Shoppers Beware: Trust, but Verify

Karen Howard, CEO and executive director of the Organic & Natural Health Association, has spent more than 30 years working with Congress, state legislatures, and healthcare organizations to develop innovative healthcare policy and programs. She has held a variety of executive positions, including serving as professional staff for a Congressional committee, and has policy expertise in the diverse areas of integrative and complementary medicine, managed care, healthcare technology, and mental health. Here, she discusses the recent Whole Foods overpricing scandal and toys with the term "natural."​​

How many readers out there consider themselves savvy consumers? I’m guessing 95 percent of you are nodding your heads yes. Buying a house? Never use the real estate agent’s inspector; hire your own. Buying a used car? Hire a mechanic to do an independent check. But, buying groceries? No need to even second guess, right? The answer is no.

Last week, the City of New York’s Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) announced that 80 different prepackaged products (89 percent of the testing sample) from the city’s Whole Foods stores were found to have mislabeled weights. Customers were overcharged in amounts ranging from $1.15 to $6.15 per package for a variety of items including cut vegetables, fish, and even chicken nuggets, with inflated profit margins of as much as $4.60.

Speaking for myself, I rarely weigh my bulk purchases from Whole Foods, much less the prepared foods I resort to when the lines at service counters get too long. In all fairness, Whole Foods is not the city’s only overpricing offender. The DCA investigation revealed that 77 percent of 120 of the city’s grocery stores were overpricing. And New York City is not an outlier; agencies across the country levy hefty fines for such offenses—fines that are more than likely to show up, you guessed it, in the stamped price of the goods we purchase.

So what is the takeaway for consumers? Let’s face it: We are emotional eaters. 

According to Organic & Natural’s consumer survey, 95 percent of the general population believes organic items must be free from synthetic additives. Interestingly, almost two-thirds of consumers expect the same from “natural” foods. Natural, with no regulated definition, in its green packaging with pictures of fields and farms, tugs at our heartstrings and pulls at our purse strings.

Shopping for happy, healthy cow? Our survey says natural meat can’t be raised with growth hormones or treated with antibiotics. Sales of organic and natural foods continue to rise. We want healthier foods because we believe the health and happiness of our families depend upon it. And, we are willing to pay for it.

Where do I shop? DC isn’t San Francisco with local markets open all day, every day. My food loyalty rests with Whole Foods for meats, dairy, and produce because I believe I am getting fresher, healthier goods. And for that I will pay the extra price. 

Loyalty: Is it the emotional crippler? Clearly, starry-eyed visions of artfully stacked produce are disrupting my critical thinking.

Labels—read them. More than five ingredients? Think twice. 

Country of origin: Where is my food from? Are you concerned about the California drought? Curious about produce from foreign countries? Do you have any idea what grass-fed beef means in South America?

Supplements: What’s in them? Is the vitamin C synthetic or natural and does it matter?

Natural: Is it really? 

With questions upon questions, who’s a shopper to trust? Where can we go to verify?

Organic & Natural is working to define natural, with the support of industry and the engagement of consumers. It’s painstaking work but it’s essential. Consumer pressure works. Note the artificial colorings disappearing from the boxes of cereal. Observe the fast food companies moving away from plastic toys and toward cage-free eggs. Yes, we are still being served sugar-laden, heavily processed foods, but we are also watching an entire generation of eaters binging on organic and, dare I say it, natural food at Chipotle. 

I’m committed to being a highly educated consumer of truly healthy foods that are produced in a manner that is restorative to nature. I’m also committed to providing the information consumers need to make these kinds of choices—information that will empower your ability to verify those choices. 

If only I could build an app that can weigh the items in my cart.


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