New Internationalist

The Bran Brokers

Issue 135

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THE FOOD INDUSTRY [image, unknown] Health food industry

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The bran brokers
New Internationalist co-editor Chris Brazier visits a local
health food store to discover the principles that lie behind the
health food industry’s concern about the quality of our diet.

At Holland & Barrett, if it isn't natural, we prefer not to sell it. Tired? Depressed? Irritable? Skin erupting? Take new Megavit Pyridoxine and you’ll be a new person (probably wearing a leotard).

Walking into your local health food store can be a disheartening experience. Ranged along one side there’s the healthy food you’d expect to find, all brightly-designed and neatly cellophaned to attract the supermarket consumer. Then you spot The Rack of Leaflets, a mountain of material dedicated to persuading you that whatever your diet is, its inadequate because it doesn’t include certain unique components. And the rest of the shop is given over to the components themselves: hundreds of bottles and packets of vitamins, a bewildering mix of sharp marketing and pseudoscientific wizardry.

‘"B" Healthy, Wealthy and Wise - enter our quiz about Vitamin B and win a new B registration car’ proclaims the British company Healthcrafts, offering runners-up the Vogue Book of Natural Health and Beauty. Some of the vitamin products pitch themselves at an even more basic level - Melbrosia for Men, for instance, now includes Korean Ginseng for extra potency, while Libidex presumably performs the same function for both sexes.

In the US, where the newest development is a superstore selling ‘healthy’ clothing and healthy’ household appliances, there is one health shop for every 36,000 people. In Britain, where there is one for every 56,000, the market is dominated by Booker Health Foods. This company owns the Holland and Barrett chain of shops and also supplies most of the product sold there, under brand names like Allinsons, Prewetts and Healthcrafts. It also owns the Canadian retail chain For Goodness Sake and American Health Products, which manufactures for the North American market.

Booker Health Foods turned over nearly $70 million in 1982, though profits sunk to a mere two million dollars, largely because of massive promotion of a new multi-vitamin and mineral tablet called Ladycare (with menstrual, menopausal and elderly varieties). This investment gives some idea of where their priorities lie. The vitamin market in Britain alone will be worth $70 million this year. What the trade likes to call ‘supplements’ are pushed as being essential to our health. A recent Booker magazine claimed that the following categories of people need to take supplements because they are ‘at risk’: pregnant women, women on the pill, growing children, the elderly, smokers, drinkers, people taking regular exercise, slimmers, travellers, teenagers and students. If you don’t come into any of those categories you must be pretty special.

This tactic of spending more promoting pills to counteract the evils of a bad diet than of showing people the importance of healthy eating makes absolute commercial sense. Even ordinary supermarket chains are beginning to stock health foods. Bran, for instance, has taken off in a big way in recent years as people become more aware of the importance of fibre in their diet. In health stores bran has become a magic word to be incorporated into the titles of cereals, cakes, crispbreads - even into an eye shadow made with rice bran oil.

The real aims of the health food industry are best explained by looking at the other activities of Booker Health Foods parent company Booker McConnell. Booker McConnell’s multinational empire is worth one and a half billion dollars and includes oil interests in the US, wine and rum (Tia Maria belongs to them), engineering, pharmaceuticals and even the rights to the books of Agatha Christie, Ian Fleming, Georgette Heyer and Dennis Wheatley. More importantly, it owns the Budget chain of supermarkets, which of course sells white bread and all the other refined and processed foods that Booker Health Foods agree are so harmful. Booker McConnell also specialises in the development of sugar factories and the manufacture of sugar refining machinery. And one of their directors is on the board of UK Sugar Systems, a subsidiary of the giant sugar multinational Tate & Lyle. To complete the picture, the company is a wholesaler of sweets and tobacco.

These other interests sit uneasily alongside the health stores apparent promotion of a healthy diet - not to mention their own ‘sugar-free products. The important thing, as always, is to make money. The health food industry is part of the food industry - not something in competition with it. And the aim of the food industry is simply to encourage people to consume more.


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