Wednesday, 1 October 2008

The Worst Sugar Pushers of All Part 3 - Holland and Barrett Takes Centre Stage

In The Worst Sugar Pushers of all: Health Food Stores, I condemned the way UK health food stores like Holland and Barrett and Julian Graves peddle confectionery masquerading as healthy food, such as sugar-laden yogurt-coated nuts. Later, when on holiday in the US, I established that companies like GNC are doing precisely the same over there – which I documented here and here.

I invited Holland and Barrett and Julian Graves to comment on the Sugar Pushers post, which Julian Graves duly did here, although their amateurish reasoning failed to hold up to scrutiny.

Since then, there has been big news in the UK health food sector – it seems that NBTY Europe Limited, the parent company of Holland and Barrett, has bought Julian Graves. I also learn from the Holland and Barrett web site that the Holland and Barrett Group owns 31 GNC stores in Europe. Confused? Me too – but the good news is this: from now I can channel my indignation in a single direction.
Holland and Barrett Respond
Although Holland and Barrett never did respond to my original request for comments, I have since written a separate email to their customer services department in which I outlined my concerns without referring to the Sugar Pushers post.

Here’s what I said:

I am interested to understand why Holland and Barrett sells products with significant amounts of sugar in (for example, yogurt coated nuts and raisins), when sugar is something that has been shown to be unhealthy. Since you describe yourself on your web site's About Us page as 'the UK's largest health food retailer' there appears to be an inconsistency.

Please explain - are the sugary products actually healthy, or are you in fact selling unhealthy products even though you claim to be a health food retailer?

Here is the response I received this week:

Thank you for your message

I am sorry to learn of your concerns regarding some of our snack products.

As you will appreciate a yoghurt covered product will have to have a certain amount of sugar added to form the coating and to aid in the overall taste of the product. However the total sugars declared include the natural sugar within the fruit and dried fruit have a high concentration of natural sugar per weight.

If eaten as part of a balanced diet there is no health issue eating these types of snacks. Sugar is required for energy so the product would be appropriate for people who wish to take them for a snack if they are walking or exercising or just as a boost when they feel the need in between meals.

We strive to cater for a wide range of customer needs and requirements and all ingredients are listed so customers can make an informed choice as to which product would be most appropriate for their needs. We also stock a range of dried fruit and nuts without coatings and added sugar.

Customer comments and opinions are welcome and we value feedback regarding our products.
Pulling the Threads Together
There follows an open letter to Barry Vickers, Holland and Barrett CEO, in which I pull together the threads from the Julian Graves correspondence, the Holland and Barrett customer services response above and the fact that they also own GNC. I will email Mr Vickers and my other correspondents, drawing their attention to the letter.

Dear Mr Vickers,

Having recently learned of Holland and Barrett’s acquisition of Julian Graves and that you already own a number of GNC stores in Europe, I would like to express my concern about the way you market certain foods in your stores. For background, as well as the correspondence with Holland and Barrett above you may wish to read my original post on the subject here, and the published correspondence with Julian Graves here.

To keep this simple, I will re-state my central concern here. It is that your stores position themselves as health food retailers, yet sell unhealthy foods alongside healthy foods. For example, yogurt coated nuts, the name of which fails to indicate the significant quantities of refined sugar in the coating. By doing this you are exploiting the desire of consumers to believe they are being healthy whilst preying on their weakness for food containing refined sugar.

I could deal with the response from your customer services representative point-by-point, but the points scarcely warrant attention, as I am sure you will appreciate when you read it.

Instead, I will deal with the one point that repeatedly comes back from your customer services people. To

If consumers exercise moderation and consume these foods as part of a balanced diet, there is no health issue.

My response is this: including unhealthy additives in your food, then expecting consumers to moderate their consumption and tailor their lifestyle to ensure they do not harm themselves is not the kind of approach you would expect from a company whose strap line is 'Health Foods and Natural Remedies.' Would it seem odd to you if a fitness instructor included in your exercise program the occasional and moderate use of recreational drugs, assuring you that provided you follow an otherwise healthy lifestyle there would be no impact on health?

Sugar is unhealthy – there is evidence for this. You are a health food retailer and you are selling unhealthy food. Please explain how you can justify this.

Yours sincerely,

See Also:
The Worst Sugar Pushers of all: Health Food Stores
Julian Graves Responds to 'Sugar Pushers' Post
New York - Limited Cake Porn but Plenty of Sugar Pushers
New York Part 2 – Another Sugar Pusher and Cake Security Threat


My Year Without said...

I really appreciate the initiative you are putting into your Sugar Pushers campaign.
I find it amusing that in their response to you, Holland and Barrett talk about yogurt-covered nuts and raisins needing a certain amount of sugar for the coating and sweet flavor. I have found "FruitSource" sweetened yogurt-covered nuts and raisins that are delicious, virtually no different than the sugar variety. Same sweet, hard coating on the outside. Hmm.

I am eager to see where this all leads. It is horrifying to see the shameful ingredients used in so-called health food stores here in the US, too. Even toothpastes!

Asclepius said...

I am guessing from their response that H&B would classify Cadbury's 'Fruit & Nut' chocolate bars as a 'health food' - I mean, after all it contains dried fruit! What about that other healthy snack - a Walnut Whip? Walnuts have several health benefits including provision of omega-3 essential fatty acids. Who'd have 'thunk' it?

I suppose in fairness to H&B, they don't explicitly state that their yogurt-coated nuts are 'health foods', their marketing just 'leads' you to that conclusion.

It looks like they aren't willing to pull themselves off the hook any time soon.

Anonymous said...

Good on you for doing this campaign. I was pretty shocked but not surprised by the reply from Holland & Barrett I think the place is a joke and I have my suspicion their supplements are years old and of extremely poor quality.....Good going hounding these modern day pirates!

Methuselah said...

Thanks everyone for your support. I emailed Mr Vickers this morning and will be interested to see whether he replies and if so, what his angle is.

The Marks and Spencer approach of acknowledging that foods could be made healthier and stating an intention to work towards that would be a far better PR move for H&B than the lightweight gibberish we've seen so far that tries to suggest that there's nothing unhealthy about the product at all.

Of course they can only take that approach if they indeed have any such intention...

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