Today my wife and I cooked pound cake but instead of equal parts sugar, flour, butter and eggs we substituted almond and hazelnut meal for the flour and stevia for the sugar. The recipe was from a book by Peter Reinhardt that contains gluten ad sugar free recipes. It might sound bizarre to want sugar-free cake but our current diet is heavily influenced by Gary Taubes’ book on Why We Get Fat – which lays the blame on carbs and sugars (not fats and /or total calories). This got me thinking about health food stores.
Many of these stores are no doubt profitable but what is their purpose? Health food stores send extremely mixed messages – the users can be looking for unusual cooking ingredients, be after weird and unproven alternative medicines, gluten-free, organic food, free-trade food, locavore food, body-building supplements, or peace, love and mung bean sprouts, just to name a few things.
I think the problem is that health food stores themselves haven’t defined what constitutes health, let alone health food. Essentially it could be anything that isn’t in the supermarket next door….although they are creeping in on the market.
I’d like to see heath food stores be more pro-active and evidence-based: let them define what they consider to be health and then sell stuff that fits the evidence and the vision rather than a bit of everything for everybody.
Australia, like many parts of the world, has an approach to alternative medicine and therapies that involves turning a blind eye to therapies that at face value seem harmless and able to be regulated with a lower level of rigour than conventional medicines. These therapies provide often provide false hope for patients with life threatening illnesses like cancer. Equally they are misleading for less immediately life-threatening problems. My wife is constantly receiving spam/junk advertising for weight loss programs that promise unrealistic weight loss – some of these have been in the press for serious side effects (and of course no weight loss except that attributable to the complications).
The alternative therapy industry is critical of the profit motive of ‘big pharma’ but these guys could equally be called ‘big herbal’. Australia spends approximately 9-10 billion dollars per annum on conventional medications and direct costs to patients accounts for 10-15% of this. Yet in 2005 more than 3 billion was spent on alternative therapies. If Australia parallels the US then current expenditure on alternative therapies might be 6 billion dollars or more.
A tax on these therapies – which bear minimal costs for development and proof of effectiveness and which rely predominantly on marketing for sales – could potentially raise enough funds to save 5% on the national medicines budget. There is no reason why a tax couldn’t be imposed – the government does it for tobacco, alcohol and luxury goods. And realistically – isn’t alternative medicine a luxury good.