Whole Foods Launches "Health Starts Here" Campaign: Pushes Plant-Based Diet, Says to Reduce or Eliminate Consumption of Animal Products

Written by Max Goldberg on February 6, 2010. Follow Max on Twitter: @livingmaxwell.

I almost fell over yesterday when I was at the Whole Foods Market (Fresh Pond Store) in Cambridge, MA. Let me explain…

Before entering the check-out line, I was looking at the marketing materials related to Whole Foods’ new Health Starts Here campaign — an initiative based on a plant-based, nutrient-dense diet.

The first thing I saw was the big poster that ranked foods based on an index called the Aggregate Nutrient Density Index (ANDI).  ANDI was created by Joel Fuhrman, M.D., the chief medical officer of an organization called Eat Right America.

Foods are ranked from 1 to 1000, with the most nutrient-dense foods having the highest scores.  Collards and kale have scores of 1000 while soda has a score of 1.  What was displayed at the store today was an abbreviated list and did not contain all the scores that are available on the ANDI website link above.

The second thing I saw was the display of about seven books where magazines are normally stacked.  This is where I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

There was a copy of The China Study by Colin Campbell, PhD.

For those unfamiliar with this book, it is the culmination of 20 years of research into the lifestyle habits of people in rural China and Taiwan.

Dr. Campbell said that “People who ate the most animal-based foods got the most chronic disease … People who ate the most plant-based foods were the healthiest and tended to avoid chronic disease. These results could not be ignored.”

I had heard about The China Study a few years ago through some of my raw food friends.  Given that raw foodists eat an organic/vegan diet, Dr. Campbell is a household name within this community for obvious reasons.

The fact that a supermarket, which sells a ton of animal products, would sell The China Study is nothing less than completely and utterly shocking.

The third thing I saw was a marketing brochure (see below) about the Health Starts Here campaign.  It listed four healthy eating principles: Plant Based, Whole Foods, Low Fat and Nutrient Dense.

The first row in the third bullet point under the Low Fat criteria said “Reduce or eliminate consumption of animal products”.  I had to stare at the paper for about 10 seconds in order to believe what was actually written there.

Not only does Whole Foods have The China Study sitting by its cash registers, some of the most valuable real estate in the entire store, but the the market is now telling consumers not to buy the animal products that it is selling!

Inconsistent Marketing Messages

Another interesting point here is that there has been a lack of consistency in the messages that Whole Foods has been delivering to the public in regards to this program.

* In a press release dated January 21, 2010, only three of the criteria were mentioned — Plant Based, Nutrient Dense and Whole Foods. The Low Fat criteria, which contained the “eliminate consumption of animal products” in the marketing brochure (see above), was absent. Nothing in this press release mentioned animal products specifically.

* In the marketing brochure that I picked up at the store on February 5, 2010, four of the criteria were mentioned — Plant Based, Nutrient Dense, Whole Foods and Low Fat. Under the Low Fat criteria, it said to “reduce or eliminate consumption of animal products.”

* On the Health & Nutrition: Health Starts Here page on the Whole Foods website on February 5, 2010, four of the criteria were mentioned —  Plant Based, Nutrient Dense, Whole Foods and Low Fat. However, the content on the website differs from the content in the brochure and press release.

Under Plant Based, it says “minimizing your consumption of meat, seafood, poultry and dairy products, if part of your diet.”  In the press release and brochure under Plant Based, there is no mention of “meat, seafood, poultry and dairy products.”

Also, under Low Fat, it does NOT say to “eliminate consumption of animal products” as it does in the brochure.

The one thing to consider is that maybe these inconsistent marketing messages could be very deliberate and well-thought out.  To do a PR blast and have on the company’s website that people should eliminate animal products might have easily and quickly generated a lot of negative publicity.

Having “eliminate consumption of animal products” language only in the in-store brochures is a lot more subtle, innocuous and possibly influential.

