Friday, March 5, 2010

Sea Change at Whole Foods

Most people fortunate enough to have a Whole Foods store in their community love the stores. For some inexplicable reason, Charlotte, NC, the banking capital of the south and North Carolina's largest city, doesn't have a Whole Foods Market. But I visit Wholefoods whenever I'm near one, especially to eat at their "food bars"—which are being radically transformed. They've always been delicious, but now they're becoming healthy. That fact illustrates the sea change that's taking place at Whole Foods.

The founder/CEO of Whole Foods, John Mackey, was the keynote speaker at the February 19-21 Advanced Study Weekend hosted regularly by Dr. John McDougall at his clinic and health center in California. I was interested in finding out what he had to say since he is not known for showing up at plant-based health conferences. So I listened to an audio of his presentation and was amazed at what's happening at Wholefoods in terms of health. And all this has happened in the last two months.

John Mackey has had a reputation in corporate America as a tree-hugging, granola-eating vegetarian; a little goofy; a hangover from the early '70's. But he's also incredibly smart, having built Whole Foods into a darling of Wall Street and an $8+ billion corporation. But Wholefoods is switching gears. Instead of their original vision—offering the highest quality organic foods available—their vision is now to add "healthiest" to that vision statement. Indeed, John Mackey has switched to a vegan diet and lifestyle after many years of being a vegetarian. (He kept his own flock of chickens at his home as a source of organic eggs.)

Instead of being a "seller" only, Whole Foods has taken up the mantle of becoming an "educator." This is a new core value that they have added to their corporate core values: "Promoting the health of our stakeholders through healthy eating education." Here's what John Mackey said in his keynote address:
It's not enough just to sell high quality food. We have to educate people. We have to teach them how to eat better, because people don't know.
Beginning in February, Whole Foods has started rolling out a series of new initiatives in all their stores. For example, they are going to provide ANDI scores on all the whole foods in the store—literal stickers so shoppers can see immediately the nutrient rank of foods they are considering purchasing. Aggregate Nutrient Density Index scores, originated by Dr. Joel Fuhrman, rank foods based on their nutrient density per calorie (a chart I keep on my refrigerator door). At the top of the list are kale, collards, mustard greens, and watercress with ANDI scores of 1000; at the bottom is cola with an ANDI score of .6. These ANDI scores are designed to show shoppers which foods are best. Mackey said that in the first month of using the ANDI scores, produce (fruit/veggie) sales increased by double digits and dark greens increased by 25%.

I took voluminous notes from Mackey's talk on other initiatives they are rolling out, and most importantly, his own personal convictions about making Whole Foods a leader in restoring the health of America. (They are already an innovator in health insurance for their 55,000 employees. Wholefoods self-insures at a cost of $150 million per year. Mackey came under great criticism last year for speaking out about the Obama healthcare plan and recommending the self-insure plan that Whole Foods uses. Why was he criticized? For taking on the responsibility of healthcare for his company instead of depending on the government's solution.)

If you shop at Whole Foods you should go here on their website to read about more of their plans to make Whole Foods shoppers knowledgeable and promote the healthfulness of their own employees. (They are doing a LOT, much more than I can describe here.) Here are the "Healthy Eating Principles" that Wholefoods now advocates: (note the "If" in front of the sentence about animal products, and the de-emphasis on oils, a direct result of Mackey having joined the fraternity of leading plant-based doctors: McDougall, Esselstyn, Barnard, Fuhrman, and others)


Plant based

  • No matter what type of diet you follow — including those that incorporate dairy, meat and/or seafood — eat more plants, like raw and cooked vegetables, fruits, legumes and beans, nuts, seeds and whole grains
  • Eat a colorful variety of plants to ensure you're getting the best nutrients for your body, which leads to feeling satiated

Whole foods

  • Choose foods that are real, fresh, natural, organic, local, seasonal and unprocessed
  • Eliminate the consumption of refined, highly processed foods and foods void of nutrients, such as artificial flavors, colors, preservatives, sweeteners and hydrogenated fats

Low fat

  • Get your healthy fats from plant sources, such as nuts and avocados
  • Minimize extracted oils and processed fats
  • If eating a diet that includes animal products, choose leaner meats and seafood as well as low-fat dairy products

Nutrient dense

  • Choose foods that are rich in nutrients when compared to their total caloric content; also known as foods with a high nutrient density
  • Build your menus around plant-based foods to ensure highly nutrient-dense meals
  • Choose foods with a wide spectrum of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and antioxidants
  • Look for the Aggregate Nutrient Density Index (ANDI) links to another site scoring system to guide you on healthier choices
I was impressed by how honest Mackey was in his talk about the number of unhealthy products that are sold in his stores ("organic potato chips," "olive oil," etc). Rather than jerking those items off the shelf immediately, his goal is to educate Whole Food shoppers so they begin voting with their dollars on what they want the stores to carry, resulting in a gradual attrition of unhealthy products. Remember: This initiative is less than two months old, so it will take time.

Many people view stores like Wholefoods—and especially Whole Foods—as the "healthiest" place to shop and eat. But Mackey's newfound status as a seller of healthy food instead of "organic" food irrespective of its final form (processed, packaged organic foods) represents a major sea change.

In response to a stockholder's question after the talk about how these new healthy initiatives might impact the bottom line, Mackey said (paraphrase), "We've never made profits our highest goal. We're clearly stating our new vision for Whole Foods. We believe it's the right thing to do regardless of whether it's the most profitable." Mackey is an enigma in some ways and has provided more than one reason for criticism. But I like this new emphasis on health in his stores.

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