee), the front of the label must clearly state that the product contains caffeine, and the actual amount of caffeine, in milligrams, must be stated on the label. In other words, energy drinks need to make it clear that they're energy drinks and not just soda. Natural energy drinks aren't for everyone, and we wanted to make sure that you know what you're buying before you (or your kids) end up with an unwanted caffeine buzz. These are just a few varied examples illustrating how we create our food quality standards. Stay tuned for future posts on other examples of the work our Quality Standards team does and let us know if there's a particular topic you'd like to see explored.

 

29 Comments

Comments

Christine Hendry says ...
Dear Whole Foods, I have always wanted to go to your grocery store, well I finally went for my birthday in January this year (09) with my girlfriend. She was visiting from Georgia and we were up in the city of Chicago and there it was, the Whole Foods Store. So we went in, and I just absolutley loved it. As soon as I walked in the store, we entered in the produce section. I was in awe throughout the whole store. And the deli area, oh my God. The entire store is just beautiful! And then I looked around, and the people were beautiful, the patron, the workers. They all looked so healthy. So now I try to go once a month. I live so far from any of your stores, but it is a treat and worth the time and travel. Enjoy your store. Beautiful food for beautiul people. Sincerely, Chris Hendry
03/20/2009 5:25:33 AM CDT
Akeihsay says ...
This post is exactly why I shop at Whole Foods ALL the time. It may be a little pricey, it's worth it. My body and mind loves the various products Whole Foods sells. There's no work when I walk into a Whole Foods store to buy a product. Because I know it's either natural or organic! If I enter a regular grocery store, I'm there for HOURS! My time is valuable which is why I shop at Whole Foods.
03/20/2009 10:32:31 AM CDT
Kare says ...
Great post! Thanks for your ideas into the sticky definition of 'natural'. When I think of natural foods I simply think of foods as God put them on earth --- vegetables, fruits, grains, etc. I have always thought 'natural' was just what it says in the dictionary---- produced or existing by nature--- but your working definitions help me to understand why some items are labeled natural. Thanks!
03/20/2009 11:24:01 AM CDT
Sean Fitzroy says ...
One benefit of this is the idea of a passive trusted experience as opposed to a "buyer-beware" mentality. It's much less stressful (and faster) to shop at a store when you trust that brand to editorialize and filter for you. Also, while Whole Foods may seem expensive, in fact the price of food in America is been so artificially deflated, due to unnatural and industrialized food production techniques that it's still much cheaper to "put food on the table" than in was in previous generations. The percentage of household income that actually goes toward food has declined significantly this century - even if when buying all organic food. I've also found that when buying a specific product that generally Whole Foods is *less* expensive than buying the same (natural) product at a mass market (traditional?) supermarket. Lastly, the 365 brand is almost always significantly less expensive than "leading brands" at mass market stores, while being higher quality. 365 Tonic Water (which contains natural sugar) costs about 30% less that Canada Dry (which contains high-fructose corn syrup). Same for Ketchup also. As a kid that grew up eating cheeze whiz on wonderbread and drinking gallons of soda, it took a while for me to warm up to Whole Foods. Given the current economic climate, I think now is the time to strongly emphasize the 365 brand to so called "value consumers".
03/20/2009 11:39:45 AM CDT
Julian says ...
This was so helpful and encouraging to read. Thanks for letting us know how things work behind the scenes and what Whole food is doing to help us defend out homes and families from the hidden dangers in many typical foods. I hope to see more of these posts as I endeavor to become a more educated consumer.
03/20/2009 11:51:06 AM CDT
Francisco says ...
While this article was pretty much a PR piece, I found myself reading it all the way through cause it really showed how serious you guys take this. I almost expected you guys to just write about how "everything in our stores is natural" and so forth, but you really gave concrete examples of what you limit and what you accept. I have a question though. How do the micro producers in countries like Panama able to apply to sell to you? If I were one, I'd be a little worried that the technical studies (which are probably very expensive) are out of my ability to do, and so I'd miss out on the chance to provide. Do you help them in some way?
03/20/2009 12:26:38 PM CDT
Melissa says ...
