KANSAS CITY — Chances are, you know someone who has done a Whole30, the wildly popular 30-day elimination diet that excludes grains, dairy, legumes, alcohol and sweeteners. Since 2009, millions of people have completed the program (this editor included), which was developed not as a weight loss plan but as a “short-term nutrition reset” to help individuals identify problematic foods and end unhealthy cravings.
“It’s hard for me to track how many people have done the program,” said Melissa Hartwig, co-creator of the Whole30 and author of four New York Times best-selling books. “We’ve sold over a million copies of the Whole30 book, we have on average 2 million unique visitors to the Whole30 web site each month, and we have a combined social media fan and following of more than 2.5 million people.”
Several food manufacturers have reformulated products to meet Whole30 standards, Ms. Hartwig told Food Business News. One is Applegate, a subsidiary of Hormel Foods Corp., which earlier this year launched a Whole30 compliant sugar-free bacon.
“They have other changes in the works that I’m not at liberty to discuss, but they’ll be reformulating products in the new year … and we’ll be rolling them out as a partner in the next couple weeks,” Ms. Hartwig said.
About 70 companies have become Whole30 Approved partners, a designation indicating some or all of a brand’s products meet the rigorous standards of the Whole30 program and may feature a Whole30 Approved label on the packaging.
In an interview, Ms. Hartwig discussed the Whole30 Approved label — and why it matters to millions of consumers.
Food Business News: Why did you launch the Whole30 Approved program?
Melissa Hartwig: Whole30 has a very specific set of rules centered around our 30-day elimination program… It kind of looks like paleo, it kind of looks like primal, it’s definitely gluten-free, it’s definitely dairy-free … but there wasn’t any sort of overarching label that we could direct our Whole30ers to, to say, “If it looks like this, it’s Whole30 compliant.”
Telling them to read every single label is a big part of the program. We want to make sure they’re educated about what’s in their food.
Back in 2011, we brought our first products on board. The idea essentially was, “Wouldn’t it be awesome if there was a list of products I personally reviewed and vetted and I got to know the company owners or marketing team or product development people personally, and they met all of the quality standards for Whole30, and also I thought they were an awesome company and totally engaged in supporting our community? If we could have a list of those products, it would be so much easier for our Whole30ers to find choices that are compliant with the program.”
What does the verification process look like?
Ms. Hartwig: I have a team that accepts the initial requests. Bare minimum, the products have to meet every single one of our Whole30 program rules. We have a cheat sheet on-line of what we look for. Not just the rules, but our big picture recommendations. We’re looking for, obviously, it has no added sugars, no alcohol, no grains, no dairy, no legumes. We’re making sure if it has animal protein that it is sustainably and responsibly sourced, so we’re looking for organic, pastured, grass-fed, where applicable.
We want to be sure it embraces the spirit and intention of the program. So, we’re not bringing on any dried fruit and nut bars or paleo-style treats. That’s a bare minimum.
Then we’re looking at how engaged are you with our community? How engaged are you with your community? How willing are you to work with us and perhaps make changes to your web site or product ingredient list to serve our community?
We’ve had a few people who met the technical requirements and look good on paper, but for whatever reason we felt it just wouldn’t be a good fit for our community, and we passed.
How big is your list of Whole30 Approved products now?
Ms. Hartwig: I feel like we have about 70 Whole30 Approved partners. And they all have anywhere from one or two products to a giant product line of things that are Whole30 Approved.
You recently announced a partnership with DNX Foods, which actually reformulated its meat bars to meet the Whole30 standards. What did they have to change?
Ms. Hartwig: They had honey in all of their bars, which is not Whole30 compliant … and so they had to reformulate them all by taking the honey out. It’s not as simple as, “We’re going to take the honey out, and it’s going to be good.” They really went through a big process of testing for taste and texture and nutrition information to make sure the bars are even tastier but also fit the Whole30 program rules … it was a pretty intensive process. We’d been talking about it for about six months.
What did they add in place of the honey?
Ms. Hartwig: They added a little bit of dates, which are a pretty typical binder used in protein sticks, and then they get natural sweetness from fruits and vegetables in the bars, like sweet potatoes for example.
I so admire the initiative DNX took to open their products up to our community. I think portable, healthy sustainably and responsibly raised animal protein is one of the hardest things to find for anyone, not just a Whole30er. You can always grab a banana at the airport or a package of almonds, but finding protein that’s responsibly raised and sourced and low sugar and no grains … is really hard to do.
I think their addition to the Whole30 Approved lineup will be one of most welcome announcements we’ve made all year. My community is already going crazy for the idea to have another option for portable protein for their January Whole30.
It means a lot when you have companies like DNX … going out of their way to change product ingredients specifically so they can service our community. That says a lot about the power of the program and the certification and how responsive these companies are to want to open themselves up to a new market.
What is your long-term vision for this program? Can you see yourself manufacturing and selling Whole30 Approved foods?
Ms. Hartwig: Nope. I don’t want to. There are so many people out there that are making incredible products. They are so good at what they’re doing. I have no interest and I don’t think it serves my community for me to divert my resources to actually making food. I would rather lift up people who are doing good work and want to serve my community and to partner with them and let them do what they do best.
It’s a win for everyone. It’s a win for me because I have more resources for my community. It’s a win for the community because they have more access to Whole30 compliant products. It’s a win for the company because the Whole30 Approved certification opens them up to a whole new market.
Is there still a lot of consumer education needed, or are people mostly familiar with Whole30 and what that label means?
Ms. Hartwig: I think people are really aware of what it means. This is the thing I love about the Whole30 Approved designation. Whole30 is your lowest common denominator in terms of what people would consider squeaky clean or allergen-free or healthy choices.
What I see people doing in grocery stores who eat gluten-free or paleo or primal or dairy-free or they’re soy free or just want to eliminate sugar … they see the Whole30 label on a product, and they automatically know it meets their criteria. It goes above and beyond their criteria. I think it opens up the product to a variety of audiences who are concerned on one level or another about what’s in their food.
People who look at that label may not understand all of the nuances of the rules, that it means this bar is carrageenan-free, but I know that they know that means it is generally at minimum gluten- and sugar-free. I think that’s really impressive at this point in a marketplace where consumers aren’t always super educated.
What’s next for you and Whole30 in the New Year?
Ms. Hartwig: We just launched two new books … One is a cookbook, and one is a daily guide to the program. We launched in August a certified coaching program. We’re looking to get boots-on-the-ground support for people who want to do Whole30 in their local communities… We’ll be developing that over the course of next year. And we’re continuing to add more Whole30 Approved partners as well.We also have a big partnership with Whole Foods Market nationwide in the month of January. Whole Foods will be highlighting Whole30 partners on end caps, and we’ll have an Instagram takeover and lots of cross promotion.