Connecting The Dots Between Produce & Health

By Bill Bishop,  Chairman, Willard Bishop LLC

Who’s doing the best job of connecting the dots between produce and health? Based on recent field research, the answer may just be Whole Foods Markets. Under their Health Starts Here program, founder John Mackey sees as a key driver in repositioning the retailer from “whole paycheck” to a retailer-focused on shopper health Whole Foods is doing as good a job as we’ve seen in putting produce first in its health and wellness campaign.

At the core of its effort is a powerful but simple idea with a lot of appeal in today’s obesity-obsessed culture; i.e., a nutrient density index. Simply put, the nutrient density index scores products in terms of the amount of nutrition they deliver per calorie. Products are rated on their aggregate nutrient density including an extensive range of micro-nutrients that includes, but isn’t limited to, vitamins, minerals, vito chemicals and anti-oxidants capabilities. The index ranges from 1,000 on the high end to 1 on the low end.

All this sounds complicated until you see it through the eyes of a Whole Foods shopper. As shoppers enter the produce department, which is already very visually appealing, there are not only signs calling out the Health Starts Here Program, but also easy-to-read lists of the vegetables and fruit ranked tops in terms of nutrient density. Below left is a sample of what we found listed throughout the store, as well as on pocket guides available free at their Health Starts Here reading center.

And the information continues on through the store including meat, fish, cheese and other dairy products.

So how does a shopper use this information?  It’s simple to say, but it takes a little willpower to do; i.e., eat more of the high indexing foods first at each meal so that you satisfy your nutritional needs while consuming a lower amount of calories. After trying it, I can tell you that it really isn’t that hard to do if you concentrate, and use some of the recipes made available through the program.

Not surprisingly, the program is the creation of a leading physician, Dr. Joel Fuhrman, M.D., Chief Medical Officer of Eat Right America, who has treated more than 10,000 patients over the past 15 years and recently written a peer-reviewed article in the journal Alternative Therapies, reporting an average weight loss of participants in his program of 53 lbs over a two-year period. So it appears you can manage your weight, get the nutrition you need and not have to be hungry all the time by eating a lot more fruits and vegetables.

The Whole Foods brochure invites shoppers to use the Eat Right America nutrition prescription — the nation’s only online personal nutritional assessment and eating plan by visiting the retailer’s Web site or the Eat Right America Web site.

Turns out that more than 25,000 customers have already taken the personal nutritional assessment. Based on an analysis of more than 7,000 of the assessments, there’s a clear difference between the diets of shoppers with a high risk for diabetes vs. those who follow a diet that includes more high nutrient density foods.

Unconfirmed reports are that Whole Foods has seen a measurable increase in produce sales as a result. This was particularly true for green vegetables.

It’s common knowledge that it makes sense to eat more vegetables and fruit, and now at least one retailer is helping customers see the direct connection to better health and customers are apparently rewarding them for this.  Sounds like the way it should work.