Good Morning! Whatever happened to California Organic Food Act of 1979? I remember seeing that something I was buying was certified organic according to the strictest law concerning organic foods, that law was a California one. Now all I see are the new labels, and none of the products I buy even talk about California laws of organics. I understand that the USDA guidelines aren't as strict as the ones for the California laws concerning organic—is this, indeed, truth? So, what happened to California Organic Food Act of 1979? I worry about foods that don't have that on it, but it's all I can find, so I purchase them, any way. Sincerely, Melissa
03/20/2009 1:53:00 PM CDT
Lu says ...
"Natural" - as a non regulated food descriptor - really depends on trust. For myself, I would like natural to be as good as organic (though not certified), beyond organic, or at the very least decidedly better than the alternative conventional product. All of these require trusting whoever says it's "natural" - and personally I don't trust brands. So that means either trusting myself through research, talking with farmers, etc - or trusting whoever else did the legwork - the people who run my coop when deciding what products they carry and which not, Whole Foods in knowing that they will probably add a small sign saying just *how* that thing is natural, and they would have verified it. Trusting your store, the people who make decisions about what products they carry, ad supplier really makes your life much much easier. Which is why I shop at Whole Foods or my local coop, get produce from a CSA share - and limit conventional supermarkets to "emergencies" (for example I'm in the middle of baking a cake and halfway through I realize I don't have enough flour - that type of thing).
03/20/2009 2:10:41 PM CDT
Maria says ...
I have to say I not only love natural and non-toxic, it is essential to my health. I was sick with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities for over six years and among many symptoms I battled harrowing nausea and migraines that sometimes lasted 12 hours. With the availability of products at places like Whole Foods I was able to change my old ways into healthier, greener new ways and my illness is on the mend. I'm actually writing today to praise the Ecopath laundy soap I just found the other day. I am still and will always be sensitive to certain fragrances, but I also want something that is a strong cleaner, and boy this stuff is superb. I'm very happy you are carrying this product and hope many people try it out. I already never want to be without it. Thanks, WF.
03/20/2009 6:28:30 PM CDT
M. Avanzato says ...
Natural to me means the "purest" something can be -- I am a newby vegetarian -- trying to be vegan -- and am constantly reading ingredients of everything (btw, I am 59, this is a new thing to me) -- natural means the "least" ingredients on a label -- some are easy, some are not so -- but I am learning --and I find the Whole Foods store is much easier to manage than generic supermarkets.
03/20/2009 9:24:50 PM CDT
Ray Sola says ...
When someone tries to convince me something must be healthy because it is "all natural" and I know the product is really bad for you, my reply is that these are all natural too: snake venom, mushrooms (most are poisonous), etc ... And some things in the wrong amounts can kill you too. Like shark. Tastes great, but don't eat too much at one sitting. Natural does not really mean anything, nor is it helpful in deciding if you should put something in your body.
03/21/2009 2:02:47 AM CDT
Laura says ...
I wish that Whole Foods was in my area. I firmly believe that natural organic foods is important for my families health. My local stores are getting a wider selection. I just wish that I just could walk into a store and know that no matter what I purchased it would be within my standards for my family.
03/22/2009 4:39:53 PM CDT
Ted Starling says ...
One of the reasons I became an employee of Whole Foods Market was the fact the company was willing to set standards whether its defining acceptable ingredients, the way farm animals are treated or that we try to source products from companies that pay fair wages. Having worked here 10 years I've watched Whole Foods evolve its definition of "natural", refining our standards as we learn more and working with our suppliers and growers so they evolve and learn with us. And the best part is it's all there for anyone to read and understand. Its this commitment to the whole process from farmers to manufacturers and ultimately to our customers that separates Whole Foods Market from many other companies.
03/22/2009 6:22:20 PM CDT
Ellen says ...
What about products found in your Whole Body aisle? Does your review cover the ingredients in all of those products as well? I have read labels on several brands and found ingredients that are less than "natural" as per your definition. Please clarify your review process of these products, as they are entering your body as well (just not via your mouth!) THANKS. p.s. I am a very dedicated customer of Whole Foods for about 8 years now! I LOVE the store! The quality of the food is tops, the prices of the 365 brand products in particular are very reasonable, and the staff is the best! :)
04/03/2009 7:24:21 AM CDT
hsiaw says ...
