Natural Foods Merchandiser

The future of wellness

The often overlapping worlds of natural products and wellness are growing and evolving at a breakneck pace. To understand one segment, you must understand the other. Natural Foods Merchandiser’s second annual look at The Future of Wellness gives you a front-and-center view of thought leaders in the sometimes nebulous world of wellness.

Just as the natural products industry can no longer be relegated to health food and vitamin shops, the term wellness now means a lot more than the absence of a fever. The often overlapping worlds of natural products and wellness are growing and evolving at a breakneck pace. To understand one segment, you must understand the other. Natural Foods Merchandiser’s second annual look at The Future of Wellness gives you a front-and-center view of thought leaders in the sometimes nebulous world of wellness.

You’ll learn from Luis Pacheco, MD, a celebrity physician in the Hispanic community, about how the burgeoning Hispanic population could affect the nation’s health care system. Author Robyn O’Brien explains that the way in which we communicate the message that our food system is poisoned is key to reaching consumers. And see how a 12-year-old boy is taking on our fast-food nation and providing youth with healthier meal options.

Angelou Ezeilo

When Angelou Ezeilo was 16, her parents became vegetarians. During their transition, they asked Ezelio to read Harvey and Marilyn Diamond’s Fit for Life (Warner Books, 1987). The book “opened my eyes to the idea that you are what you eat,” she says. “What you put in your body directly affects how you feel and how you live your life.” At that point, Ezeilo also became a vegetarian. Now at age 40, after serving as an attorney for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a project manager for The Trust for Public Land, Ezeilo cites her experience as a vegetarian and her exposure to the outdoors at a young age as the keys that led her to create the Greening Youth Foundation, an Atlanta-based organization that teaches children to become stewards of the environment.

Q: How did you get the idea for the Greening Youth Foundation?

A: After moving to Atlanta from New Jersey, I started doing land-acquisition work on the Atlanta BeltLine project, [a 22-mile corridor of public parks and multiuse trails that circles downtown and connects 45 neighborhoods]. I realized that people living around these parcels of land, particularly the children, weren’t being educated about the importance of that conservation work. At the same time, my two sons started to suffer from asthma. We were trying to figure out why this was happening when our diets were so good. But it was the air pollution. We were leaving the Garden State and moving to a city that had even more pollution.

I realized that we needed to work to change social behavior. We have to get into the lives of children if there’s any hope for sustainability. We have to get to kids at a young age and teach them the importance of recycling and the environment.

Q: What is the primary focus of the foundation?

A: No one was reaching out to people of color, and as minority populations are growing and natural resources are being depleted, we really need to have a major chunk of our nation’s population talking about the environment.

The environmental movement (including organic food) primarily consists of affluent white people—that’s such a small box. If there is an urgency in what is happening to the environment, then surely the conversation needs to grow beyond one box, beyond one ethnicity and beyond one age group. If we truly think that there is something we can do in terms of conserving our resources, then we need to grow the conversation.

Q: How are you working toward expanding the conversation?

A: The foundation focuses on underserved youth and connects them to careers in conservation. This year, we have grown the program to include a focus on wellness and awareness of where food comes from and what you put in your body. We do this through an education program and our youth corps. We are in 20 schools in Georgia and we’re moving into other states.

We work with the U.S. National Park Service and the Forest Service. We have recruited inner-city youth and helped them get certified to work at the national parks and monuments.

We are also working in conjunction with New York University’s globalization program and the United Nations program, Life-Link Friendship Schools Ghana. We are in three schools in Ghana. People ask us, “Why go international when we have so many issues here?” Because I believe there is an urgency to change social behavior and to slow the process of using resources. It can’t be a one-way dialogue. It has to engage kids all over the globe.

Q: Has the foundation received support from the corporate world?

A: We are supported by REI, Kroger, the Turner Foundation, the Ovie Mughelli Foundation, the National Park Foundation, the Atlanta Falcons and many more. Corporations like REI realize they’ve been marketing to wealthy white people for a long time. They might make a lot of money doing so, but people follow and watch their lead. They are partnering with us to have a further reach in this discussion and to include other demographics. You hear this talk about diversity that has been going on for a decade plus, but who’s trying to do something behind the talk? Some are stepping up.

