Earlier this summer I came across the display below in a branch of Boots local to me.
Under 'healthy snacking' are stocked Tasty Little Numbers jelly beans, fruit-flavour chews by Fruitella, Udi's bagel chips, TLN biscuit bars, Sweet Freedom 'Choc Shot', Mentos and more.
A month ago, I approached Boots PR team about it, and asked for an interview with a nutritionist or other appropriate spokesperson. I was invited instead to submit questions by email. Twice I asked whether an interview was possible, but the request to submit by email was repeated. I submitted one question.
It was this: Given the country's obesity crisis, how can Boots justify stocking jelly beans, biscuit bars, chocolate and chips under a 'Healthy Snacking' banner?
Ten days later (my initial contact left), the answer came:
"As a responsible retailer, we believe that we have a role to play in helping our customers to lead a healthy lifestyle. We believe in providing options for a healthy and balanced diet, offering snacks such as fruits, nuts and seeds, as well as confectionary and treat items such as chocolate and biscuits. It's important to note that products sold within our healthy snacking range and the Tasty Little Numbers brand are all within a portion controlled offer and are under 100 calories per portion"
I asked whether the quality of being calorie-controlled determined whether or not a product could be included in the Healthy Snacking section.
"We think it's important to offer options for a healthy and balanced diet"
I pressed again - what were the determinants? Where does Boots draw the line? I asked for an example of a food sold not deemed suitable for 'Healthy Snacking'.
"We are committed to supporting our customers healthy diet and lifestyle choices. Our current food range aims to offer healthier alternatives, which also include some 'treat' items. All products sold within our healthy snacking range and Tasty Little Numbers are within a portion controlled offer ... and can therefore be included as part of a balanced diet"
I tried yet again - now with a different contact. So a Mars bar would not qualify, because it is more than 100 calories? How do Udi's Bagel Chips (700 calories) fit into this?
"At Boots UK we aim to offer healthier snack alternatives to help our customers achieve a balanced diet. We aim to make our signage and merchandising clear to our customers so that they can easily navigate our snacks and make informed choices"
That last response was yesterday, four weeks after my initial approach. Having lost the will by this point, I reiterated my questions, and my request to speak with someone, giving Boots till the end of the day to reply.
They did not reply.
Free From is healthier - or is it?
There are many free from brands included in the display (including some whose presence I wouldn't quibble with, such as Bounce, 9Bar or Nakd). In fact, I can identify only a few not considered a free from brand by at least some in the allergic, intolerant or coeliac communities.
Having failed to obtain any specific answer from Boots to account for this boggling display of products marketed as healthy - including those Udi's Bagel Chips (Cinnamon and Sugar), which are 18% fat and 22% sugar, and (now that I've done my maths properly), almost 800 calories a box - I have to wonder whether in fact it's simply by virtue of their gluten free (or other free) status. It's the only explanation I can come up with, as I just don't buy their 'portion controlled' argument, which the bagel chips box makes a mockery of anyway.
If true, then Boots, worryingly for a company of their standing, would have fallen for one of the most common misconceptions which the 'free from' boom has spawned - that of necessarily improved nutritional product profiles.
Whether that's the case or not, what seems undeniable is this: here is a national pharmacy chain, popularly trusted as a provider of reliable healthcare products to the nation, which is marketing confectionary, biscuits and calorific chips as foods which are good for you.
Surely this can't be right?
Postscript, 20th November 2015:
Ten days on, I nipped into my local branch to discover the addition of bags of Maltesers to Healthy Snacking section. Here's the evidence.
Labels: diet, free from food, nutrition