On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
In the ’60s and ’70s, health food stores were mostly small, local cooperatives with little resemblance to the gleaming Whole Foods or Yes! Organic Markets we have today. But a growing distrust of chemicals and pesticides in commercial food transformed a grass-roots natural food movement into a mainstream, multi-billion-dollar enterprise. Author Joe Dobrow discusses his new book about the entrepreneurs and ideals that shaped today’s natural food industry.
- Joe Dobrow Author, "Natural Prophets: From Health Foods To Whole Foods--How The Pioneers Of The Industry Changed The Way We Eat And Reshaped American Business."
Read An Excerpt
Excerpt from “Natural Prophets: From Health Foods to Whole Foods – How the Pioneers of the Industry Changed the Way We Eat and Reshaped American Business” by Joe Dobrow. All rights reserved.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world on Food Wednesday. 50 years ago, the health foods industry was little more than a niche market, made up of a few hundred mom and pop stores and co-ops. They sold unfamiliar, odd looking produce and grains, often in bulk, out of wooden barrels, to customers who were seen as either hippies or health nuts. An approach that ran completely counter to the TV dinner and pre-packaged food craze sweeping the nation.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut, before long, growing concerns about chemicals in commercial foods and the rising group of food companies driven by both profit and by ideals, rapidly transformed the natural food movement into a multi-billion dollar market. Here to help us chart the rise of the health food industry, and to give us insights into the entrepreneurs who were at the forefront of it all, is Joe Dobrow. He has worked in marketing for the last two decades at a number of health food companies, including Fresh Fields and Whole Foods.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe's the author of a new book titled, "Natural Prophets: From Health Foods to Whole Foods--How the Pioneers of the Industry Changed the Way We Eat And Reshaped American Business. Joe Dobrow, thank you for joining us.
MR. JOE DOBROWKojo, it's an honor to be here. Thanks for having me.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call at 800-433-8850. Do you shop at natural food stores like Whole Foods? Or do you stick to natural food products at supermarkets like Giant? What draws you to natural foods and why do you think they've become so popular? 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com or shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. Joe Dobrow, today, natural products are all over grocery store shelves, including everything from yogurt to dish soap. And you trace this now booming, 100 billion dollar industry back to handful of idealistic entrepreneurs.
NNAMDIHow did a dozen or so food companies manage to change how many Americans do our grocery shopping?
DOBROWIt's really an amazing story, and it's a very accessible story, because if you think about it, it's not like we're analyzing the railroad industry and you have to go back 100 years and see black and white pictures of Leeland Stanford. This has all happened within the last couple of decades, and most of the pioneers that I wrote about in "Natural Prophets" are still with us today. Many of them are still running companies. Many of them still have pony tails, but the pony tails have grayed a little bit.
DOBROWNo, when you look back at what's happened over the last couple of decades, it really began in the '60s, where a group of idealists -- I call them high minded idealists in the book, but they were very well intentioned, albeit somewhat clueless entrepreneurs, who rejected everything that was happening around them, as many people did back in the '60s. And they decided that they needed to rescue the food world. It had been overtaken in the short period between World War II and the start of the '60s by big agri-business. Mostly the war material factories that had been cranking out ammunition and all sorts of other things during World War II had refocused their attention into the agricultural sector.
DOBROWAnd so all of a sudden, we had some 80,000 chemical compounds that came into the marketplace, many for agricultural use. And this group of people, starting with the best of intentions, but no real business plan, found a way to navigate through sort of the difficult waters and create this industry.
NNAMDIIf you took a look inside many American refrigerators and pantries, how do you think you might see the influence of the natural food industry on our eating habits?
DOBROWYou mentioned earlier that natural food are available everywhere in every supermarket, and I would even take it further than that. Cause if we were to drive up Connecticut Avenue here and stop at any gas station convenience store, I'm sure we would see that little USDA Organic seal staring back at us from the aisles there. So, they've really become ubiquitous. When you look at the American pantry, the American refrigerator right now, it's still the case that only about five to six percent of all of the dollars spent on food are for natural or organic foods.
DOBROWAnd that doesn't sound like a lot, but if you think about how the pendulum has swung so dramatically. You know, in our grandparents' era, everything was natural and organic. We didn't call it that. We didn't have labeling laws in effect until 1967, and even as late as 1980, only about 10 percent of all of the items in supermarkets had full ingredient lists on them. But the pendulum swung from that world of all organic to this world of all synthetic after World War II. And now, we've gotten five or six percent of the way back.
DOBROWSo, I look in the American pantry and I see many organic foods that people are buying because of the quality of them, which one couldn't have said back in the health foods days that you talked about at the opening here, when the quality was suspect at best.
DOBROWAnd you see many natural foods, many GMO free foods, many gluten free foods. So, there's been this balkanization, if you will, of the food industry, where all of these different types of foods are out there now. But because of their ubiquity and because the price has been declining, we really do find them in pretty much all American households.
