The year was 1968. I was a teenager visiting Aspen, Colorado for the summer and I found myself in one of the very first natural food stores in the country. Well, if you can call it a store. It really was just a storage shed filled with barrels of bulk grains that an enterprising hippie had set up to sell whole foods without packaging. I know bulk foods don’t sound too revolutionary now, but let me tell you, there wasn’t anything anywhere like it then.
2015 will go down in history as the year the natural foods movement turned the tide on Big Food’s chemical, mass produced “frankenfoods”. One big company after another is rushing to announce the removal of artificial colors and flavors, food additives and drugs from their products. From fast food giants like McDonalds, who has promised to buy antibiotic-free chicken and added kale to its salads, along with Subway and Panera Bread, fast food menus are being reformed towards healthier ingredients. Sagging sales at Kellogg’s, Kraft, and Nestles, to name just a few, has caused these giant food companies to pivot towards clean, healthy labels. Why? Because their customers are voting with their dollars and they’ve gotten the message at last!
For someone like myself who has been part of this movement since its early days, it’s really stunning to see this change happening so rapidly at last. I invite you to take a trip with me back in time, to see how we got here!
Back in 1968…
There was only one group of packages in that fledgling natural foods store; they were a row of green & white boxes that were labeled “Alfalfa”… “Rosehips”… Strawberry leaves”. What? Strawberry leaves? I remember wondering, do they taste like strawberries? That very thought began my journey that has taken me all over the world to taste exotic herbs and discover if they have a flavor I can use to create healthy herbal beverages. But I digress…
The Three Principles of Natural Foods, Then & Now
1) Eat Whole Foods Like Nature Created
The revolution going on in that little store was the return to whole grains. America was eating Uncle Ben’s white rice and Wonder Bread! No one knew how to cook whole grains like brown rice – no one had even heard of it. Literally, there were whole articles in underground newspapers on how to cook brown rice! Ok, maybe mom knew how to prepare oatmeal, but that was the exception. Which brings me to the first principle of the natural food movement: eat whole, unprocessed foods with all their nutrients in tack as close to their natural state as possible.
Today, the US government promotes whole grains instead of refined grains with added synthetic vitamins which is all Americans ate for years. Cereal manufacturers are reformulating their refined cereals to contain fiber from whole grains, although they re-scramble that fiber in highly technical ways to make it taste less grainy, and thus it’s less natural too. Now, we have the epidemic of gluten sensitivity and one suspected culprit is that the way grain has been manipulated has changed the digestibility of its gluten. Nevertheless, we can thank the natural food movement for pioneering whole foods and whole grains for optimal health until science finally caught up with it!
2) Buy Organic
By 1971, I was working for a summer at New Age Natural Foods, the largest natural food store in the country which seemed so unbelievably huge but must only have been all of 5,000s sq ft, (FYI, Whole Foods stores average 40,000 sq ft). Based in Palo Alto, CA, New Age was run by a natural food visionary, Fred Rohe, whose main purpose was to support the rise of organic foods. There were no organic regulations or certification agencies that track a farmer’s practices like we have today. If a farmer said his food was organic, it was sold as organic.
The natural foods movement knew that big agriculture was ruining soil health and polluting our environment and our bodies with toxic chemicals used in pesticides, fungicides and fertilizers. Despite the lack of certification, farsighted farmers were already committing their land to organic agriculture to protect the health of their environment and their customers.
Now, we have national organic standards under the USDA National Organic Program and there is even a small amount of government funding for organic research. Get this: Costco just surpassed Walmart as the largest purveyor of organic products in the US! Organic foods are now available in mass market stores where the general public shops, not just in natural food stores. It has been a real David and Goliath story; how the natural food industry has brought organic foods to America’s dinner table!
3) Use Sustainable Packaging
The absence of packaging was a key principle in the early days of natural foods. I have to say, it has since faded for some good and some not so good reasons. At the time, we early natural food devotees shunned anything that was packaged because we considered it wasteful and polluting to the environment.
That summer at New Age Natural Foods, Celestial Seasoning’s first little muslin bags of tea were gathering dust on the shelf over the bulk grain bins. I remember thinking that Celestial should put their teas in bulk jars to sell by the ounce! Not long after, inspired by the health benefits of herbs, I joined the tea company that revolutionized the tea category with its novel concept of “herbal tea”.
Celestial Seasonings was the first natural foods company to break into mainstream grocery where tea sets only had “Orange Pekoe” tea sold by Lipton, Tetley and Bigelow. Imagine this: both Lipton and Tetley had orange and white boxes that looked nearly identical on the shelf. Celestial’s early muslin bags were replaced with colorfully printed boxes that were so novel, it was easy to convince grocery buyers to put Celestial’s teas in the set. In a sea of orange and white, Celestial’s teas jumped out to attract tea drinkers and the rest is history!
That’s the lesson of packaging that we early natural food pioneers had to learn. Packages are a food and beverage company’s main communication tool with potential consumers. If done responsibly, packaging protects a product’s freshness, which is essential in many cases.
But the search for recyclable, compostable and reusable packaging still continues in the natural food industry, which prides itself on sustainable values. However, the rise of single use and non-recyclable packaging is rampant everywhere. When you have the inventor of the “K-cup” regretting that he ever invented them because last year’s waste stream of non-recyclable K-cups could wrap the earth eleven times, you know we’re out of control. Someday I predict we’ll have regulations that don’t allow irresponsible packaging. This is the area over the next decade that will transform the most as sustainable packaging materials that break down into non-toxic components become available and practical.
Back to 2015
So here we are, still fighting for natural healthy foods after all these years. Now our job is to make sure that Big Food doesn’t just white wash, or “green wash”, their products. It’s our responsibility as consumers to hold them to their commitment to produce healthy foods free of additives and chemicals. The big fight today is concentrated on labeling GMOs so we have the right to know what is in our foods. Join the battle by continually reading those ingredient labels and voting with your dollars. Protect the gift of good health by investing in whole, organic foods and beverages for yourself and your loved ones!