July 6, 2021
You can browse 5,000 innovative, health-conscious products on Thrive Market’s digital shelves. There are decadent chocolate bars with no added sugar, mac and cheese made from plants instead of dairy, and clean drinking water that comes from rain clouds.
Amidst that wholesome wonderland of groceries, clean beauty and skincare products, and home essentials, there are more than 500 things you won’t find. They’re the ingredients we’ve vowed not to allow in the products we sell, either because we feel they’re not healthy—for people or the planet—or because we don’t understand them well enough to take the risk. As a company that’s purpose-built to serve the conscious consumer, it’s part of our promise: to offer a thoroughly vetted collection of the best products to help families do healthy their way, while building a better food future for everyone in the process.
“I always say we follow the precautionary principle,” states Jeremiah McElwee, Thrive Market’s Chief Merchandising Officer. “If the science [about an ingredient] is mixed or we don’t have clarity…we’ll lean towards banning it before we’ll lean towards allowing it.”
The potential health effects of consuming a given ingredient are a top concern, but McElwee and his team take a holistic approach, considering the entire supply chain. That means also looking at how sourcing an ingredient or making a product affects farmers, producers, animals, and the Earth.
McElwee’s philosophy is informed by nearly three decades of experience in the natural foods industry. A veteran of Whole Foods who created the retailer’s premium body care standards, he wanted Thrive Market’s own criteria to set a new benchmark. “I was starting there because I felt this was the right way to do it for the environment, for people, and for health,” he reflects. “It was the foundation that Thrive was built on, and we’ve continued to uplevel.”
Taking a critical eye to every ingredient list is paramount to McElwee and his team, but he’s quick to point out the absence of dogma in Thrive Market’s approach. “We try to be the gatekeepers, but not the police,” he says. “We’re not trying to say, you should not eat this. We’re trying to say, these are things that have data indicating they’re potentially unhealthy.” While many ingredients are banned outright, others the team deems questionable may be permitted, but sparingly—and only if their supply chains are up to par. “We’re really watching out for our members,” McElwee states, “and making sure they have the best-quality [products] with the fewest additives possible.”
McElwee is no alarmist, but he has done his research. Having grown up on the processed-food-laden standard American diet, he recalls that when he first started paying closer attention to ingredient labels, “I was horrified. When you start going down the rabbit hole on some of those FDA-approved ingredients, it’s pretty scary.” The clearest example, in his opinion? GMOs, or genetically modified ingredients, which are never permitted in Thrive Market’s food products. To weed them out, McElwee’s team seeks brands, products, and vendors that hold third-party certifications (such as USDA Organic or verification from The Non-GMO Project); sources products and ingredients from countries that don’t permit the use of GMOs; and when necessary, conducts an in-depth supply chain analysis.
Beyond GMOs, McElwee and his team are especially focused on what he calls the big three: artificial flavors, artificial colors, and artificial preservatives. He explains the potential risk of consuming these ingredients in the context of toxic load; a single product may only contain a trace amount, but theoretically, if you’re eating a lot of processed foods and using conventional cleaning and personal care products—basically, if you’re shopping at a regular grocery store rather than Thrive Market—“you could end up finding those ingredients in 30 products that you have in your home. Over time, they build up.”
A father of four daughters, McElwee notes that of particular concern to him were the possible effects of artificial food colors on cognitive function and behavior in kids. “I don’t know if any one of these ingredients is inherently evil, but when you start building that mosaic together of all the things you’re putting into your body and all the things you’re exposed to…that’s a lot of chemical exposure.”
Aside from the ingredients that are outright banned, there are some nuances to the list. McElwee explains that certain ingredients are only permitted if they meet specific criteria. For instance, palm oil, a controversial ingredient in the sustainability world, is allowed only if it is responsibly sourced from Central or South America (not the rainforests of Southeast Asia, where related deforestation is a concern). Though cane sugar is not forbidden, McElwee’s team seeks products that are judicious with it and from sources that are certified Fair Trade.
Canola oil is an ingredient known to incite intense debate among the wellness-conscious, but to McElwee, the argument against it is somewhat misguided. “We know that the biggest issues people have with [canola oil] are its GMO status, it’s highly processed, it’s usually blended with hydrogenated oils, and it’s high in omega-6,” he explains. Right off the bat, any canola oil available at Thrive Market in any form is organic and non-GMO. Thrive Market’s Organic Canola Oil is expeller-pressed without the use of chemical solvents and free of hydrogenated oils. The only concern that really holds water for McElwee is the one about inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids, but for an ingredient like cooking oil, “you should be using such a small amount that even if you’re worried about omega-6 intake, you’re not getting that much from using oils sparingly and eating an otherwise balanced diet.”
