With awareness of food intolerance (you need food intolerance test) and food-related health issues – such as obesity, type 2 diabetes and inflammation – on the rise, it is no wonder many people are turning to health products as a means of increasing their overall well being – but what does this mean for your favorite health food shops?

The phrase ‘like a kid in a candy store’ is officially passe. Sugar is out, wholefoods are in, and we’d rather fill paper bags with organic dehydrated raspberries than red frogs any day. If current market research is anything to go by. Health food is having a moment, not just with those who have always subscribed to the idea of organic, natural and ethical products, but with everyone else, too.

International Food Information Council’s Annual Food & Health Survey reports that 36 per cent of shoppers say they worry about chemicals in their foods, 28 want minimal processing and 25 per cent want a short list of ingredients. Unsurprisingly, the study also shows that foods labelled with a health attribute have enjoyed a sales increase of 13 per cent in the last year.

FOR BETTER, FOR WORSE

Food, Store
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According to ACA Research’s latest findings, “At present, health food store managers are seeing more customers wanting to design and maintain healthy, natural diets, with wholefoods more of a focus.” In 2015, this translated to a decline in the sale of vitamins and supplements, and an increase in the sale of pantry essentials, health snacks and nuts. A similar study by Nielsen (another market research company) found that the sale of packaged health foods in supermarkets Coles and Woolworths increased by 8.2 per cent.

In many ways, health food shops are being forced to sacrifice their niche and become more aligned (and thus, more competitive) with supermarkets in order to keep their business afloat. But although this might sound like a downturn for your favorite health food destinations, it’s actually created an avenue for forward-thinking industry professionals like Jane Carson, manager of the recently opened Wholefood Merchants in Ferntree Gully, Victoria. “I started in this industry 22 years ago in a tiny little shop, and over the years I’ve seen how things have changed, and how people have educated themselves – people know what they want; they still want your help but they know what they want.”

And the proof is in the pudding – or, in this case, the research. Expert analyst and supermarket guru Phil Lempert says,

“Shoppers now rely on search engines to find out about diets, health issues, nutrition and what they should be eating”

Internet is the number-one source for nutrition information and as almost 50 per cent of people say their diet could be healthier, this trend will continue – unless your store can disrupt the pattern by offering retail dietitians, health fairs and a 24/7 source of unbiased food and health information.”

And that’s exactly what Carson – and many other health food stores – have decided to do. he Wholefood Merchants space is huge, stocking everything from fresh vegetables to ceramic water filters and organic beer and wine. A café with a vegan-, vegetarian- and food intolerance friendly menu is already up and running, and there are plans for a beauty studio and consulting clinic. “We have a nutritionist – who is fructose intolerant, gluten free and vegan – who is going to conduct food tours,” Carson says. “So people can book in for a small fee and she can show them the foods that will suit their needs.”

A CHANGE OF HEALTH

Food, Store
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All this is well and good, but we’re still missing a crucial piece of the health food shop puzzle. And that is that the idea of ‘health’ in itself has evolved. “People used to come to health food shops when they had a problem, but now it’s all about prevention,” Carson says.

This means that it’s not only shops that are evolving, but products as well. “When I first began working in health food shops, we had a tiny gluten free section, and it all tasted horrible. Now, we have a huge selection and it all tastes amazing,” says Carson. According to recent Roy Morgan research, Australians are becoming more and more preoccupied with the taste, quality and origin of food, with more than 50 per cent of those surveyed saying that food was pretty high on their agenda.

“here’s no doubt that we live in the age of the ‘foodie’,” Andrew Price, Roy Morgan’s General Manager of Consumer Products says. “Cooking shows and celebrity chefs are just the tip of a very big iceberg which also includes organic groceries, food bloggers, food magazines and diet crazes.” Health food, according to Carson, has broken free of its ‘diet’ confines to become something much more wonderful.

“Health isn’t about being on a diet anymore – diet is a silly word – it’s about eating food that’s good for the earth, good for yourself and good for the soul.”

His one of the many reasons food stores are beginning to stock wine, cheese, crackers and dips – as well as leaner and cleaner foods. “We have all of that, plus more,” Carson says. “We have white flour, but it’s organic. We have all the same ingredients you’d buy at a supermarket but there are no preservatives and they’re not manufactured in the same way.” But – undeniably – there will always be trends and new ideas emerging in the health food sphere. One minute it’s gluten free, the next it’s Paleo. But lucky for us, health food shops and their owners have got us covered. “Raw is huge at the moment,” Carson says. “People just love raw, clean food.”

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