RIP to a magazine that was a rare voice of reason in a sea of nutrition nonsense

The top-selling food magazine in New Zealand is closing its print operation. Niki Bezzant, Healthy Food Guide‘s former editor, reflects on the challenges the title faced.

The news that after 14 years and 176 issues Healthy Food Guide magazine is closing its print operation came as a shock to some. It certainly was a shock to me and to the team of professionals who put their creative energies into the title, some for many years. 

I suppose it shouldn’t have, really. If it can happen to Marie Claire, after all, it can happen to anyone. The game has well and truly changed. 

Like all magazines today, print sales of HFG had been declining for a while, and online wasn’t taking up the slack. An independent publisher with one title can’t spread the costs across multiple titles like bigger companies do. 

People’s behaviour, of course, has changed in relation to all media, but print may have taken the biggest hit. When was the last time you bought a print magazine? I hardly buy them myself these days, and I’ve loved magazines my whole life. But there’s also so much other stuff now competing for our attention. Between the podcasts and the Netflix and the social media, who has time to sit down with a magazine? And anyway, can’t we get all that content for free online? 

It’s a similar story with advertising dollars. They’re being munched up by Google and Facebook, leaving just crumbs for local independent publishers. 

Advertising dollars are being munched up by Google and Facebook

For a while – a long while, actually – HFG bucked the prevailing trends. It was a publishing phenomenon. Our nerdy-seeming little mag became the top-selling food magazine in New Zealand within five years and sat there at the top for years (and still does, ironically) while others waned and some died. For years it was in the top 10 of all magazines on the shelves. And it succeeded by doing things other publishers would never do. 

Healthy Food Guide was a mainstream magazine based firmly in evidence-based science. A mainstream magazine that published its editorial philosophy – along with every reference for every article, like an academic journal – in every issue. A mainstream magazine that had a nutritionist check every word before it was published to ensure accuracy. A mainstream magazine that wouldn’t publish pseudoscience or PR puffery.  

It was a mainstream magazine that did something different, too, by taking the title to Australia and the UK and not just plonking the NZ mag on the shelves, but setting up offices and editorial teams overseas. (The Australian and UK print editions will continue to be published in those countries). 

HFG was one of the first magazines to negotiate space in the supermarkets outside of the magazine rack. We put magazines in the fruit and vege aisle. We gave away thousands of copies to schools and charities and doctors’ surgeries. 

Some things we committed to probably made it harder, like that HFG never discounted advertising rates. Ever. And it refused to do sponsored content or native advertising. And it maintained a strict church/state relationship between advertising and editorial, more akin to newspaper publishing than magazines, where that line is frequently blurred to the point of being invisible. I’m sure that drove more than one ad salesperson mad.

But that integrity was what made what we did meaningful. And it made people trust us. Over the 12 years I was editor – and beyond – I must have received thousands of emails and messages from people saying thank you. Thank you; you helped me eat better, or get my kids to eat more veges, or get my blood pressure down, or come off my diabetes medication, or lose weight. We didn’t just print pretty pictures. We helped people. 

With the rise of social media, anyone can publish anything, and anyone can be a nutrition expert if they choose to portray themselves that way (Photo: Getty Images)

Now, the landscape is different. HFG still helps people but I do wonder if the rise of social media – where anyone can publish anything, and anyone can be a nutrition expert if they choose to portray themselves that way – has driven a corresponding waning of interest in evidence and science and truth and a mistrust of science in general. Is it the case now that one source is as good as any other when it comes to nutrition advice? What do those people with degrees and published research papers really know, anyway, when I can get info from an influencer or my neighbour’s friend on Facebook? If we can get advice for free, why would we pay for it? 

That’s the bit where I think we’ve got a bit of a disconnect. Because of course really good content is not free. Someone has to pay for it. And when it’s professionally-produced, credible and ethical content, that cost is not cheap. 

A recipe, for example, doesn’t just spring up out of thin air. A professionally produced recipe needs to be developed and written by a professional food writer, requiring time and testing. It needs to be sub-edited and proof-read. In the case of HFG, it also needed to be checked for nutrition, and tweaked if necessary. Then it needs to be cooked and styled and photographed. Then it needs to be laid out and designed on a page. That whole process for one recipe takes the input of at least five people, and costs a publisher at least $500 – likely more. For one recipe. Think about that the next time you Google for a dinner solution. Yes, a blogger can do all of that right in her kitchen, and pop it on Instagram with a blow-by-blow commentary. But I reckon you’ve only got a 50/50 chance any random online recipe will work. 

The same goes for nutrition advice. That diet or supplement or shake or “lifestyle” – the way these things are often described now – might have worked for that influencer. And they may be adamant that it’s the way we all should be eating. But that’s nonsense. Quite possibly paid-for nonsense. And it probably won’t work for you, at least not for long. 

As I said last month to 200 health professionals and researchers at Otago University’s EDOR Evidence to Everyday symposium: remember this time. We may look back on the past 14 years as a golden age, a time when there was a mainstream magazine accessible to everyone, founded on the evidence-based science of nutrition, that delivered those messages in ways that made sense and were approachable (and delicious) for ordinary people. 

Long may HFG survive online as a resource. But I’m not sure it has the power, in that space, to have much impact in the face of a mass of nutrition nonsense. 

Niki Bezzant was editor of Healthy Food Guide from 2005-2016. 

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