Here’s a closer look at just a few of the ingredients commonly found in packaged goods that are not permitted in Thrive Market’s food products.
This much-maligned artificial sugar made from corn starch is found in a myriad of processed foods and sugary beverages—even foods you wouldn’t necessarily expect to be sweetened, like salad dressings and pasta sauce. It contains a large amount of fructose, which is processed differently by the body than other forms of sugar, and has been linked to obesity, diabetes, liver disease, and other health issues.
For a pasta sauce without HFCS, try: Thrive Market Organic Keto Marinara Sauce
You may know hydrogenated fats better by their other common name: trans fats. To increase the shelf life of liquid oils used in processed foods, manufacturers add hydrogen, which solidifies the fat. Though the FDA banned trans fats several years ago, they can still be found lurking in restaurant food (especially food that’s been deep-fried) and, in small amounts, packaged foods like vegetable shortening, baked goods, and coffee creamers. Consumption of trans fats is linked to increased risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.
For a dairy-free coffee creamer with no trans fats, try: Nutpods Unsweetened Non-Dairy Creamer
Acesulfame potassium (sometimes called acesulfame-K or Ace-K) is a calorie-free artificial sweetener that can be found in diet soda, candy, gum, and baked goods. Like many common sugar substitutes, such as aspartame and sucralose, its safe-to-consume status is controversial. Though more research is needed, studies have found evidence of a possible link between acesulfame potassium and cancer, thyroid problems, and changes in brain function.
For a better-for-you no-calorie sweetener, try: Lakanto Classic Monkfruit Sweetener
Bleaching and bromating are ways of processing flour to enhance its performance in baking. Bleached flour has been treated with a chemical like benzoyl peroxide or chlorine dioxide gas to lighten its color and make it less dense. More research is needed, but studies suggest these bleaching agents may have adverse health effects. Bromated flour has been treated with potassium bromate, a conditioner that oxidizes the flour and boosts rise in baked goods. Potassium bromate has been linked to DNA changes, digestive issues, and cancer; in fact, it’s banned in several parts of the world, including Canada and the European Union.
For a pantry staple without chemical additives, try: Thrive Market Organic All Purpose Flour
BHA and BHT are preservatives often found in snack foods, butter, cereal, beer, and baked goods, as well as some medications and cosmetic products. Though they’re officially recognized as safe to consume, some research suggests they could be carcinogens.
For a crispy, crunchy snack without artificial preservatives, try: Thrive Market Non-GMO Avocado Oil Potato Chips
Thrive Market’s process of curation has come a long way over the years. McElwee credits Carla Hechler, the company’s Senior Director of Quality & Food Safety, for bringing her years of institutional knowledge and experience to the Merchandising team’s meticulous vetting process. “We’ve added a lot of ingredients, which is such a win for our members,” McElwee says.
To keep up with the latest developments in food safety, McElwee’s team pays close attention to like-minded groups (such as the Environmental Working Group, a watchdog organization known for measuring pesticides on produce and policing skincare ingredients) and food science journals. Just as important, however, is input from Thrive Market members—whether they’re wellness experts, healthy living influencers, or everyday people.
So what if a product—even one that Thrive Market members are begging for—contains a banned ingredient? McElwee reports the first step is to go back to the supplier and ask about it. In some cases, simply starting a dialogue can result in a resolution that’s to everyone’s benefit: a supplier may be convinced to remove GMOs or switch to organic sources. Or, a supplier may be able to provide documentation indicating that the ingredient in question is responsibly sourced, or otherwise meets Thrive Market’s quality standards. From there, McElwee’s team seeks to move the needle even further, inquiring about—and encouraging—regenerative growing practices and other sustainability measures.
Upholding stringent standards is part of Thrive Market’s ethos, but as McElwee explains, its effects go beyond the resulting catalog of top-quality healthy groceries. Through encouraging more responsible and sustainable practices in the consumer packaged goods industry, Thrive Market is able to have an impact that’s felt throughout the entire supply chain.
“I say to our Merchandising team, that one email you sent, that one phone call with a brand, had a ripple effect that changed how someone’s paid, how their family eats, if they’re exposed to more chemicals, what’s happening to their health and the Earth,” McElwee reflects.
Fear-mongering is notably absent from McElwee’s philosophy on ingredient safety; his perspective is clear-eyed and refreshingly optimistic about our collective power to be a force for positive change. Though he says it’s not 100% certain these dubious ingredients are to blame for some of the health issues on the rise in the U.S., “why take the chance? I view it the same way with climate change. Why not move to regenerative agriculture, when you can draw down carbon, make the Earth healthier, create biodiversity all while improving crop yields…why would you not do this?”
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