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Companies Cashing in on Health Food Craze

May 01, 2024 at 3:00 PM EST.

So long to the classic candy counter! CVS Pharmacy announced its cutting back on candy and soda options in favor of “health-focused” items like vitamins and supplements. And they’re not the only chain profiting from the health food trend.

45% of PepsiCo’s revenue comes from its “guilt-free” beverage and snack division- a segment the company plans to grow. McDonald’s jumped on the kale bandwagon, adding a breakfast items and salads with kale. Walmart and Safeway carry Kombucha, a vitamin rich fermented tea touted to stimulate the immune system, and improve digestion and liver function. And Starbucks’ menu is filled with healthy milk alternatives like soy, coconut and almond milk.

So what’s driving this health food obsession for industry leaders? The short answer is fairly obvious: consumer demand. Healthy eating is no longer reserved for “hippies” and eccentric, bohemian New Agers.

CVS unveiled a new store prototype that cuts the amount of space allotted to sugary snacks, subbing in healthier food, vitamins, supplements and cosmetics with natural ingredients. CVS Pharmacy president Helena Foulkes said in a statement the decision was based on consumer feedback. She compared their decision to highlight healthy food to their decision to stop selling tobacco products a few years ago.

Industry experts say CVS’s decision is rooted in the influx of millennial shoppers, who are known to be picky about what they eat, but not where they shop. McDonald’s is also focused at appealing to health-conscious millennials, although some dissidents accuse Mickey D’s of cashing in on the kale and misleading consumers. McDonald’s “Keep Calm, Caesar On” salad DOES feature baby kale- but it also contains 730 calories (with dressing) and 1140 mg of sodium. That’s not exactly “healthy”, when you consider a Bacon McDouble Sandwich only has 420 calories and 1050 mg of sodium.

This is why many nutritionists say consumers need to do their research, and not trust big business to guide you in the right direction when it comes to healthy eating. Just because a food item contains an ingredient considered “healthy”, or a new food is being labelled “healthy” by Instagram bloggers, that doesn’t mean it really is.

The Kombucha tea mentioned earlier is a great example. At first glance, it does sound healthy. Kombucha is actually a centuries-old drink that ferments black, green or oolong tea and refined sugar with bacteria and yeast. It contains B vitamins and probiotics, which are considered healthy. Proponents say these ingredients give the drink a plethora of health benefits, including preventing cancer. However, there’s not any scientific evidence to support these claims.

In fact, there’s actually been numerous reports of adverse effects, such as upset stomachs, infections and allergic reactions. The tea is often brewed in homes, leaving conditions nonsterile and making contamination likely. Department of Internal Medicine consultant Brent Bauer, M.D., says, “There isn’t good evidence that kombucha tea delivers on its health claims. At the same time, several cases of harm have been reported.” He goes on to advise, “The prudent approach is to avoid kombucha tea until more definitive information is available.”

Whether you buy into all the benefits promoted by health food companies and the businesses that cater to them, just remember: Sports drinks used to be marketed as healthy beverages. But the Center of Science in the Public Interest sued Coca-Cola in 2009 for misleading consumers into thinking Vitamin Water, with its 33 grams of sugar, was healthy.

(By the way, Coca-Cola’s defense? “No consumer could reasonably be misled into thinking Vitamin Water was a healthy beverage.”)

As healthy eating becomes less of a fad, and more of a regular lifestyle, consumers are going to have to do their research to find out what healthy eating really entails. Don’t trust marketing gurus to also be health food experts.