NNAMDIOur guest is Joe Dobrow. We're discussing his book, "Natural Prophets: From Health Foods to Whole Foods--How the Pioneers of the Industry Changed the Way We Eat and Reshaped American Business." If you'd like to -- if you have a question or comment for us, you can call 800-433-8850. Were you an early adopter of natural foods? Do you remember what health food stores looked like in the '60s and '70s? Tell us about it. 800-433-8850. With natural food chains like Whole Foods, Yes! Organic Market well established in many urban areas today, it can be difficult to imagine a world where health foods were scarce, so remind us.
NNAMDIWhat was the health food industry like in the '60s and '70s, long before these natural food stores set up gleaming, all natural fortresses in our neighborhoods?
DOBROWIn the mid 1960s, there were only about 500 health food stores around the country. And they were tiny little affairs, a few hundred square feet, maybe a thousand square feet at best. Wood slat floors, bulk bins. They sold brown rice and turbinado sugar and tofu and various things that mainstream America wouldn't go near. This was really for the fringe elements of society. And, in fact, the mainstream really regarded these health food stores very suspiciously. They referred to these people as health nuts and food faddists.
DOBROWEven, if you remember, the television campaign for Grape Nut cereal, into the 1970s, and they recruited Euell Gibbons, who was an author, was a very legitimate person back in the day. But, here's Euell Gibbons with his shock of white hair and his Tartan shirts tromping through the snow and talking about how Grape Nuts are his back to nature cereal. And they remind him of the flavor of wild hickory nuts. And he was spoofed on...
NNAMDIHere are your late night talk show hosts making fun of him.
DOBROWExactly. Yeah. Carson and Cavett and there was an episode of "The Sonny and Cher Show" where Euell Gibbons came on and took a bite out of wooden plaque that they were giving him. That's the way that health foods were thought of back then.
NNAMDII'm thinking of Washington, D.C. in the early 1970s, and my memory, this morning, remembered a health food store on Columbia Road NW called "Home Rule Natural Foods," thereby linking what was then, in the early 1970s the aspiration of D.C. political activists for Home Rule, with the notion of eating healthily, so it was called "Home Rule Natural Foods." And in looking around for this, my producer, Stephanie Stoltz, came up with an article that came from the American University Eagle Newspaper identifying that store, its owner, and about four or five others in the Washington area, where students, who were seeking healthy foods in 1972, could go eat.
NNAMDIBut the mere fact that they had to write an article about it and identify them was an indication of just how scarce they were at that time.
DOBROWThat's astounding. That's great research. And, of course, those -- that linkage between the politics of the day and food started, really, with this movement. You know, if you looked at what Madison Avenue was cranking out at that point, and it was Lucky Charms and Wonder Bread and Shake n' Bake and things like that -- there was nothing political about it. This was pure commerce. That's what the enterprise was all about. But for the co-ops and these little health food stores, it was about politics. They were very much aligned with the mission of trying to implement change in the world. And save the world, in fact.
NNAMDIIn 1957, before the health foods industry really existed, Rachel Carson published her book called, "Silver Spring," drawing the nation's attention to the use of pesticides like DDT, by American agriculture companies. How did increased awareness about the use of chemicals and pesticides in the commercial food industry coincide with the growth of the natural food movement?
DOBROWIt's a great question. And just, so a little correction there. So, it's "Silent Spring." I often make that mistake when I'm back in the D.C. area, calling it "Silver Spring."
NNAMDIBecause it's right up the street. Yes.
DOBROWAnd it was published in, I believe, in 1962. But what happened when "Silent Spring" came out was revolutionary. It was probably the most influential book of its era, because what Rachel Carson did was to use really beautiful language and terrific research to document what was happening with those who were utilizing DDT and other pesticides. And it was very graphic and very gut wrenching. And she talked about puppies dying and she talked about the wretched half blind misery of workers in the orange groves in Riverside, California. And so, really, for the first time, this brought home, to a mass audience in America, the fact that these chemicals that had come out of World War 2, which everybody really thought, at the time, were a blessing.
DOBROWI mean, think about it. If you were trying to eradicate ants in your home, you really don't give it a second thought. You just reach for the nearest, most toxic bottle of Raid that you can and you get rid of them. And that, certainly, was the way that agriculture viewed the coming of the chemical age, as well. What a wondrous thing. Suddenly, we didn't have to have so many workers out in the field. We could simply spray or apply various chemicals and there would be tremendous savings and great gains in productivity.
DOBROWBut, "Silent Spring" changed a lot of that. And it really drew attention to the fact that there was toxicity out there. And it wasn't just DDT. She also told the incredible story about -- I believe it was in 1958 -- there was a chemical agent called Aminotriazole, which was used to treat cranberries. And the FDA issued a recall of cranberries right before Thanksgiving, not just of that year's crops, but of the last two years' crops. And so, if you think about the impact on the American household that was sitting down to watch "The June Allyson Show" on CBS, sponsored by DuPont.
