Ethical Sweetening: Balancing Kosher, Organic, and Fair Trade at Wholesome Sweeteners

OU Kosher: Melissa, can you give us a general overview of Wholesome Sweeteners and describe your role within the company? 

Melissa Holik: I am the Quality Systems and Compliance Manager at Wholesome Sweeteners, which is part of Whole Earth Brands. I’ve been with the company for over 11 years, starting when it was originally Wholesome Sweeteners.  

In 2020, we were acquired by Whole Earth Brands. My role encompasses managing all product certifications, which includes not just OU Kosher, but also organic and non-GMO certifications. We hold various certifications such as ROC and Glyphosate Free. ROC, is regenerative organic certified which focuses on sustainable farming practices and how crops are cultivated with the soil. In addition to certifications, I work closely with customers to meet their needs in terms of specifications, documentation, and surveys. I manage our internal customer quality systems, oversee product testing, and ensure quality compliance. 

OU Kosher: Could you give us a brief overview of your market?   

Melissa Holik: We market our products directly to consumers as well as commercially. Our commercial sales extend to retail, industrial, and food service customers. For industrial customers, we offer customized products to meet their specific needs. 

 OU Kosher: How do industrial buyers typically discover Wholesome Sweeteners? 

 Melissa Holik: Industrial buyers find us through various channels, including internet searches, trade shows, and referrals from other customers. They are often looking for bulk ingredients, such as organic cane sugar in large quantities, which is one of our top-selling items. We also sell agave and molasses in large containers to meet the needs of our customers who are formulating their own products. We utilize a system called Trace Gains Network, which facilitates the discovery of our products and simplifies document management for certifications and specifications. Customers can connect with us in Trace Gains, and we upload all relevant documentation for them within the system. 

 OU Kosher: Does Wholesome Sweeteners do research and development (R&D) to meet specific customer requests? 

Melissa Holik: While I am part of the quality department, our company does have a separate R&D group. The process begins with our sales team, who might receive requests from new or existing customers for unique products or different packaging sizes. These requests are then handled by either R&D or the purchasing department, depending on the product and customer requirements. Once a new item is initiated, we ensure it complies with organic and kosher standards, meets our specifications, and all necessary documents are compiled. This includes working on product graphics and obtaining approvals from various departments within our company to meet customer needs. 

OU Kosher: Regarding the decision to obtain kosher certification, can you provide any historical context or the reasoning behind this choice? 

Melissa Holik: The decision to pursue kosher certification predates my tenure here. However, it’s clear that the certification was part of a broader marketing strategy to highlight our commitment to organic and high-quality products. It also serves to make our products unique and reinforces our brand values, which is something our customers appreciate and often leads to referrals. 

OU Kosher: You have the OU Kosher symbol on the front of your packaging and some are on the back of your products.  Is that strategic or just a question of space? 

Melissa Holik: The placement of the OU symbol, whether on the front or the back of our packages, is primarily determined by the available space on the packaging design. However, the presence of the symbol is critical because it directly influences purchase decisions for many of our customers. 

OU Kosher: Are your customers aware of the importance of these certifications? 

Melissa Holik: Customers working on specific formulas often require certifications like kosher and organic. They need to see the certificates to verify that our products comply with these standards. This affirms the importance of certifications, as many companies and buyers look for them. 

OU Kosher: Can you elaborate on the role of Fair-Trade certification in your operations and its impact on your customers? 

Melissa Holik: Fair Trade is integral to our operations and aligns with our commitment to quality and ethical standards. It is a significant part of our marketing and sales narrative, emphasizing the positive impact on the farming communities where our products are sourced. This includes improvements in housing, education, and general welfare. The additional cost for Fair Trade products goes directly to these communities. While I haven’t received direct feedback, the sales team educates our customers about the benefits of Fair Trade, and we offer specific item codes for Fair Trade products for those who choose to support these initiatives. 

