Earlier this year I read an article in Forbes about how grocery stores were taking a more active role in promoting healthier diets. They’ve changed the location of healthy foods, giving more prominence to the produce section of the store. They offer healthier food samples, cooked from natural ingredients (it’s funny how we have to differentiate between natural and non-natural when it comes to food). More grocery stores voluntarily offer more nutritional information. Some supermarket chains, according to Forbes, have store staff who provide guidance on healthy food selection.
All good, and then the reality sets in. The center sections of these stores are filled with processed foods, filled with sugars, artificial ingredients, refined grains and on and on. The average shopper has a cornucopia of very tasty and addictive foods to choose from that are not really that good for you, and no one is telling them NOT to eat them. This is just like trying to stop your ice cream habit while still having it in your freezer: impossible to resist.
What if there was a shop that was relentless in its review of its food products and only offered those that ranged from neutral to good? For example, too much sugar means the product is out. Food refined to the point where the nutrients are stripped out and replaced by synthetic vitamins — out.
The Early Gatekeepers
This is exactly how the natural food movement got its start. Natural food stores in the 1970s and 1980s were the gatekeepers of quality foods, supplements and personal care products. You did not have to think about whether the food was good or bad for you — you knew that when you entered. On the West Coast there was the expression “Is it Goochable?” which referred to product standards of the small health food chain Mrs. Gooch’s.
What this meant was manufacturers of natural products had to adhere to high standards or they would not be placed in these stores.
Fast forward to today and the natural food stores are acting less and less as gatekeepers. That’s what happens when you’re a 14 billion dollar industry. Of course, each store or chain has standards and some are stricter than others. There is a major focus on transparency with regard to genetically engineered foods and ingredients. But the amount of sugar and refined foods on these aisles is still a bit staggering. And most important, as a consumer you once again have to be vigilant in your own research because you can’t be sure everything in the aisles is good for you.
The fact that it’s organic can actually become an act of deception, because your body still processes conventional food the same way it does organic. Research shows that many people think that because it’s organic, it’s automatically good for you. Don’t get me wrong — I still love my durum wheat pasta, stripped of the bran and wheat germ. It tastes so much better than the other varieties. I prefer the organic brands because they support organic agriculture and means I’m not eating stuff that’s not on the label. But I also know it has zero nutritional value and does wonders for my blood sugar, same as the conventional varieties.
So Who Are the Gatekeepers of Today?
We live in a world of instant expertise. Just Google your query and you enter a world of information and disinformation, opinions posing as facts, and a world where beliefs and science are in the same classroom. All amazing, wonderful and overwhelming.
Today, natural food stores are acting less and less as gatekeepers.
What that means is the gatekeepers of good, healthful foods, supplements and personal care are what you want them to be. You may rely entirely on third party certifications. You may trust your local food co-op. You may only purchase certain items from a single brand because of their transparency. You may have confidence in your ability to research online, making you your own gatekeeper.
In the next posts in this series, I will be exploring some of the natural products industry gatekeepers and what that means for brands trying to navigate in this space. Stay tuned.