DOBROWAnd then to hear Douglas Edwards with the news come on and talk about this recall of cranberries because of a chemical that nobody could see or taste or smell. That was frightening stuff.
NNAMDIYou describe the founder of Whole Foods, John Mackey, as shaggy haired and decidedly counter culture, Before starting his first food store called Safer Way in Austin, Texas. He dropped out of college multiple times, went to live in a vegetarian co-op. As you mentioned, a lot of the leaders of the natural food movement, like Mackey, came kind of out of the established, or the anti-establishment culture of the 1960s and the 1970s. As you say, the pony tails are still there. They're just kind of gray now. But, your book's title, "Natural Prophets," suggests that there was a sort of ideology leading this movement.
NNAMDII mentioned whole -- natural foods. What was at the heart, if you will, of that ideology?
DOBROWThat's a wonderful question. I think that this generation of entrepreneurs were born in the immediate aftermath of the first world war, so this was the first wave of the baby boom, from 1945 to 1954. And so they grew up in a world of some comfort and affluence. War was not the threat that it had been before. But as they became children of the '60s and as the '60s -- as a cultural decade evolved from a time of sort of innocent wide open embrace of change to one of convulsion and conflict and clash, this group of entrepreneurs looked around and said, there has got to be a better way.
DOBROWAlmost everybody that I interviewed for this book said, I read "Silence Spring." I was affected by it. Or I was at the Democratic convention in Grand Park in 1968 when the protests began there. Or they went out to the People's Park in Berkeley. And so all of these external movements that were happening in the '60s began to be internalized by this group of entrepreneurs. And so when their time came and it was ready for them to figure out what they were going to do with their lives, their goal really was singular and humble in a way. It was -- they wanted to save the world. And the best way that they could figure out how to do that was to just start with the soil.
DOBROWAnd so you had people like Gene Kahn whom I wrote about in the book. Now he went on to found the company Cascadian Farm and become one of the real prophets in the industry. And we should say that the title of the book is "Natural Prophets" spelled P-R-O-P-H-E-T-S. There's that double entendre there.
DOBROWBut certainly Gene was one of these people, deeply affected by the 1960s. He was going to go to grad school at the University of Washington but when he got out there he started to become aware of the back-to-the-earth movement and decided he would try his hand at organic farming, never having done anything like that before. And that particular geographic area is not especially conducive to growing organically. So the topography is very hilly and it's rainy of course.
DOBROWAnd so it was a real struggle for him to figure this out but he did eventually. And he was one of many people in this generation who, you know, hacked their way through the wilderness to create companies that became very big in important brands.
NNAMDIWhere natural P-R-O-P-H-E-T-S began to produce really high-end unnatural P-R-O-F-I-T-S. Here we're going to Luke in Silver Spring, Md. And Luke, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LUKEHey, Kojo. My name's Luke. I'm from Silver Spring, Md. but I'm 19 and I worked at a -- well, I could say vegan restaurant in Takoma Park, Md. called Mark's Kitchen. And I (unintelligible) working there. You know, there's a co-op down the street and all that and we serve regular diner food too. Mark's actually Korean so we have some Korean stuff too. But a lot of vegan stuff. And it really amazes me how the vegan customers have kept Mark's kitchen alive for so long. You know, it's in, you know, the era of...
NNAMDIYeah, I'm not vegan, but I am one of the customers who keep's Mark's Kitchen alive.
LUKEYeah, I'm glad. No. I love working there. I love all the people that come in. And, you know, I even wrote my college essay on the way that, you know, Mark takes care of all the customers around. And so he takes care of them. And, yeah, it just really amazes me the way people will be willing to support such a small business who -- you know, prices are decent but, you know...
NNAMDIIt caters to a niche market and that...
NNAMDI...in a much broader way it's ...
LUKEOh my god, everybody loves Mark's Kitchen in Takoma Park. And, yeah, it just really amazes me.
NNAMDIAnd that, in a way, Joe Dobrow, is what the whole industry caters to at this point, right?
DOBROWThat's true. And it's great to hear stories like that because these micro businesses out there really were at the root of the natural and organic foods movement. And there are people in the industry today who look at so-called big organic. So they look at Whole Foods, which is now number 232 on the Fortune 500 list. It's the eighth largest public food and drug company in the United States where they look at Earthbound Farm, which is the, you know, wonderful organic salad green company that was just sold for $600 million dollars.