Hi Ellen, Yes, our review also includes body care items, and in fact, we have recently launched a top tier body care standard for our stores: Whole Body Premium calls attention to the cleanest and most exceptional body care products sold at Whole Foods Market and makes it easier for customers to identify and chose the highest quality natural body care products we sell. Through this process, we spent the last 3 years evaluating every body care ingredient on our shelves for safety, efficacy, source and environmental impact. Please note that the following ingredients are not allowed in Premium Body Care: parabens or formaldehyde donors, sodium laureth sulfate or sodium lauryl sulfate, polyethylene glycol or polypropylene glycol, chelators (EDTA), MEA, DEA, TEA-containing ingredients, cyclotetrasiloxane or cyclopentasiloxane, carbomer or polyacrylates, synthetic fragrances, synthetic colors or chemical sunscreens. Whole Foods Market’s quality standards for personal care already differentiate us – each product found in Whole Body is carefully evaluated and never tested on animals. The new Premium Body Care standard goes beyond this and we are hoping that our Premium standard will eventually become the baseline standard for our Whole Body departments down the line. At present, we have approved over 2500 Premium Body Care products. It’s all very exciting! To find out more, please see: http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/products/premium-body-care.php. Thanks and hope that anwers your questions!
04/07/2009 12:30:45 PM CDT
Laura says ...
Regarding the Premium Body Care products, I am interested in them, but they are too hard to find at the store. At my local store in Silver Spring, MD, when I went to look for some a few months ago, they were mixed up with all the other "non-premium" products. Even though it says you've approved 2500 products, where are they at the store, and why can't I find them easily? Why don't they have their own shelf? While trying to find some of those fabled "premium" products, I spotted many other products that weren't much better than what you'd see at a conventional pharmacy. I think it is very misleading to have these products next to other products that aren't as safe, and it undermines your "organic and natural" image as well. Regarding natural foods, thank you for your post Joe. This is helpful to know. I'd like to learn more about where meat at Whole Foods comes from and how it is raised. I'd like to see more labeling at the stores about grass-fed and/or free-range animal products. Right now, it's just not clear enough.
04/16/2009 10:19:22 AM CDT
Beth says ...
Other things that are natural -- e. coli, salmonella, listeria. They're all naturally-occurring. Do you inspect the farms that your food comes from to keep these things from contaminating my reusable grocery bag?
04/24/2009 12:36:49 PM CDT
hsiaw says ...
@Beth A valid point - not everything that is "natural" is necessarily good for the human body. We hold our manufacturers to not only our Quality Standards, but also health and safety standards and do our best to enhance, not endanger our customers' quality of life.
04/28/2009 9:48:24 AM CDT
vaughnm says ...
@Amber, here's a list of banned ingredients: http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/products/unacceptable-ingredients.php Thanks!
07/27/2010 4:21:24 PM CDT
Amber says ...
Is there a place where I can view the list of banned and acceptable ingredients?
07/26/2010 1:28:41 PM CDT
Camilo Gonzalez says ...
Thank you so much for this brief yet detailed explanation of organic and natural and the steps the company takes to ensure buyers are getting what they expect!
08/30/2012 10:48:12 AM CDT
Step Connolly says ...
Would produce grown with OMRI listed Organic Fertilizers outside of the US be considered Natural Produce if it has to be radiated before it can be imported?
09/30/2012 3:12:44 PM CDT
Nikki - Community Moderator says ...
@STEP - Thanks for your question. I was able to get in touch with Joe for an answer. He said that The Organic Materials Review Institute publishes a list of materials and substances that are acceptable for use in organic farming and food processing. However, in order to be considered organic, a producer must not only use appropriate materials, but also meet many other detailed standards and undergo inspection and certification by a USDA-Accredited certification body. Organic products – regardless of where they are grown – must be certified to the USDA National Organic Standards, which prohibits irradiation. Products irradiated during importation would no longer be certified organic. Hope this helps!
10/04/2012 12:47:23 PM CDT
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02/11/2013 1:18:30 AM CST
Meredith says ...
Hello : I am developing a soar throat soother to be used as a rinse. I am curious to know what preservatives Whole Foods would deem acceptable so the product does not have to necessarily go through a heat flash process as it contains a juice. If you may have any suggestions or a list of options acceptable for products not for consumption that would be great. Thank You
06/12/2013 9:32:43 PM CDT

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