My sense is that consumers are more apt to read a brochure by the check-out line than they are to read a press release or something buried in the Whole Foods website.

How This Policy Came About

Anyone who has followed John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods, knows that he is no wallflower and is not afraid to speak his mind, even if it means angering his customers.

An example of this was when he wrote an op-ed piece last August in the The Wall Street Journal blasting President Obama’s health care plan.  Needless to say, this drew the ire of many of his shoppers. So, when it comes to implementing the Health Starts Here initiative, it should come as no surprise that Mackey is leading this charge as well.

About a month ago or so, I tweeted about an article that was written in the New Yorker magazine which profiled Mackey.

The story mentioned was how Mackey had been heavily influenced by The Engine 2 Diet, a plant-based diet and book by an Austin, Texas, firefighter and former professional triathlete named Rip Esselstyn. This inspired Mackey, who had already been a vegetarian and vegan for many years, to eliminate all vegetable oils, sugars and anything processed from his diet.

A few things happened as a result of The Engine 2 Diet.  One, he ended up losing fifteen pounds.  Two, he seemed to have greater resolve to put Whole Foods on a similar diet as well.

Fast forward roughly six months: Whole Foods launches Health Starts Here, which closely mirrors the CEO’s personal nutritional philosophy.  The Engine 2 Diet and Eat Right America are both official health partners in this program.

My Takeaway

First and foremost, this Health Starts Here initiative is incredibly bold.  Whole Foods has tremendous influence in the U.S. when it comes to healthy eating, and the fact that it can take such a stance will probably be one of the most interesting organic food-related stories for some time to come.

This new program leaves me with three main questions and many underlying ones.

1) What will be the product profile of Whole Foods going forward?

If they are pushing plant-based foods, what does that mean for all of the meat, fish and dairy products that they sell?  What about the salad bar?  The sandwiches?  The prepared food? I would venture to say that 30-40% of the items in the store are animal products or have animal products in them..

If Health Starts Here really takes off and people move to a more plant-based diet, how will that change what Whole Foods sells?

2) How does this impact the Whole Foods brand and business?

With its near monopoly on organic food retailing in the U.S., is it a smart decision, from both a financial and brand perspective, to tell people not to eat animal products?

How will this impact its revenues?  What will this do to its brand equity? How will its reputation change? Will this allow for a new entrant into the organic food marketplace, a competitor who espouses a diet based on animal products?

In December 2009, John Mackey resigned from his post as chairman of the board.  He now holds the title of just CEO. From my perspective, his resignation had very much to do with this Health Starts Here program that he so strongly believes in.

Major discussions and arguments had to have taken place at numerous board meetings, and allowing him to pursue Health Starts Here was probably the result of a negotiation in which he agreed to relinquish the title of chairman in return.

Even though Leonard Green & Partners, the company’s largest shareholder, must have given the green light for Health Starts Here, there is no question that this private equity firm will be paying very, very close attention.

3) Will this be the first of many companies trying to aggressively influence the health of its customers?

It is fairly obvious that most people believe the government is not doing a good job of managing health care in the U.S.

So, does this mean that other corporations will follow the lead of Whole Foods and aggressively try to use their power and influence in order to improve the health of the general population?

——
The extent to which Whole Foods can change consumers’ diets remains to be seen but it will be something very interesting to watch.

21 Comments

  1. Hi Max,

    I would love to see the other large chain supermarkets offering more organics but it has to be what the consumer wants. They are going to divy up the shelf space based on what product makes them most money regardless of the personal views of the CEO. Meat on the plate is a way of life for the majority of americans so I don’t see us eliminating meat products anytime soon. Hey I like a good steak as much as the next person and I take the view that if we cut down the number of times we eat meat, we can afford to buy a quality organically raised piece of meat for the Sunday roast.
    I grew up eating meat from the local butcher and we didn’t have it every night. We didn’t eat “low-fat” anything, and I still don’t, mostly because all the low-fat ready prepared foods are sugar laden.
    Whole Foods seems to be largely preaching to the choir. I think as long as we are prepared to buy crap we’ll be sold crap. It’s up to us to influence what the stores sell rather than the other way around.