In some cases, we’ve updated our packaging to make the Fair-Trade designation more prominent, particularly for our agave products. We want to ensure that customers know that by choosing our agave, they are automatically supporting Fair Trade. As a result, we no longer need separate item codes for Fair Trade agave – it’s a standard feature of the product, and the associated benefits are passed on to the farmers. 

OU Kosher: Regarding R&D, although you’re not directly involved, are there any innovative projects or future plans you can share with us? 

Melissa Holik: We’ve expanded our line to include a regenerative organic certified agave. Prior to that, we launched two regenerative organic certified granulated items, a turbinado and an organic cane sugar, which were launched last year.  

OU Kosher: How do consumers learn about these new products? Is there an educational initiative involved? 

Melissa Holik: The education of our consumers is primarily handled by our sales team, who use various materials such as sales decks and sheets to convey the information. This ensures that retail customers are informed, alongside the use of our website for broader reach. We are prepared to answer any detailed questions our customers may have about our products. 

OU Kosher: Could you elaborate on the certification process, especially in relation to kosher certification, and how it’s integrated into your operations? 

Melissa Holik: Although the kosher certification process was established before my time, I play a direct role in educating our employees about it. Our team is trained to understand what kosher means, including the significance of kosher symbols and how to verify packaging compliance. Inspections are conducted through random visits by a rabbi (RFR), who reviews our operations and writes a report. Annually, we manage the renewal of our certification, updating our ingredient and product lists. All of our sites have access to their kosher certifications, which is streamlined since all of our products are certified kosher, simplifying the process. 

OU Kosher: How has your knowledge about kosher certification grown since you started with Wholesome Sweeteners? 

Melissa Holik: I had a basic understanding of kosher certification when I joined the company. Over time, through training and reading, my knowledge has deepened. It’s an ongoing learning process, especially as we integrate new items from Whole Earth brands, which include a variety of products with different ingredients, both artificial and natural sweeteners. 

OU Kosher: With the expansion of Whole Earth brands, how are you managing production facilities? 

Melissa Holik: Currently, we have several facilities where we produce our range of products. We strive to keep the production processes separate to maintain the integrity of each brand. For instance, Swerve operates in a distinct facility, and we’ve recently opened a new facility Ametsa for the Whole Earth brands. Although we’re maintaining separation now, eventually, there may be a need to integrate these operations more closely. 

OU Kosher: In terms of quality assurance across the different brands, what is your role? 

Melissa Holik: While there are dedicated QA personnel managing the quality aspects of different brands like Canderel and Equal, they coordinate with me on kosher certification questions. When a product is confirmed kosher, I am responsible for updating our records to include it in our certified product list.  

OU Kosher: Regarding sugar and health, particularly the low glycemic index of blue agave, how is this addressed by your company?  

Melissa Holik: We are conscious of health concerns related to sugar consumption. Our policy is to advise customers to enjoy our products in moderation, consistent with nutritional guidelines. While we are not medical experts, we do give portion size recommendations and we adhere to regulatory requirements. For those with specific health concerns, such as diabetes, we offer products like agave, known for its low glycemic index, on a case-by-case basis. We also maintain a comprehensive database of questions and answers to support our customer service team in addressing customer questions or concerns. 

OU Kosher: Do you have any advice to producers regarding kosher certification, something that might be of interest to our newsletter readers who are involved in similar work? 

Melissa Holik: The key piece of advice I can offer is to make sure you verify your ingredients’ kosher status. And keeping your certificates available is helpful too. The system we use here allows for easy updates and customization of certificates. The process is fairly straightforward.  

OU Kosher: Are the kosher certificates for your products available online? 

Melissa Holik: We don’t publish our certificates on our website. However, we do provide them through customer-specific portals or via email on request. Each customer typically has their own system where  we upload certificates, which gives them all necessary documentation for their records. 

OU Kosher: Melissa, thanks for walking us through your work with kosher certification and the quality control at Wholesome. It’s clear you handle a lot. Your behind-the-scenes details are a big help to us and our community. We really value the insight you’ve shared and appreciate you taking the time to chat with us!