By Rob Verkerk PhD

Founder, executive & scientific director, ANH-Intl

Scientific director, ANH-USA

We are surrounded by junk. Junk in the form of physical things we don’t need, but have been persuaded to buy. Junk information and media that pollutes our minds, and our environment. Junk food that fuels us but at huge cost to ourselves and our society. And don’t imagine that when we get ill we don’t also get offered junk drugs, drugs that don’t work well for most conditions, cause a plethora of side effects – including death – and are inordinately expensive, both directly and indirectly.

We accept this junk because it comes from sources we’ve been conditioned to trust – major news channels, major food suppliers and doctors. But is our trust beginning to crack? My sense is that something very important is happening – and that’s related to the choices a growing number of people are making that largely exclude the world’s major corporations and the medical establishment. Many of our readers are part of this movement – it’s a movement that is embedded in natural justice, natural health, and the natural sciences.

Kick ‘em to the margins

A decade or two ago, it was easy for corporate interests to marginalise this natural health movement. Being fringe, it had little support except among brown rice-eating hippies who could be ignored. Not any longer. The wellness industry has consistently been one of the fastest growing sectors globally. The global wellness industry, as a whole, including all products and services, is estimated to be worth around $3.7 trillion – that’s around 3 times bigger than today’s Big Pharma.

Big Pharma would have an easier future if its products were wiping out modern day diseases. But they’re hardly making a dent. The new generation of biologics that are getting fast-track approvals for cancer with precious little genuine evidence of benefit appear a last ditch attempt at reviving the patent model and economic power base of Big Pharma.

Oh, the bliss…

Big Food has an easier time because we’re so deeply addicted to its fodder. Just the other day I broke our own ‘rules’ as set out in the Food4Health guidelines (my excuse? I’m a believer in the 90:10 rule to ensure long-term compliance!). I consumed a warm scone on which I placed full cream organic butter, a knob of strawberry jam – and I topped the thing with clotted cream. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Every opioid receptor in my brain turned on – and I was reminded just how easy it would be to get hooked on that experience – both psychologically and physiologically. I did this with my kids, who, equally, are mostly deprived of these treats. They closed their eyes, such was the bliss of the experience. We agreed that this would be a once-in-a-while occasion, and we quickly reinforced our view that doing this often would not be good for us in the long-term. Without that knowledge, why not hit yourself with processed cereals, white bread sandwiches for lunch and a Macdonald’s or ready-made meal for dinner, like so many do?

But as consumer awareness about healthy eating grows, Big Food has got to bend to consumer demand. At least that would seem logical in the long-term. It’s recent leap into the ‘free from’ realm is an example, and only a small proportion of the population is worried about the ingredients thrown into the mix. If you want gluten-free bread you can buy a millet loaf. Trouble is, millet is expensive because not much is grown. Much easier to use soya and maize and a pile of fillers, emulsifiers and other additives – hey, what’s the problem, it doesn’t contain gluten!

Unilever and Nestle buy-outs

So, what do we think of the continuing trend that’s getting ever closer to home, of Big Food corporations buying out top end players in the natural products segment? In September, Unilever’s buy-out of Pukka Herbs was announced. Unilever is already the biggest tea company in the world, owning Liptons and PG Tips. Could the Anglo-Dutch giant, with its economic and distribution muscle, help transport Pukka – long supported by its customer base for its commitment to organics, Fairtrade, FairWild and sustainability – to a whole new level? Could it push out less ethical players? Could it ‘green’ the sector? Could the ethical standards and B corp status of Pukka become the new normal? Perhaps. Unilever’s track record, like pretty much any transnational, is far from squeaky clean. But is it possible that its sell-off of its margarine interests, which for years formed the backbone of the company, represents a signal that the company is genuinely interested not only in social and environmental sustainability, but also has a genuine interest in human health? It might actually matter whose hand is on the tiller, and Unilever’s numero uno, Paul Polman, seems to have some kind of a moral compass.

People in the natural movement often think of Nestlé as the devil incarnate. Nestlé, for want of a better analogy, is to many like Big Food’s version of Big Ag’s Monsanto. Well, what do we think now of Nestlé’s buy-out – announced yesterday – of Atrium Innovations. Atrium is the holding company for, among others, one of the largest consumer brands of dietary supplements, Garden of Life, and the largest brand of practitioner-only products, Pure Encapsulations.

Garden of Life products are characterised by natural, organically certified and GMO-free ingredients. Pure Encapsulations’ are super clean, naturally therapeutic, as well as being hypoallergenic. These kinds of values are seemingly at odds with Nestlé’s history, not least of all its baby milk campaigns that for years undermined breastfeeding. As kids grow up, many become addicted to Nestle’s breakfast cereals that rival those of its competitor Kellogg’s and include brands based on highly refined grains laced with sugar like Cheerios, Golden Grahams and Shreddies. You could argue that kids growing up on this stuff are going to need some natural remedies if they’re to survive healthily into old age.

Which way from here?

Looking at which way these Big Food buy-outs might go, there are three scenarios (there are many more possibilities of course) that are of particular interest:

  • ‘One foot in both camps’ scenario. The ‘Goliaths’ continue on their business-as-usual trajectory, largely paying lip service to consumer trends, but ultimately controlling the agenda and maintaining a marketplace dominated by junk food, while at the same time benefiting financially from the growing demand in healthy foods. In this scenario, Big Food chooses to not dilute the ethical position and quality of the ‘Davids’ it has acquired, being concerned it might lose market share given these standards are highly valued by consumers. It accepts that consumers will be lost as they find the take-overs unpalatable. They don’t get Big Pharma offside because the majority of people still rely on Big Food’s junk, and, when they get sick later in life, they are still heavily reliant on Big Pharma products bought in pharmacies or prescribed by doctors
  • ‘Goliath overcomes David’ scenario. In this scenario, Goliath has a big bad plan. This plan is hatched by a super-sized Goliath comprised of Big Food, Big Pharma and probably Big Biotech. Goliath doesn’t value the things that David thinks are important and slowly dilutes the ethical standards and qualities that made health-aware consumers loyal. Goliath isn’t too concerned, because it thinks it can win over a much larger proportion of the less health-aware population using David’s hard-earned goodwill. Natural health is once again pushed to the periphery of society, there not being enough money in it to keep it buoyant or allow it to get near the mainstream.
  • ‘David becomes Goliath’s cheerleader’ scenario. Here, David wins out, but not at the expense of Goliath. Goliath realises that if it doesn’t start playing to David’s tune, Goliath will be dead anyway. Goliath has done lots of work that verifies that David’s values are actually not the bunkum it once thought, they actually have some real value, and even more surprisingly, they look like they’re going to stand the test of time, including scientifically. Goliath now properly understands that the environment on which all life depends is in a more fragile state than it’s ever been, and if it wants to hold its place in the market and appease its shareholders, as well as its massive and growing customer base, it better get with the program and ‘go green’.

As I said, you could come up with a lot more scenarios, but these are the ones that I’m more inclined to reflect on as I lie in bed late at night.

The last one’s the only one I find myself dreaming about.