DOBROWAnd they look at things like that and they say, no, this is a desecration. This is not what the industry was intended to be. But I think those who really are at the heart of it and at the spiritual heart of the industry think that if we're going to get that pendulum swung a little bit further from the 5 to 6 percent that I mentioned before up to 8 or 9 or 10 percent, as most people think we will, it's going to come from a combination of the scale that we see in a company like Whole Foods or Earthbound Farm. And it's going to come from the plethora of these little micro places like Mark's Kitchen out there that are catering to the niche.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your calls but the lines appear filled. So if you're trying to ask a question or make a comment, send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or shoot us a Tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Joe Dobrow. He has worked in marketing for the past two decades at a number of health food companies, including Fresh Fields and Whole Foods. He's the author of a new book titled "Natural Prophets: From Health Foods to Whole Foods -- How the Pioneers of the Industry Changed the Way We Eat and Reshaped American Business." Joe Dobrow joins us in studio. You too can join the conversation. Shoot us a Tweet @kojoshow or you can go to our website, kojoshow.org. Ask a question or make a comment there.
NNAMDIJoe, many of us know about health food movements in cities like Portland, Oregon, Boulder, Colorado, Austin, Texas. But one of the fastest growing companies in the natural foods movement, Fresh Fields started in Maryland. How strong was the natural food culture here in the Washington region and how do you think Fresh Fields changed the grocery store landscape in our area?
DOBROWTo coin a neologism, Washington was first in war, first in peace and almost first in natural foods. You're right. The natural foods movement grew up in Boulder. It grew up in Portland. It grew up in Boston. And I write about that a lot in the book that there's something about those markets and the people there and the physiography of those areas that lent itself to that.
DOBROWAnd Washington, being a very transient city, did not start out as being a true stronghold of natural food's movement, but that changed. And as the natural food movement began to find itself and became more of an industry and less of a movement, there were various people out there who saw opportunity in it. And one of them was the group of people who started Fresh Fields, which launched here in the D.C. area on Memorial Day of 1991.
DOBROWAnd this was a very different enterprise from what had come before. So around the rest of the country had this smattering of different stores. You had Bread and Circus in Boston. You had Mrs. Gooch's in L.A.. You had Whole Foods market mostly in Texas. You had Well Spring grocery in North Carolina. And all of them had grown up -- forgive the pun -- organically. These were the high-minded idealists realizing the vision of what they had believed in.
DOBROWFresh Fields came along as the child of Wall Street Money, Harvard Business School management acumen. And Mark Ordan and Leo Kahn and Jack Murphy and their families who started this looked out at the landscape of the country and said, there's a huge opportunity here. There is not a national natural foods chain. And we can use the money that we have access to, we can use the intellectual capital that we've got and build something big.
DOBROWAnd so after that first store at the corner of Rockville Pike and Nicholson Lane launched in 1991, Fresh Fields took off like nothing the natural foods industry had ever seen. It rocketed out to a $250 million company and 22 stores in just a couple of years' time. And I read about this quite a bit in the book that even as late as 1996, there was a lot of question out there about who was going to win this battle. Would it be Fresh Fields buying Whole Foods? Would it be Whole Foods buying Fresh Fields?
DOBROWAnd then there was this wildcard out in Boulder, a company called Wild Oats that also was in the fray. And so it was -- natural foods aside from a business standpoint, it was really a fascinating battle.
NNAMDIAnd I know how the battle ended but I just don't know how that happened because when I started out, I was buying at Fresh Fields on Wisconsin Avenue in Tenleytown. And then this Fresh Fields began to be transformed into the Whole Foods, even though it looked the same way and all of the logos seemed similar to what it was before. How did Whole Foods become the dominant chain nationwide and not Fresh Fields?
DOBROWWell, there's a fantastic story about it in the book. What happened was that the two companies were jockeying for position initially in Chicago. And they were going after some of the same sites and just trying to establish their dominance. And Whole Foods decided that they were going to really go after Fresh Fields because Fresh Fields posed a huge threat to them.
DOBROWAnd so what they decided to do, in the immortal words of John Mackey, was to blow up the factory where they make the weapons. And that meant that he was going to open a big hocking new Whole Foods right in Fresh Fields backyard and see what kind of damage he could do to the sales of that company.
NNAMDIWhat happened to the spirit of community that all of these groups, when they were in the metro foods network?
DOBROWThat's again a fantastic question. So, yeah, if you just jumped into the way-back machine and went back just a few years prior to that, they were all cooperative. It was this communal industry where they were sharing information in the natural foods network. They would gather every couple of months and they would literally share P & Ls with each other. There were no secrets because at the time they all thought that they were going to be individual regional companies. They would never cross any boundaries so what could it hurt them to share financial information with each other?
DOBROWBut really I think the one event that brought the most change was in 1989, 25 years ago this month in fact, when the Alar crisis broke out. And I'm sure many of your listeners remember this.
DOBROWAlar was a chemical agent that was used to treat apples among many other fruits. And it was a suspected carcinogen but in January of 1989 the Natural Resources Defense Council came out with a report that actually articulated a number. And it said that as many as 6,000 school children might someday die of cancer because of the Alar that was used to treat the apple products that they ate in large quantities. And 60 Minutes then followed that up with a very controversial piece. And then Newsweek came out in March of 1989 with its infamous article headline Panic for Organic.