–Interview by Nancy Coulter-Parker

Alex Bogusky

As creative director of international advertising firm Crispin Porter + Bogusky, Alex Bogusky earned accolades worldwide for his ingenious campaigns—Adweek magazine named him “Creative Director of the Decade” in 2010. But new priorities inspired Bogusky to leave CP+B and create FearLess Revolution, a consumer advocacy, marketing, consulting and media organization based in Boulder, Colo.

Q: What prompted you to trade in a successful advertising career for grassroots consumer advocacy?

A: It’s great when your values and your work align—I had always had that. But in the past few years, I’ve learned new things and developed new values. At an ad agency, your voice is your clients’, so you navigate this maze of what you can and can’t say. The bigger the agency gets, the harder it becomes to avoid saying things you don’t believe in. So finally I had an epiphany: Either I had to make drastic changes to our client base or I had to go—and I didn’t feel comfortable laying off 200 of my colleagues.

Q: What do you see as the crux of your new mission?

A: Oh, I don’t know if I’ve mapped out a specific mission—more like a general direction. I care about sustainability, global warming and food, but what really burns me is when people with power and influence take advantage of those without. People need to take hold of the transparency tools available right now while there’s still a chance, because I believe the window is closing. The government and some big companies are trying to scare people away from being transparent, like posting their info on Facebook, for example. Or they’ll legislate it away; the government doesn’t benefit from providing transparency.

Q: How can consumers take advantage of this transparency window?

A: People vote with their dollars, and in the past, the data point generally used when shopping was price. But now with apps and online tools from GoodGuide and the Environmental Working Group, customers have the ability to assess products in real time. These tools are like having an industrial scientist in your pocket.

Q: But even these tools spark controversy. One tool may assess what’s “healthy” or “hazardous” differently than another, and some manufacturers feel their products receive unfavorable ratings for unfounded reasons.

A: Great! I say that while you guys figure it out, customers learn more. If the debate is public, then it’s a free and fair market. It’ll work itself out. I don’t really care why these debates happen, as long as they do.

Q: What about retailers and manufacturers? What are they doing to further transparency?

A: It begins when you become an advocate in your category. Take Udi’s [Food], for instance. They’re out there talking about healthy ingredients and sustainability as well as making great bread. Branding is no longer about images of elves waking up early to bake fresh bread in a kitchen. It’s about who’s more transparent, who can best prove their advocacy—that’s the new branding.

I like to see a bookend of companies working toward transparency. Right now you have Patagonia on one end and Wal-Mart on the other. These companies couldn’t be more different, yet each influences the other. And the great thing is that pretty much every other company fits somewhere in the middle of these two—if you don’t, I don’t know what business you’re in.

Q: Do you see areas in which the natural products industry can improve, or directions where it should head?

A: Definitely. Where is the organic campaign? Right now it is super critical. Until organic represents more than 50 percent of the market, organic companies would benefit from banding together to promote organic rather than competing with one another.

Also, Facebook is many people’s total interaction with the Web, so pay attention to your page, put up lots of items and let it generate conversation. Naturals has an advantage over mass with social media, because it’s easier for people to self-identify with something that’s wholesome and good and moves them toward better health than, say, Coke’s new flavor.

Q: What lessons can natural products companies learn from their conventional counterparts?

A: Spend. Natural companies tend to be really diligent about not spending on marketing and advertising—and I mean spending in a way that’s comparable to the industry you’re in and the size of it. The naturals industry is full of great ideas, great thinking, nice branding, etc., because people generally feel good about what they do. But compared to mass, they usually spend less.

Q: Has anyone been skeptical of you trading the ad world for consumer advocacy? Do some think you’ve just jumped on a bandwagon?

A: Of course. Some people ask, “How could you have worked in the ad industry and then preach about genetically modified organisms?” Well, aren’t people supposed to evolve? Can’t they learn and change? And if you’re going to change, you’re going to go through moments of hypocrisy—where you think differently than you once did. People are afraid to show that hypocrisy, and that scares them from moving and changing. I really like this Arabic proverb: “Fear not the path of truth for the lack of people walking on it.”

–Interview by Melaina Juntti

Koa Halpern

A lifelong vegetarian, 12-year-old Koa Halpern wanted to get to the bottom of what is in our nation’s fast food. What he discovered shocked him and sent him on a mission to educate other kids about the unhealthy side of drive-through dining. Halpern began his quest with local lectures and then launched Fast Food Free, a website that discusses the American food system and spurs kids and adults to make healthier choices.

