FORUM – The Oxford Book Of Health Foods

20 Jan 2004

Who can admit to never having succumbed to the temptation of buying some kind of health food product in their life? Be it at one extreme—ginseng and aloe vera, soya beans and alfalfa—or, at the other end of the scale, the myriad of vitamins, herbal medicines and teas, slimming pills and sports supplements that promise us a healthier lifestyle. The simple answer is that everyone has been seduced by the provocative marketing that tells us that we should all be taking some kind of health foods in our diet. In the United States this has mushroomed into a billion dollar business, and frankly, Europe and the rest of the world is not far behind.

But ask the everyday consumer out on the street exactly what he knows about these products that he is spending relatively large amounts of money on, and the answer will undoubtedly be ‘Very little’. Fortunately, the Oxford University Press, which in a similar vein has already published A Consumer’s Guide to Genetically Modified Food now brings us an excellently written guide to the murky world of Health Foods.

Two eminent academics, J. G. Vaughan, the Emeritus Professor of Food Sciences at King’s College, London, and P. A. Judd, Professor of Nutrition and Dietetics at the University of Central Lancashire, have collaborated to produce a scholarly but easily accessible and understandable overview of a vast range of products that anyone is likely to find on the shelves of a typical health food store. Although people are drawn to buy these foods in the belief that they contribute beneficially to their general health, there is usually little or no information given on these products explaining their therapeutic values. The book begins with a short, concise account of modern concepts of human nutrition, which is followed by a series of over 100 accounts of individual health foods and dietary supplements.

The general sections devoted to dietary supplements—vitamins, cereals, dairy products, slimming aids, sports supplements—should be required reading for anyone who regularly shops in health food shops, and today it is estimated that seventy million Europeans regularly buy these products. But the book really comes to life in the comprehensive explanations devoted to plants, roots, fruits and herbs, giving the reader the opportunity to separate fact from fiction, myth from reality.

Each is broken down into the same framework: ‘origin and cultivation’, ‘plant description’, ‘culinary and nutritional value’, ‘claims and folklore’, and most importantly, ‘evidence’, which plainly states the scientific facts that prove or disprove the claims passed down as old wives’ tales—or the work of scheming advertising men. And there is another reason to add this reference book to your collection, as each plant or herb is beautifully illustrated, bringing alive the hard-headed scientific descriptions. The reader discovers that mistletoe is not just used as an excuse for kissing at Christmas, but has possibilities as an anti-cancer treatment, while the cat’s claw, long used medicinally by South American Indians, is now being tested as a possible AIDS therapy. The authors inform us that potent deadly nightshade, or Atropa belladonna, to use its delightful official name, was used in the Middle Ages as an ingredient in witches’ brews to simulate the feeling of flying, while today, featured in homeopathic preparations, has rather tenuous claims to combat acne, boils and sunburn.

These are just a few of the fascinating descriptions that fill The Oxford Book of Health Foods, a publication that manages to be both a fun, informative read and, at the same time, useful reference book for anyone thinking about walking into a health food shop. It succeeds in being of relevance and interest not just to the nutrition professionals, be they biologists, ecologists or physicians, but also to anyone looking to make their lifestyle a healthier one.

The Oxford Book Of Health Foods
by J.G.Vaughan & P.A.Judd
Oxford University Press
Price: £19.99/$27.95

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