This story is from The Business of Wellness, an episode of Business Daily presented and produced by Elizabeth Hotson. To listen to more radio from the BBC World Service, please click here.
Welcome to a new year - and perhaps, a ‘new you’. The latest, shiniest, addition to the weightloss industry is wellness - an Instagram search on the words reveals a staggering 15,315,754 posts.
The wellness industry is booming but is there any science behind it? The concept includes a panoply of different things from eating more vegetables to, at the extreme end, excluding certain food groups and adopting a whole new lifestyle.
Wellness is a more holistic way of approaching a healthy lifestyle; whether they say this is a diet or not, it is a diet- Foxcroft
Many people in the industry don’t like to describe ‘wellness’ as a diet, but Louise Foxcroft, a historian and author of A History of Dieting Over 2000 years, disagrees.
“There are so many diets for the general public and wellness is a more holistic way of approaching a healthy lifestyle; whether they say this is a diet or not, it is a diet. It’s a regime to live by and the idea is that you would be slim, because healthy is seen as slim, so there’s no getting away from it.”
There's no shortage of businesses developing products to cater to the trend. Rebekah Hall, founder and CEO of drinks firm, Botanic Lab, was an investment banker for 10 years before launching her company to capitalise on the new market. Botanic Lab's Refuel, for example, is a black liquid drink which according to the label is ‘a hypertonic blend with medical grade charcoal, mighty raw cane grass and a citrus hit of raw yuzu.’
So, are people consuming drinks like these because it seems like an easier way of getting healthy than going out and doing some exercise?
“Everyone wants a quick fix and if you can provide someone with something that’s taking the hassle and mess away, that’s great and that’s part of what we do," says Hall. "But the drinks also have a real function attached to them and are used by a number of sports teams in the UK, for example premiership football teams who want to help refuel the body after exercise but don’t necessarily want to have refined sugar and processed ingredients.”
There’s a new superfood every week but I think wellness, as an all-encompassing term, is not going away - Hall
What will happen when people get bored of ‘wellness’ and start following a new fitness and health trend?
“There are fads within wellness,” says Hall. “There’s a new superfood every week but I think wellness, as an all-encompassing term, is not going away. People want longevity, ‘what’s the elixir of life, how am I going to live longer?’ and the pursuit of that is driving the choices we make in terms of lifestyle and food and drink.”
Kombucha was originally drunk 2000 years ago in China, it was a health tonic and I’ve developed a kombucha which I sell as a soft drink - Avery
A visit to Stylist Live, a lifestyle show in London, with 200 stalls, dozens of guest speakers and around 20,000 visitors lays out the mind-boggling array of choices for people interested in wellness products.One of the exhibitors, LA Brewery, founded by Louise Avery, makes health-drink kombucha, fast becoming a favourite in wellness circles.
“Kombucha was originally drunk 2000 years ago in China, it was a health tonic and I’ve developed a kombucha which I sell as a soft drink," she says. "The fermentation process means we only have to use very simple ingredients like tea, sugar which is fermented off in the process and then I add fresh fruit. You end up with this sour, delicious, fizzy drink, it is healthy, there’s nothing in it, it’s good for you.”
Other companies make a virtue of excluding certain ingredients from their products. Jamie Keeble works for Heck Sausages, which sells gluten-free chicken and pork sausages, many of his customers are coeliac, an autoimmune disease caused by a reaction to gluten, but others, like Keeble himself just choose to cut it out of their diet.
“I’m not gluten intolerant but I prefer not to eat it because it makes me feel a bit different; everyone has this perception of gluten being evil so they naturally presume it’s something they need to avoid,” he says.
Wellness is often associated with another buzzword - clean eating - the idea that you should only consume foods that are minimally processed. Which seems very sensible - until that is, it gets obsessive.
This concept and its association with health has its critics. Daniella Isaacs has been performing a controversial stage show in London called ‘Hear Me Raw’ about her experience of the clean eating code.
Isaacs was once a huge clean eating fan, and was first attracted to the trend because it gave her “control, structure, routine” to her life leading her to cut gluten, dairy, sugar and meat from her diet.
She eventually changed track and now writes about her experiences: “Of course there’s some wonderful things in wellness, but when wellness becomes a consumerist driven industry, it can’t provide the answers we’re looking for, that give you a truly healthy life.”