    Written by Helen on February 7, 2010 @ 1:21 pm
  2. Hi Helen,

    I am not sure what it looks like in other parts of the country but in the Boston area, where I live, some of the large chain supermarkets (I am not referring to Whole Foods) have very good organic sections. What is it like where you live?

    Yes, I agree with you — it is up to us, the consumer, to influence what stores sell us. Based on what Wal-Mart said in the movie Food, Inc., they offer a big selection of organic only because that is what the customer wants. And, that is what they do — sell what customers want.

    As Joel Salatin, the well-known organic farmer and star of Food, Inc., told me recently, we can change the system by voting with our wallet. And, I agree 100%.

    Thanks so much for your comment and interest.

    Live well,
    Max

    Written by livingmaxwell on February 8, 2010 @ 12:47 am
  3. Great article. It’s a great step to encourage healthier eating habits but people will still want to / need to consume some meat protein and better they get organic and sustainably raised chicken at Whole Foods than factory farm bred chicken a their local. Considering that most Americans eat up to a pound of meat per day, any reduction will make a difference. I just posted an article on eating more legumes instead of meat: http://www.freshorganicliving.com/blog/
    Coming tomorrow: Eating Defensively – avoiding non-food food.

    Written by Anna Lonsdale on February 9, 2010 @ 7:47 pm
  4. Hi Anna,

    I agree that for people who eat animal products, it much better that they eat organic and hormone-free. And despite their push for a plant-based diet, I do not see Whole Foods discontinuing these items anytime soon. I am all for consumers to have a choice.

    Thanks for your comments.

    Live well,
    Max

    Written by livingmaxwell on February 10, 2010 @ 5:53 pm
  5. This whole campaign has me really riled up. Although I don’t shop there much, I occasionally go there when we are traveling to buy foods we can’t find or get elsewhere. I’m appalled that they are selling the whole low-fat and avoid meat mantra to the general public and getting people to believe this garbage. Sadly, it’s going to be a detriment to public health since so many people look to Whole Foods for guidance and information about health.

    I blogged about this topic too, and I sent a message to one of the Whole Foods’ corporate offices. See my post for the reply I received, it’s unbelievable! The response didn’t address my concerns about low-fat or the fact that they are advocating a reduction and avoidance of meats and meat products. In fact, the woman who responded talked about how Whole Foods is the only major chain that carries grass-fed meats…but what kind of a contradiction is this, anyway? It makes no sense at all.

    http://www.agriculturesociety.com/?p=3209

    Thanks for covering this too, Max. I hope many people read this and start thinking.

    Written by Raine on February 17, 2010 @ 11:44 pm
  6. Thanks for your comments Raine and for a link to your post.

    You have touched on something very important. Hopefully, this will get people to start thinking.

    The one thing that we can all agree on is that the overall health in this country is very poor, and we all need to become much more aware of and educated about what we are putting into our body.

    Live well,
    Max

    Written by livingmaxwell on February 20, 2010 @ 7:49 am
  7. Thanks, Max, for an excellent article. As a raw foodie since 1992, and as a longtime journalist, I’ve been writing about the raw vegan lifestyle since 2001, in various venues, including my online magazine. I’ve been boycotting Whole Foods Market since last August or September for several reasons, not the least of which was Mackey’s using his clout to lobby against a public health care option even though his brand is about eating for health.

    I don’t believe meat is good for humans to eat. I thought that perhaps Mackey resigned as chairman of the board because of the boycott controversy. I wonder why, if he’s been a vegan for years, he’s allowed so many animal foods in Whole Foods until this new plant-based diet push in the Cambridge store. I guess we will find out eventually.

    Keep up the great work, Max!

    Written by Judy Pokras on February 24, 2010 @ 6:37 pm
  8. Hi Judy,

    Thanks so much for your kind words!