DOBROWAnd whether it was descriptive or prescriptive, it's hard to say. But there was a panic for organic after that. Finally this movement that had been on the fringes and had been in those remote backwater stores around the country crossed over the threshold into the mainstream. And everybody suddenly needed to have organic food because that was the only thing that was safe. Once we passed that point, that was when the spirit of community in the industry began to break apart.
NNAMDINo more Kumbaya.
DOBROWNo more Kumbaya. Suddenly it was every man for himself. And that's when the battle really took hold. In fact, it was in 1989 that Wild Oats was born. And just two years later that Fresh Fields was born.
NNAMDIGoing to get back to the phones in a second but nevertheless and in spite of, as we discussed, many of these pioneers started their businesses as a rejection of the establishment. So to what extent are there roots in that movement still visible in the business practices today? Do you think as corporations they have invariably given up some of their ideals for their success of their businesses?
DOBROWI think the things that's so unusual about the natural foods industry is that it remains highly influential, not just on what we eat and how we talk about food, but on other industries as well. And the reason is that it has really articulated this philosophy of the triple bottom line better than any other industry has. So in the old days there was only one bottom line. It was all about profits.
DOBROWThe natural foods pioneers that I've written about in "Natural Prophets" had a different vision and they thought, well, there's more than just profits. Profits are important but we also have to take care of the planet and we have to take care of the people.
NNAMDIYou say they deserve far more credit for creating a more sustainable planet than, oh, the tech entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley who usually get praised.
NNAMDII do. In our era when we think about the great entrepreneurs we -- the list usually starts with Bill Gates and ends with Steve Jobs and that's it. I look at the entrepreneurs who started these natural foods companies. So sure John Mackey from Whole Foods or Drew and Myra Goodman from Earthbound Farms or...
NNAMDIGary Hirshberg, Stonyfield.
DOBROWGary Hirshberg from Stonyfield Farm. I look at all of those folks and say, you know, the contributions that they have made to the planet, not just the products that they've put into those supermarket shelves and convenience store shelves, but the way that they've gotten businesses to think about transparency and to think about that triple bottom line, they created a highly successful business model that proved that it was worthwhile. And so now we see the clothing industry, we see the auto industry, we see many other industries becoming much more transparent and looking to the natural foods industry as their model.
NNAMDIOkay. Now on to the telephones. Our guest is Joe Dobrow. He is the author of the book "Natural Prophets: From Health Foods to Whole Foods -- How the Pioneers of the Industry Changed the Way We Eat and Reshaped American Business." He has worked in marketing for the past two decades at a number of health food companies including Fresh Fields and Whole Foods. On now to Rachel in Silver Spring, Md. Rachel, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RACHELThank you for taking my call. My grandmother was born in southwest D.C. in 1899 so I'm one of those non-transient locals. And she was just a natural whole food -- health food component. My mother used to shop at the (unintelligible) store when it was still a little place in Takoma Park. And so naturally when I got a driver's license in the '70s, I used to go out to Berlin Heights to the Berlin Café, you know, and Bethesda co-op so a little place in Bethesda. And worked in health food stores when I was in graduate school (unintelligible) which used to be a Chevy Chase...
NNAMDIOkay. You have established your credentials.
RACHELSo here's my question. When I worked in and went to these places what used to fascinate me, because there were so few of these little places, is you'd find these products that obviously, you know, a whole line of skin products or somebody had, you know, canned foods in ten varieties. But they were always being sold at Yes and Hugo's and Bethesda Co-op. And I always used to wonder how can these companies possibly afford to do this when they have such a small market. And I didn't know if it was just, you know, somewhere else in the country there were lots and lots of people buying them. But, you know, it just fascinated me.
RACHELAnd then once, you know, Whole Foods opened up (unintelligible) and you see, oh wow, you know, there are even more.
RACHELWho are these people that had the money to produce all this stuff when only a couple of us were buying them?
DOBROWYeah, there were and still are many entrepreneurs out there who have put their life savings into creating these tiny little companies. And they often don't see that return. I just came back from the big natural foods trade show out in Anaheim, which is this bustling center of activity. And there are 70,000 people who attend this trade show now. And of the roughly 2400 companies that were exhibiting there, 600 of them were exhibiting for the first time.
DOBROWAnd so those are some of the companies that Rachel's talking about here that they're kind of taking a chance. They're taking a flier on this and saying, I've got a great recipe for lip balm or for chia seeds or whatever it might be. And I'm going to try to share that philosophy with the rest of the world. Many of them do fail. There's no question about that. But the fact that there's so much vitality in that industry to me is very encouraging.
NNAMDIIt's not necessarily that they are independently wealthy. It's that they are committed to whatever their product happens to be.
