Whole Story

The Official Whole Foods Market® Blog

Standards Even a Kid Can Understand

I've been avoiding this post. Not because I don't love talking about what I do, but because I couldn't figure out how to shrink this topic - an overview of our Quality Standards - into an easily digestible post. But then our lovely blogmistress (Paige Brady) told me I could write a series rather than a single post. Yeah! Just as I was breathing a sigh of relief, she hit me with this bombshell: Could you use the first post in the series to explain our Quality Standards in a way that an 11-year-old can understand? What!? Seems that she was in our downtown Austin store over the weekend with her daughter's 11-year-old friend, who had never been to our store before. She was thoroughly enthralled and amazed - remember your first step inside our store? Anyway, the friend asked, "Is everything here organic?" and Paige said "no" but that everything was natural. And then fumbled through various attempts at explaining what natural means - realizing as she rambled that a typical 11-year-old doesn't have the background to understand how much junk is in our conventional food supply. Paige eventually came up with this: "You won't find blue ketchup here because ketchup comes from tomatoes and tomatoes aren't blue in nature." And the friend got it: "So, ketchup is red here?" Yes. I am so immersed in food and agricultural issues that I'm guilty of forgetting that there are many people who come to our stores without the abundance of food-related details that I deal with every day. We all have so much going on, who has time to delve into all the details unless it's part of your job? So, I'll take the challenge. Give me a minute to dust off my old nursery-school teacher skills (in a former life I taught at a tiny nursery school, a job which included managing the library of children's books). An 11-year-old should be able to understand what makes Whole Foods Market different. Here goes. Welcome to Quality Standards Storytime. Once upon a time there were only natural foods. I know this is obvious, but one of my most strongly-held beliefs about food is that we should pay attention to the diets that humans have followed for 200,000 years or so. Our bodies and brains evolved on a diet of unprocessed foods -- mostly plants and nuts, some animal protein and very little else. The 50-100 years since the advent of food processing and artificial preservatives occupies about .05% of that timeline. I think it's fairly logical to play it safe and stick to the diets that have proven safe and healthful for most of recorded time. Then, sometime in the twentieth century, Artificial Preservatives, Colors and Flavors were invented by "food scientists," devoted to improving the quality of our lives through science. The ability to color, flavor and preserve food indefinitely made it possible to recreate authentic-seeming foods and make them last virtually forever. Chicken flavoring with no actual chicken, snack cakes able to survive for 20 years, and that infamous blue ketchup all became possible. With modern food science, we became able to replicate and "improve upon" traditional natural foods, and make fake food products more cheaply than the authentic original. The Organic and Natural Products movements were born in opposition to these changes, based on the belief that natural food is healthier, better for you and better tasting. As the conventional grocery industry got weirder and weirder, the group of resisters got bigger and bigger. Whole Foods Market was born out of that opposition, founded in 1981 as a natural alternative to mainstream grocery stores. Organic agriculture also followed a similar route, rising as a resistance movement to chemical/industrial agriculture during the 1970s and 80s. While organic and natural come from similar roots, the word "organic" has come to describe the way that agricultural products are grown, raised and processed - without toxic or persistent pesticides and using environmentally friendly practices. "Natural" focuses more on how a multi-ingredient processed food is made and whether the specific ingredients are consistent with our definition of natural. Natural products can include both organic and non-organic agricultural products. Both of these approaches spring from similar perspectives, with a few key differences (and I'll write more about those in future posts). In a nutshell (actually, in an office building), the Quality Standard Team creates standards for the ingredients in the food in our stores, and ensures that what we say we do ("Offer the highest quality natural and organic foods") matches up with what we actually do, with what's actually on our shelves. I'll get into some of the specifics in future posts, along with some of the notable myths and misconceptions about natural food. If there's a particular topic you'd like us to delve into, let me know. So, how did I do in making this clear enough for an 11-year-old? What did I miss? What would you say? Would love to hear your feedback.