    This plant-based diet is actually being rolled out nationwide, not just in Cambridge. Traditionally, each region of Whole Foods does its own marketing but this initiative is the exception.

    I have been paying close attention to the Health Starts Here program and will continue to provide updates as time goes on.

    Your support and interest are much appreciated.

    Live well,
    Max

    Written by Max on February 25, 2010 @ 12:52 am
  9. When I follow the vegan (no animal products) diet most closely is when I seem to enjoy the best health and greatest Spiritual and physical energy. I am 62 yrs old and have eaten different food regimes and found raw vegan, with lots of juicing and sprouting, to fit me the best.
    Everyone needs to be in tune to their bodies needs and many need to detox their systems (so that they become sensitive to how their bodies are really supposed to perform), which a raw organic diet will do. I also recommend a Master Cleanse (Lemonade Diet) detox.
    I also believe that plant based diets are friendlier to our resources.

    Written by Deborah Sue Britenbaker on December 10, 2010 @ 7:44 am
  10. Hi Deborah Sue,

    I agree with you in that people need to listen to what their bodies are telling them. I believe that every person is unique and has different needs. It is important for individuals to do lots of research, try many things and figure out what makes their bodies and minds happy.

    I eat lots of raw food and can notice the difference immediately.

    Thanks for your interest in my site.

    Live well,
    Max

    Written by Max Goldberg on December 12, 2010 @ 4:36 am
  11. I just wanted to commend you on how tactfully and impartially you post and respond. As a first-time reader, I don’t feel like I’ve wasted my time. In fact, I bookmarked your site. There are some out there who just portray personal anger and bitterness through blogging. Your writing style is very educated, informational and invites you (or me, at least) back for more. THANK YOU!!

    Written by Lindsey on January 25, 2011 @ 12:11 am
  12. Hi Lindsey,

    Thank you so much for your kind words! While I do have strong opinions about all things organic, I do try to give readers valuable information and to present it in an easy-to-read, inviting way. Your feedback is incredibly appreciated!!

    Also, there are many hard-core organic people I speak to who bash Whole Foods as much as they can. I am not one of them.

    Is Whole Foods perfect? No
    Does Whole Foods make mistakes? Yes
    Could Whole Foods do better? Yes

    Nevertheless, Whole Foods has had a monumental impact on the organic food industry in this country and I am appreciative of what they have done.

    Whenever I speak with early-stage organic food company CEOs, one of the first things that they tell me is how many Whole Foods stores carry their product. They don’t tell me how many Wal-Marts or Costcos they are in.

    Thanks so much for your support and interest!

    Live well,
    Max

    Written by Max Goldberg on January 25, 2011 @ 11:15 am
  13. Hi Max,
    I really agree with you on how Whole Foods marketing can be confusing for consumers. In fact, I feel that “confusion” is the problem when most people try to maintain a healthy lifestyle. They feel overwhelmed and have a sense of distrust with the products they buy, one moment something is healthy and the next minute it is taken off the shelf. I also feel that people need to take ownership of their own lives and take the time to research the products they decide to buy and ask questions, we can’t just rely on the government and the corporation cause the fact of the matter is, we live in a “business driven world.” It’s being realistic. We can’t force people into a certain lifestyle, but we can guide them in the right direction for what works for them, “a certain balance.” Most americans are not vegan or raw foodies. So, I think that Whole Foods should carry foods for every consumer veggies, meats, and etc., because that is what people do buy. What We as the consumers need to do is to push for better research and quality of the products they put on their shelves.

    Best,
    Elizabeth

    Written by Elizabeth on January 30, 2011 @ 7:53 am
  14. Hi Elizabeth,

    Thanks so much for your comment. One thing you said really struck me and is something that I agree with 100% — people need to take ownership of their own lives and take the time to research products.