DOBROWIt's true. And, you know, even the big brands that we look at today, so one that I write about a lot in "Natural Prophets" is Celestial Seasonings. Celestial Seasonings began in that exact same way. And it was not until Mo Siegel cracked the code, if you will, and he figured out that he needed to have a really good tasting product in a great package. The old health foods products, I describe it in the book as sort of being an all black and white affair.
NNAMDIBrown paper bag, whatever.
DOBROWYeah, I mean, it was -- the stores were dull and lifeless looking and the products were dull and lifeless looking. And then all of a sudden one day here comes this Celestial Seasonings box of Sleepytime Tea with these whimsical sayings and these beautiful drawings and these vivid colors. And it was as if the natural foods industry had suddenly landed in Oz.
NNAMDIHere now is Michelle in Reston, Va. Michelle, your turn.
MICHELLEHi, Kojo. Sorry, I was eating my all natural macaroni and cheese.
NNAMDIGo ahead, please.
DOBROWWhat brand would that have been?
MICHELLEOh, actually I had to dig for it so I couldn't tell you. It was an off brand because I was at a grocery store that has very limited organic selection. When I heard your radio show I thought, oh, I want to call and be supportive of this. I teach special education. And as a mother I went organic as soon as I became pregnant. And a lot of what you've been saying distracted me from my original thoughts because as a special educator, I've definitely seen the chemicals and the excessive amounts of non-natural elements affecting my children's behavior in my classroom, so in my own students.
MICHELLEAnd I guess really my comment is in enthusiastic support because I've even had doctors, pediatricians tell me that no, no, no, no, this is not a factor in the behavior. I've never heard of that. It's such a small chance. And yet after 17 years of teaching, I can tell you it's true. You know, not every student is going to benefit from a more natural diet but I've seen it happen. So I just wanted to enthusiastically thank you for helping get this out. Because even some very educated and knowledgeable professionals out there are still dubious, I think, that the natural food movement is as important as I think it is to our wellbeing.
NNAMDIMichelle, thank you very much for your call. It is so important, Joe Dobrow, that much of the commercial food industry have glommed onto this because today natural products are not only found in health food stores. They're available at just about all supermarkets. Giant has a line of natural food called Nature's Promise. Target has Simply Balance. Safeway, Open Nature. What do you think prompted these grocery store chains to jump into the natural foods business?
DOBROWWell, that's the other prophets. No. It's fascinating when you look at the history of how the retail sector developed here. For the longest time all of these supermarkets used to reject the health foods. They thought this is a fringe element. We're not going to devote any of our footage to that.
DOBROWAnd there's even a little anecdote that I tell in the book about how after Fresh Fields had opened a couple of stores here in the D.C. area, the Rockville store, the Bethesda store, maybe the Tyson's Corner store was opened at that point, and they were having some success, there's a board meeting that occurs at Giant. And Izzy Cohen, the late chairman of Giant, in this board meeting says thinking about Fresh Fields, should we crush them? And the decision is made, no, they'll let them live.
DOBROWBut the point is they had the power to do it then and they viewed it as an us-versus-them situation. Well, that has obviously changed. And so now we see consumers demanding natural and organic foods everywhere they shop. You can't travel here in the D.C. area with all of these Whole Food stores and the Yes! Organic Markets and the My Organic Markets, Mom's Organic Market, you can't see places like that and not think if you're a conventional grocer that you're missing out on something.
DOBROWSo, in fact, a brand that you don't have here in the D.C. area of course is Kroger. Although Harris Teeter now is part of Kroger, so I shouldn't say that. But Kroger has a brand that they call the Simple Truth. And it sounds like all those other Nature's Promise, Simply Balanced type things. The Simple Truth line was a rollup of various natural and organic private label brands. Didn't exist at the beginning of 2012. At the end of 2012 it was over a billion dollars in sales. The end of 2013 Kroger came out and said that if you could take their natural and organic sales and just make a dedicated independent company out of it, it would easily be the second largest natural foods retailer in the United States.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break but if you'd like to call the number is available, 800-433-8850. What do you think of health food marketing? Do words like natural get you to buy a product? Do you believe the health benefits that are printed on the label? 800-433-8850 or send us an email to email@example.com. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Joe Dobrow. He's worked in marketing for the past two decades at a number of health food companies including Fresh Fields and Whole Foods. He's the author of a new book. It's titled "Natural Prophets: From Health Foods to Whole Foods -- How the Pioneers of the Industry Changed the Way We Eat and Reshaped American Business." Joe, today we see the phrase all natural on everything from soda cans to chocolate syrup. How do you think the public's understanding of natural foods has changed as the products have become more mainstream?
DOBROWWell, the all natural label is a murky one. And it always has been. But let's take a quick look back in history at this. So 30 years ago the organic label was a murky one. And you could easily have gone into a store back then and on the shelf right next to each other you would've seen a product that was called California Organic, one that was called Colorado Organic and one that was called Pennsylvania Organic. And they all meant different things because the states impose their own laws.
