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" 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.
I'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.