    There is a ton of information out there and every “expert” has a varying opinion about what foods are good for you and what foods aren’t. Whole Foods and John Mackey now have their own opinion. I cannot imagine that they will eliminate the meat sections simply because they believe people shouldn’t be eating those foods. It is something to definitely keep an eye on, however.

    I appreciate your feedback.

    Live well,
    Max

    Written by Max Goldberg on January 31, 2011 @ 10:50 am
  15. Yes, the Health Starts Here program is so mixed message that I suggest Whole Foods Market has wasted millions promoting an unfocused and contradictory program. As a vegan I will also add that ONCE AGAIN..the
    representation of vegan food in Health Starts Here is bland, often quirky and not a step forward in presenting exciting vegan food options into the mainstream.
    Poor graphic/packaging presentation also and almost as if they don’t want to promote a plant based diet. As a vegan in the food industry I resent that they have presented vegan fare poorly to the mainstream public. First impressions are crucial. I never see anyone buying the items the few times a month I am in Whole Foods.

    Written by Horhay on July 13, 2011 @ 8:46 am
  16. The Health Starts Here program is corporate double-think from top to bottom.
    The marketers who came up with the program language are obviously so
    scared of the word VEGAN and what they think that word may or may not conjure in the so called PUBLIC MIND that they have botched the whole idea,
    presenting everything in a semantic twilight zone.. This program will be history as soon as the poor sales figures become apparent. The Health Starts Here line of food products is not appealing to customers. It is a throwback to the 70s “alternative” food which should have been left in the 70s.
    As Bob Dylan sang….”I ask for somethin’ to eat, I’m as hungry as a hog,
    and I get Brown Rice, Seaweed, and a dirty Hot Dog, I got a hole where my
    stomach disappeared, And you ask why I dont live here, Honey I gotta think
    you’re really weird!”

    Written by Jackie on July 13, 2011 @ 9:34 am
  17. Hello!

    I would say two things.

    1) According to people I have talked inside of Whole Foods, the Health Starts Here program has not been a success. Why? I am not sure but my guess is that it may take a long time, a lot of resources, continuing education and LOTS and LOTS of marketing and follow-up.

    Also, getting Americans to give up animals products is a very long-term and difficult endeavor.

    2) Vegan is not a mainstream word, and my opinion is that many in the mainstream would be more apt to eat vegan food if it is called plant-based. My good friend owns one of the top vegan restaurants in NYC and always refers to it as plant-based food.

    The word vegan is very “fringe” to people who are not really informed as to what it means. In my opinion, if you want meat eaters to consume vegan food, you are better off calling it “plant-based” rather than vegan. So, I completely disagree with you. Whole Foods made the absolute right marketing decision by not calling it vegan.

    Thanks so much for your input.

    Live well,
    Max

    Written by Max Goldberg on July 13, 2011 @ 10:41 am
  18. Hi Elizabeth –

    My name is Stacey (pseudonym) and I am actually a Healthy Eating Specialist at a Whole Foods on the east coast.
    I want to thank you for this article; I am new to my position and had little knowledge of the program’s origins.

    I hope you are well,
    S

    Written by Stacey on January 11, 2012 @ 3:07 pm
  19. Hi Stacey,

    Glad it was helpful.

    Live well,
    Max

    Written by Max Goldberg on January 11, 2012 @ 4:13 pm
  20. Hi Max~

    I am very familiar with Whole Foods and the need for information like
    this as I have a son with severe autism and have found that plant-based nutrition with a small amount of protein works best for him. I am working on completing my certification with The Institute of Integrative Nutrition and would love to be involved in the movement! Very bold and inspiring move to create “Health Starts Here”!

    Written by Linda Cox on June 2, 2013 @ 9:09 pm
  21. Hi Linda,

    Yes, the fact that a major corporation, Whole Foods, is taking a real stance on which diet is best for a person’s health is a bold move. Good luck with your studies at IIN and I hope your son is doing well!

    All the best,
    Max

    Written by Max Goldberg on June 4, 2013 @ 9:39 am

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