I was the ADHD kid in my house: always running around and I played a lot of sports, some at a pretty high level. As I grew older, and what with university and then a desk job I found myself doing less activity and taking less interest in sports (only from a participatory stand point, I was very happy to sit on the couch all weekend swilling beer watching football).
I had gone from being the sports star to feeling washed up and overweight. I had a lot of health problems in my early 30s that caused me to stop exercising, more through self-pity than any actual reason. I also had a very demanding corporate job which took up a vast amount of time and energy. Being in shape just became a distant memory.
After taking a trip back home to see my family and friends for the first time in four years my obvious increase in weight from a once healthy and strong 90kg to a soft and unhealthy 105kg didn’t go unnoticed and I was slightly mocked by my family and friends. I looked at myself in the mirror on that trip and felt disgusted with myself. The final straw was when I couldn’t bend over to put my socks on properly because of the size of my stomach. Things had to change.
I began to take a serious interest in health foods and the health industry. I had always been healthy up until the last few years and taken care as to my diet but it was more hit and miss in retrospect and it was probably my fitness at the time that allowed me to be less disciplined and never actually see negative results. As I aged I realised that I needed to educate myself on healthy eating and healthy lifestyle with a particular slant on middle age…as that is what I was approaching in the next 5-10 years.
I was interested in the amount of health food on offer, the types of diets and trends that were popular as well as the marketing of health food products to consumers.
What I learned about the health food industry shocked me. Here are 10 of those things:
- Check the nutrition panel and serving size – when you see on the nutrition panel that a product contains 5g of sugar check the fine print. A lot of juice products do this, where they will state a sugar content which you think is for the drink but is actually per 100ml for example. You then realise you are consuming five times the amount of sugar you thought. This is a common way that companies can trick consumers in to believing their products are healthy when in fact they are not, purely for the purpose of being able to charge more for their products.
- Eating fat might be good for us – this was something I was totally unaware of but apparently Monounsaturated fats and Polyunsaturated fats are great for protecting our health. For years we believed what doctors and nutritionists told us: that fat was bad. What I like about this advice is that these fats can be found in raw foods and they are easily accessible across a broad range of food products from nuts to fish and therefore are not subject to sensationalist marketing as with some products.
- Fad diets are just ridiculous – there are very few diets that have stayed around for twenty years which gives us an indication that they are just trends and marketing. Look at the paleo movement for example: there are some great core concepts of paleo but paleo brownies? Seriously? I can really see a caveman tucking in to some brownies which he cooked in his oven at 180 Celsius. The problem with these diets is that the fundamental, often most valuable advice, gets lost beneath a load of rhetoric that really undoes the value of a very simple message. In the case of paleo, it is just an excuse to charge the consumer twice as much. When diets have great names or stories associated with them then beware because that is a marketing message aimed at your wallet.
- Nobody knows what gluten free actually is – According to a recent report ten percent of us are on a gluten-free diet. Gluten is a protein which can be harmful if you have coeliac disease, causing inflammation of the small intestine. The problem with this is that only one percent of the population has coeliac disease. There is some disparity there but by charging more for products which are specifically gluten free seems to be the end game for a lot of brands.
- The cheapest health supplement is free – water – no calories and free. We never see any marketing for it though because there is no money in it. Except if you are Evian. Does anyone actually buy that stuff? Turn on the tap, hold a glass under it, put glass to mouth, drink. Simples. Don’t forget to turn off the tap.
- The word ‘natural’ doesn’t mean much– it does mean that there are no artificial ingredients and no preservatives but it doesn’t mean that it’s not processed and may contain growth hormones, antibiotics and other chemicals. Doesn’t sound very natural to me.
- Fortified food is not healthy – the word ‘fortified’ suggests that element that is used to fortify the food didn’t exist in the first place in that product. Usually, the fortified element is present in such small traces that the benefit to your health is negligible to nothing. Companies use the term ‘fortified with…’ to make you feel less guilty about consuming the product in the first place and to justify a higher price point.
- Marketing works – see every point on this list. Marketing does work, it works on me, you, on all of us. The consumer is now more health aware than ever but the health food space is busier than it has ever been as well meaning that it is hard for us to make decisions on what is actually healthy for us. As consumers we don’t tend to spend hours reading the fine print on labels which makes the healthy food space a mine field when we want to make appropriate food choices. Marketing often plays on people’s weaknesses and fears particularly around health and longevity which often makes us easy targets for brands.
- Any product that has to convince you it is healthy probably isn’t – imagine if you go on a date with someone and you don’t think you are compatible. If that person then begins to try to convince you that you were meant to be together then do you think you would be more likely or less likely to change your opinion? I rest my case.
- Fresh fruit, vegetables and wholefoods are king – wholefoods are unprocessed and unrefined. Processed food contains the majority of calories that we consume so reducing processed food intake is a great step to take towards healthier eating. The issue with greens and fruits is that it is hard to develop a strong marketing message around them the same way it is with a manufactured product in nice packaging. A piece of fruit will always be a piece of fruit in the consumer’s eyes and perhaps appears benign compared to a miracle solution that can help you lose weight or improve your health.
I strongly believe in in a balanced diet, I’m not militant about any particular foods, I just believe in making healthy eating part of my everyday diet. For example, I eat fruit every morning for breakfast and salad every evening but I still eat pizza and hamburgers…just not every day.
I chose healthy eating after taking my eye of the ball at precisely the time it made sense to be more focused on my health but as I approach my late 30s I feel that I am in control of my diet and my health.
How did I do it though? Basically, I did the simple things: I ate lots of green food (fruit and vegetables), ate more organic and raw produce, cut out the majority of processed foods, stopped eating out as much and made sure I exercised regularly.
I also started my own company focusing on organic health foods which I am developing globally. It made sense to me to focus on a business that I enjoyed and found left a positive footprint on the world. However, as much as our health products are great for you they are not a magic solution to better health and should be used as part of a healthy diet and lifestyle. Being honest about the way health foods are marketed and presented should be how brands develop a long term strategy to ensure that consumers are given the correct information to allow them to make the right decisions with regards to what food they are putting in their bodies.
Thanks for reading.
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