Q: Why did you decide to start Fast Food Free?

A: I never really liked fast food, but I never thought much about it. However, all that changed when our [family’s] first Korean exchange student came. One of her first questions after arriving was, “When can we go eat fast food?” I was fascinated by this, so I decided to research fast food for a school project. I found that fast food impacts the world negatively in four major ways: It’s bad for people’s health, especially because of the obesity crisis; and it’s detrimental to the environment, farm- and food-industry workers, and farmed animals.

Maya Angelou once said, “When you learn, teach. When you get, give.” As a result, I was going to join an organization that helped people eat less fast food, but I found that no such thing existed. At that point, I felt I had to take action, so I began Fast Food Free.

Q: Do you have a goal for the nonprofit organization?

A: Fast Food Free is dedicated to educating people about our current food system. The goal is to help people eat less fast food and make healthier food choices. I support local farmers, organic agriculture, permaculture and eating great food at home.

I promote these goals by maintaining an educational website, giving presentations, writing blog posts and doing interviews. I also ask people to stop eating fast food for two weeks and to give more thought to their food choices. You can take the pledge at

Q: Where do you eat when you need a quick meal away from home?

A: Personally, I like to eat at Noodles & Co.Mad Greens, Souper Salad and Chipotle. On the Fast Food Free website, we feature restaurant guides that can help you choose places to eat.

Q: What would you like the future of fast food to be?

A: It would be great if fast-food companies could improve the quality of their food. They could start by taking the industrialized factory out of food production. Until local, organic food is subsidized in the same manner as crops that feed the industrialized farms, I don’t see our food system changing.

Also, there’s the issue of supply and demand. Parents and other adults need to demand better food for our country. If people are willing to eat processed, cheap, chemical-laden food, the market will keep supplying it.

Q: How do you think you and your generation will change the way people eat?

A: I think if enough people in my generation realize what is happening, they will demand change. I read labels and think about what I’m eating. I encourage both adults and kids to become informed consumers.

Q: What do you hope is the next phase for fast-food restaurants?

A: Although some fast-food companies are trying to change their negative image, the reality is they are driven by profit. The health of people and the planet is not a goal. The goal is quick, easy money. As a society, we have to think we can pay now in the form of paying more for our food that is local, organic and better for us, or we can pay later in the form of environmental destruction and high health care costs.

Q: What do your friends think of Fast Food Free?

A: A few of my friends have not supported Fast Food Free, I think mostly because they just couldn’t understand where I was coming from. But for the most part, kids can understand my message no matter how great they think the food tastes. The reality is that it is just plain bad for you and it is bad for our Earth. Other friends of mine have supported Fast Food Free completely. They have given presentations, convinced their science classes to take the pledge and even donated money.

Q: What has surprised you in your research on the fast-food issue?

A: I have been really surprised about how negative fast food is for the environment and people’s health. I am constantly learning new things. For example, I just learned recently that high fructose corn syrup is so overly processed it can only be digested in the liver.  

Q: Why is tackling the fast-food issue so important?

A: People are putting their lives in the hands of industrialized food production, and that’s having a disastrous effect on our planet and people’s health. The health of our planet and the health of individuals depends on making different choices. I think this starts with becoming educated about where our food comes from and how it is produced.

Q: What do you want to be when you grow up?

A: It’s so hard to say. So many things interest me. I’ll probably be some type of scientist. For now, my first job is spreading the message of Fast Food Free.

Q: One last thing: Is Koa Halpern your full name?

A: My full name is Orlando KeKoa Bernard Kaimana Halpern. With a name like that, you can see why I just prefer to be called Koa.

KeKoa and Bernard mean the same thing: the courageous or brave one. My grandpa was named Bernard.

Kaimana means the soul or power of the ocean.

–Interview by Pamela Bond

Robyn O’Brien

When her young daughter experienced a food allergy, Robyn O’Brien embarked on a mission to discover its cause. Along the way, she learned that our food is not what many think it is—rather, it’s laden with chemicals, and corporations largely control its production. O’Brien chronicles her discoveries in her book, The Unhealthy Truth (Crown, 2009), and on her website, Along with the Future of Wellness seminar, O’Brien will also speak during the “Marketing to Moms” session on Friday, March 11.