DOBROWThen the federal government finally got together, passed the Organic Foods Production Act in 1990. It took 12 years to implement but we finally got to a point at which Organic meant something. And it meant the same thing everywhere. And we're at a comparable stage right now with natural. That word has been out there for a long time. I think I saw a poll recently that asked customers, well, what does natural mean to you? And most of them said it means that the product is made without artificial flavors, colors or preservatives. Some of them think that it means it's made with minimal processing. Some of them think that it means it's GMO free.
DOBROWAnd the reality is it doesn't necessarily mean any of those things because there is no federal definition for it at this point. I think we're slowly moving toward that right now. But the good news is that knowing a lot of the manufacturers out there, I believe in them. I think that these are good people. I think they've got integrity and I think that if they -- in this litigious age if they are still willing to put a label on it that says all natural, that they are doing it by the commonly accepted definition that we've used for a few decades on this.
NNAMDISpeaking of commonly accepted definitions, we got an email from Katherine in Chevy Chase, Md. who writes, "I shop at Whole Foods and Safeway and I'm seeing more and more creep between the two. I can get Tropicana orange juice at Whole Foods and organic apples at Safeway. At this point I'm confused. So many foods are labeled natural like fake maple syrup and I don't really know what that means. Also I've heard the U.S. government standards for organic foods leave out many smaller growers and also may not actually mean a product is healthier. It makes me just want to buy the Purdue oven roaster and forget about it. What to do," is what Katherine asks.
DOBROWWell, look, if I were giving somebody a recommendation and I'm speaking here as the author of this book but as a marketer as well, organic is a very good standard. Is it perfect? No. We've had to make certain decisions about what gets included in the organic definition and what doesn't. There is a famous debate that occurred in natural foods history between the aforementioned Gene Kahn and a nutritionist at Columbia named Joan Dye Gussow about well, hey if things continue in this direction then someday we're going to have an organic Twinkie.
DOBROWAnd Gene Kahn came back and said, if the consumers want organic Twinkies then there should be organic Twinkies. Organic is not your mother. That was Gene Kahn's quote. But, you know, today we now layer on a whole other level of complications which is on genetic modification. And the best advice that I think one can give at this point is, if you eat organic, you at least know that you are not getting genetically modified ingredients in it. That is part of the legal definition of organic at this point.
NNAMDIHere is Paul in Bethesda, Md. Paul, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PAULYes. I've dealt with this NIH and I'd like the speaker to distinguish between healthy food and organic and I'll tell you why. For especially our aging population, the most healthy thing would be to know the ingredients in the food and to know the overall calories, how much fiber, how much sugar. And yet in contrast actually to Fresh Fields, the Whole Foods people, in terms of easily retrievable stuff, do not include ingredients like in their deli and their bread and so on. And organic is not the same as healthy foods. I'd like you to distinguish about this.
NNAMDIYeah, expand on it, Joe Dobrow.
DOBROWSure. I agree with that. There was a saying that we had back in Fresh Fields and I think we probably used this at Whole Foods a lot as well. And that was something like if you're going to eat a brownie, would you rather have a brownie that has artificial ingredients in it or one that has natural ingredients in it? So the distinction there was, we're not saying that a brownie is a healthy food. We're just saying that there are healthier versions of it.
DOBROWAnd I think in the world today organic is still debated as to whether it is more nutritious or whether it is healthier. And I think to a certain extent the jury is still out on that. What I don't think the jury is out on is that it is a benefit for the planet. We certainly are helping to rid the planet of more pesticides, herbicides, fungicides by focusing on organic.
DOBROWBut I do agree with the caller that the idea that you can have healthy foods that are not organic is absolutely correct. And one should be reading ingredient labels. In fact, the nutri facts label is going to undergo some revision this year or in the next year or two to provide some more information out there. And I think that those are very good things.
NNAMDIGot to underscore that, read that ingredients label. Whole Foods is commonly referred to as whole paycheck. And the fact is many natural food products don't fit into the average American's budget. How would these health food revolutionaries respond to claims that they've created a health food industry that's only affordable for the upper income bracket?
DOBROWI think any commodity product goes through phases like this. There was a time when automobiles were the domain of the rich and now everybody has automobiles. And the same thing was true for other forms of technology. And now to be defensive about it but I'm sure there is a premium that people pay for natural and organic foods.
DOBROWAnd it really goes back to what one of the earlier callers was talking about that, you know, you have all of these small producers out there who don't have the economies of scale. They may have invested their life savings and things. So they are charging the intermediary or the retailer a higher figure. And in turn the retailer's going to charge the consumer a higher figure.
