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May 09, 2006

Health Food Craze Sign of Growing Public Distrust, Says U of G Prof

Health food stores, once thought of mostly as “hippie bastions,” have become mainstream, with health and organic food items now occupying entire aisles in grocery stores. A University of Guelph professor says it’s due to society’s growing concerns about health, its desire to remain youthful and distrust of technology and mainstream medicine.

“All of these factors have contributed to the growing health food craze,” said Catherine Carstairs, a U of G history professor who recently conducted interviews with 30 leaders in the health food industry across Canada. She is tracing the history and trends of Canada’s health food industry.

A 2005 Ipsos-Reid survey found that 71 per cent of Canadians regularly take natural health products such as vitamins and minerals, herbal products and homeopathic medicine.

But while health products are now the norm in Canadian households, it was actually during the 1960s that the health food industry really took off, said Carstairs. Interest in vegetarianism, the environmental movement and eastern spirituality accounts for some of this growth, she said. “But also Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring, drew attention to the health risks posed by pesticides, and herbicides and by the late 1960s, many people had become distrustful of medicine and science.”

This change in people’s attitudes resulted in a huge rise in the number of health food stores across the country, she said. Toronto went from having 13 health food stores in 1957 to more than 100 by 1979.

Another wave of health food stores popped up in the 1990s, and by 1999, the Canadian government created the Natural Health Products Directorate to regulate over-the-counter health products such as vitamins, minerals and herbal remedies.

“The Natural Health Products Directorate has added a lot of legitimacy to the industry because it allowed people to make health claims for products,” said Carstairs.

The definition of a “natural” product is becoming more complex and new products are attracting a different clientele, she said. After St. Louis Cardinals player Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs in 1998 when he was taking Androstenedione, sales of the natural dietary supplement advertised to increase muscle mass and build training endurance skyrocketed.

While body builders may be newer health food store customers, health food leaders told Carstairs that the majority of their customers are women and the elderly. “What they stressed above all was that the people who came to them were in search of better health, were not finding answers in mainstream medicine and so were looking for alternatives,” she said.

It’s only in the last couple of decades that people have begun turning to health food stores for more than to just improve their health, said Carstairs. An examination of Alive magazine, a publication that was launched in the 1970s and is still the country's biggest health food magazine, and a Winnipeg-based magazine called Healthful Living Digest that was launched in the 1940s allowed Carstairs to pinpoint when health trends began.

“There’s a real emphasis in Alive, especially from the 1980s onwards, on how to reverse aging and remain youthful, which is becoming an increasingly important aspect of the industry.”

Catherine Carstairs
Department of History
(519) 824-4120, Ext. 53185 /

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