Q: How did your attitude toward our food supply change so radically?

A: I really had a conservative mind-set, and I had just bought off on the whole notion that [natural products] were either a lifestyle of the rich and famous or some hippie thing. My son had ear tubes, surgeries, chronic antibiotics and eczema creams that had these black-box warnings on them, and suddenly one day I was just like, This doesn’t feel right anymore. So as I began to unearth the research and the funding behind a lot of it, I was like, Holy crap! There’s synthetic growth hormone in cheese and dairy and Goldfish crackers. There’s yellow #5 dye in ketchup, genetically modified organisms—and I didn’t even know what a GMO was. It was totally overwhelming and paralyzing, and suddenly I had the responsibility of this knowledge that I couldn’t unlearn. I was so grateful when the publishing world expressed an interest in the story.

Q: In some ways, your real work began after you unearthed all the information about our food system, right?

A: Naively, when I wrote the book, I thought, I’ve done the details, the meticulous research; it’s there now and I’m done. But then I had to deal with the heartache and grief of owning the misguided perceptions and stereotypes—and I had to find the courage to deal with that. To this day, the wound from that will always be with me, which is why I’m so sensitive to how the information is delivered. This information injures people to hear and learn, which is part of their resistance to it. You’re telling somebody that they may have inadvertently been causing severe harm to their family, and that’s like a knife through the heart. Once I realized that, I saw I could deliver the message in a much more compassionate, understanding way. 

Q: What do you think is the best way to deliver the information?

A: I think the psychology of getting people to actually hear you, to disarm, to not throw up a defense is huge. A big part of this is that people feel guilty or blamed, like “Oh, my gosh, don’t make me feel guilty because I bought that stuff” or “Don’t make me feel guilty because I can’t afford to go to Whole Foods.” But then they hear me and they say, “Wow, this isn’t preachy; she totally gets it. She was doing blue yogurt, mac ’n’ cheese and Dino Nuggets too. This is not about going to Whole Foods.”

Q: How do medical doctors fit into this? So many people look to them for nutritional advice.

A: If medical students take any diet or nutrition classes, the courses are maybe one or two hours long, and most students are able to opt out of these classes. Chances are the amount of studying you’ve done on diet and nutrition and its impact on health is greater than what your doctor has done. It was a paradigm shift I had to come through—basically, that the doctor didn’t have the answer. She had pharmaceutical Band-Aids, but she couldn’t address the underlying triggers and what was going on, so I had to de-friend my pediatrician and find another. [Consumers] might want to consider finding a doctor who is also a parent and can and will engage in the dialogue.

Q: Tell me about your website,

A: I realized [a website] is where I can create the most value and reach those moms who had either dismissed or were naive about [chemicals in food] and say: “We’re here to hold your hand. We know it’s scary. We know you open that cupboard, and everything in there has these ingredients that you’re starting to read about as potentially causing harm. Here’s what you can do to take these baby steps.” None of us can do everything, but all of us can do something. So we want to help parents get moving in this direction, because once they’re there, then you’ve got incredible, big organizations like the Center for Food Safety and the Non-GMO Project that they can go to. We’re the engagement, and we hope we can bring people in, in a very nurturing way.

Q: How is the tide going to change regarding our children’s nutrition and eating habits?

A: I think it’s “pick one thing.” So if high fructose corn syrup is the thing you want to opt out of, then opt out. One in three kids either has autism, allergies, [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder] or asthma; one in two kids born in the year 2000 is expected to be insulin dependent by adulthood. A lot of people are saying that children are the canaries in the coal mine and that the landscape of childhood has changed because of all these chronic conditions—and I honestly think that’s what’s going to lead us out of this.

-Interview by Anna Soref

Luis Pacheco

After practicing for more than 20 years as a family physician in underserved areas of Los Angeles, Luis Pacheco, MD, sees a “tidal wave” of Hispanic consumers building in the United States. “It’s coming, and there is no stopping it,” says Pacheco, a former faculty member at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California. Pacheco is now a medical celebrity on Spanish-language radio and television, and the creator of the supplement brand Dr. Pacheco Naturalmente.

Q: Why should organic, natural and healthy product companies and retailers pay attention to the U.S. Hispanic community?