DOBROWBut the good news here is that as we continue to see the spread of natural and organic foods, the costs are coming down. There is no doubt about that. And if you were to go and do the lion's share of your shopping at Whole Foods today, if you were smart about it, if you were selective about it, if you buy that 365 brand and you look for things that are on sale, that premium does not need to be nearly what it was in the past.
NNAMDIHere's Dave in New Winsdor (sic) , Md. Dave, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DAVEHello there. I -- my wife and I -- I'm the guy with the gray ponytail. My wife and I have been married 40 years and she started out reading organic gardening back in 1970. We've always grown our own food. We now have a small four-acre farm. And my favorite saying is you are what you eat because we have always eaten organic when we can. We always at brown rice, we always ate whole grains. And neither one of us has any physical conditions. We're both slim. We're both healthy. We'll be 60 this year. None of my friends can believe how healthy we are. When I tell them they say, ah, you know, that's crazy.
DAVEBut we found that -- we ran a CSA for a few years. We could sell all the organic producer we could grow. We have eggs. We can sell all the eggs we can grow. And there's a demand out there and I'd love to see this change coming about.
DOBROWWell, tip of the cap to you. I think it's terrific that you're doing that. I'm glad to hear that you see the health benefit of it. I think lots of people do.
NNAMDIYou quote life magazine writer Elizabeth Lansing's 1975 reporting on the rise of the natural food movement. She cautioned that quoting here, "On a mass scale, organic foods and the supermarket economy are incompatible." How would you evaluate that statement today? Why do you think it would seem that natural foods could never be distributed on the same scale as commercial food?
DOBROWWell, today I would characterize it as fiction. That's where I would put that Life magazine article. Yeah, but look, I mean, the economics of the industry have changed radically in those 40 years. And so we now see many natural foods producers out there who have sufficient acreage or who have been able to tap into co-packers. There's a great story in "Natural Prophets" about how when Silk first started producing their beverages, they essentially borrowed the facilities of major milk manufacturers and hence were able to leverage somebody else's major investment.
DOBROWThings like that happened and the retail wars that are chronicled in the book followed. And so, you know, now today we do find that the natural foods industry has the scale and the compatibility with large scale distribution.
NNAMDIYou know that the leaders in the natural food movement were very concerned with keeping their companies accountable to consumers. For example, Annie Whitney behind Annie's homegrown brand would put her home phone number on her boxes of organic mac and cheese so that anyone could call and tell her what they thought of her product. How did accountability and transparency fit into the mission of the food movement?
DOBROWThis was part and parcel of what these early natural foods pioneers did. There's a similar story in the book about how when Earthbound Farm launched, they would FedEx their salads to New York. And Eli Zabar was selling them there. And one day Eli Zabar calls up Drew and Myra Goodman, the founders of Earthbound in California and said, hey, I'm here with Billy Crystal and he's mad because there's a caterpillar in his salad.
DOBROWWell, that was possible only because these guys believed in full transparency and they put their phone number on the label. We don't see that today but we do see many similar forms of transparency. And so you've got companies like Honest Tea right here in Bethesda that publishes its mission report every year where they engage in a little bit of self flagellation. And they talk about the things that they've done well, but the things that they haven't done well in addition.
DOBROWAnd, you know, now they're a part of Coca Cola and our hope in the industry is that, as we see that model take hold where big companies buy the natural foods companies but keep the founders in place, keep the brand in place, that we're beginning to affect the host organism. We're starting to take that philosophy of transparency and mission-driven business and bring it to the larger company.
NNAMDIAnd finally we got this email from Constance in Silver Spring. "I've shopped in natural health food stores since the '60s whenever I could afford it in New York, Michigan, Iowa, Indiana, Maryland. The stores had a certain cool that supermarkets just couldn't match. They had weird and intriguing foods that Giant or Kroger couldn't stock. So why do I eat natural foods? Because the organic veggies and fruits at the other stores like Mom and Trader Joes are fresher and taste really good. And when I reflect that I'm supporting beneficial changes in agricultural practices and I'm swallowing less pesticides, the food tastes even better.
NNAMDII'm afraid that's all the time we have. I see you nodding in approval.
DOBROWI do. Thank you very much, Kojo. I appreciate it.
NNAMDIJoe Dobrow has worked in marketing for the past two decades at a number of health food companies including Fresh Fields and Whole Foods. He's the author of a new book. It's titled "Natural Prophets: From Health Foods to Whole Foods -- How the Pioneers of the Industry Changed the Way We Eat and Reshaped American Business." Joe Dobrow, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Most Recent Shows
Kojo talks with author Briana Thomas about her book “Black Broadway In Washington D.C.,” and the District’s rich Black history.
Poet, essayist and editor Kevin Young is the second director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. He joins Kojo to talk about his vision for the museum and how it can help us make sense of this moment in history.
Ms. Woodruff joins us to talk about her successful career in broadcasting, how the field of journalism has changed over the decades and why she chose to make D.C. home.