A: The United States is now home to at least 50 million Latinos. To put this in perspective, there are more Hispanics in the U.S. than there are people in Canada. To really bring it home, there are more Hispanics in the U.S. than people in Spain. So the U.S. is now the mother country for Hispanics. The U.S. Hispanic community is also the fastest-growing population by far because of very high birth rates, and it is a very young population. The spending power of Hispanics in the U.S. is now over a trillion dollars, even with the recession.

Q: How would you describe people’s relationship with health and wellness within the U.S. Hispanic community?

A: Unfortunately, what we have seen with most immigrant groups over the years, going back to the turn of the century, is that these communities do not tend to engage in prevention. For the most part, they wait until there is a big problem—until they are really feeling poorly—before seeking care. In general, within the U.S. Hispanic community, there is a mistrust of the conventional health care system.

Q: How do Hispanic consumers tend to perceive herbal products and other supplements?

A: The Hispanic community, as a whole, is much more inclined to use natural products, including herbs and teas. Alternatively, I have seen with [Dr. Pacheco Naturalmente] customers and with my patients that there is a definite mistrust of prescription medications within the Hispanic community.

Q: A growing number of natural product companies realize they need to reach Hispanic consumers, but is it enough to translate their packaging and educational materials into Spanish?

A: It’s not. It won’t do anything. Years back, I was asked by the pharmaceutical industry to help them revise their brochures for the Hispanic population because the companies realized they were just having the brochures translated into Spanish and the content made no sense culturally or from an idiomatic standpoint.

Q: What’s the key to reaching the Hispanic community?

A: It’s really about knowing how to communicate and gain people’s attention. Then you have to earn the Hispanic consumer’s trust. Obviously, when it comes to products, you have to give them ones that produce results and help them to feel better, and that they perceive as being high quality, safe and free from contamination. Remember, a lot of folks who come from immigrant nations are used to seeing bad products that are made with very low quality control. These people will want to know whether your products are high quality.

Q: What role will U.S. Hispanics play in the country’s future of wellness?

A: Unfortunately, when I look at the Hispanic community, I’m not seeing the future of wellness—I’m seeing the future of illness. That is going to be an enormous problem—not just for those individuals and their families, but for the whole country. The two greatest health problems within the Latino community are obesity and diabetes. The rates of these problems are much higher in the U.S. Hispanic community than in the white population. The group with the highest prevalence of diabetes is the Native American population. Number two is the Hispanic population.

The thing about diabetes is that, unless you die from a heart attack, you can live with it for years—but you also have to live with things like foot ulcers, which cost billions of dollars each year to treat. Diabetics also have a higher rate of stroke and are at a much greater risk for kidney failure and dialysis, which can go on for years and is extremely expensive. They are also at a significantly higher risk for developing blindness. When you combine all of these things, hundreds of billions of dollars a year are needed to cover the cost of treatment.

I’ve been talking about the diabetes epidemic within the Hispanic community for 15 years. At first people thought I was crazy, but I was seeing it happen in the clinics. Now we are seeing younger patients. Before, if they were young, they were 25 or 30, instead of the usual 45 for type 2 diabetes. Now we frequently see 16- and 18-year-olds with type 2 diabetes. I don’t know if this will bankrupt our health care system, but it will put an enormous strain on it.

Q: What needs to be done to address these issues?

A: We need to get a message out there to Hispanics—a message they can understand in terms of what their health means, what steps they can take to live a healthier life and why that is important. Number one is communicating this message over and over and over to hopefully get the adults to change a little bit. But I would also focus a lot of effort on kids. Hopefully the kids will start exhibiting better eating and exercise habits, which they, in turn, can pass down to their children.

Q: What is the upside for natural products companies and retailers that target the U.S. Hispanic community?

A: The upside is that there will be tremendous opportunity to reach out and communicate with this rapidly growing demographic group. There will be an enormous opportunity to provide Hispanics with high-quality products that they trust, believe in and will take—especially on the natural products and dietary supplements side, because of the general mistrust of conventional medicine and prescription medication.

There will be opportunities for those companies that can really effectively communicate a message and the reliability of their brand to Hispanic consumers. They are certainly going to be in the driver’s seat. And for those companies that don’t see it yet; well, they are just going to make more opportunity for the companies that do.

–Interview by Carlotta Mast


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