Welcome to planet organic

Once upon a time, eating seaweed was a standing joke. Now macrobiotics is booming, and the organic market is worth pounds 350m a year. So is the way to enlightenment (and riches) paved with algae?
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Eve and Iona, aged 12 and eight, are sisters, with the kind of peaches-and-cream complexions, slender limbs and exuberant personalities that most supermodels can only dream of. The secret of their beauty, according to their mother Maria Gillott, is the macrobiotic diet on which they have been raised. Maria, 48, who lives with her family in Brighton, started eating macrobiotic food before Iona was conceived.

"I think they're beautiful, but then I'm their mother," she says. "But people tell me: `Their features are in the right place.' They are quite an inspiration really."

Not so long ago, if someone said they were macrobiotic, you might assume they were a brown-rice-and-sandals hippie: harmless enough, but deluded all the same. To the uninitiated, the macrobiotic devotee's apocalyptic vision of synthetic-chemical-reliant farming methods destroying our health and our planet seemed far-fetched.

But the BSE crisis, the GMO debate and endless reports on the erosion of our countryside have changed that. We now worry where our food comes from, what has been done to it and how this affects us. When celebrities employ macrobiotic chefs, we no longer scoff. We acknowledge that Madonna looks fantastic and even Boy George looks pretty good, considering his colourful, drug-fuelled past.

The sea change in public opinion has led to a boom in the health food industry. Organics, which has always been at the heart of macrobiotics, leads the way. While organic foods still represent just 2 per cent of food sales in the UK, the market is estimated to be worth pounds 350m, up from pounds 100m in 1993.

Supermarkets have caught on fast. Sainsbury's, for example, now sells 440 organic lines. "We polled our customers two years ago, asking them what they would like to see stocked," says a spokesman. "And four out of the top 10 demands were for organic products.

"People don't necessarily pack their trolleys with organic goods, but we are aware that the range attracts many customers to shop with us, even if they buy only a couple of organic items, such as carrots and bread." Sainsbury's values this development at pounds 2m a week. By the year 2002, organics are expected to make up 8 per cent of our food consumption, valued at pounds 1bn a year.

Now that organics are seen as a healthy preference instead of a cranky alternative, the macrobiotic way of life, too, with its emphasis on locally grown, synthetic-chemical-free produce and the belief that "we are what we eat" is enjoying not so much a revival as a new dawn.

Put simply, under the macrobiotic system food is valued for its "yin" or "yang" properties, with sugar being the most yin and salt being the most yang. The idea is to eat foods that fall somewhere between these two poles. In practice, this means that up to 50 per cent of your intake should be grains - porridge, bread, pasta and rice. A further 30 per cent involves vegetables and the rest is a mix of seaweed, fruit and nuts, plus a bowl of miso soup every day.

"A lot of it is common sense," says Nigel Walker, a Norfolk-based macrobiotic chef and cookery teacher. "The yin and yang aspect is hard to grasp because we don't have equivalents in our language, but basically it's a way of understanding balance. Roast beef and two veg is fine, occasionally. Just serve mustard with it and you have a wonderful macrobiotic combination."

Roast beef? Surely the diet's founding father, George Oshawa, would turn in his grave at the idea?

When he was 18 years old, Oshawa was diagnosed with TB and given just six months to live. In desperation, he turned to Chinese medicine for a cure, and while reading ancient texts decided that food offered the best hope. He then embarked on a strict diet of brown rice and, so the story goes, cured himself within 10 days.

Gradually the word spread, until it collided with the hippie movement taking hold in America during the time of the Vietnam war, reaching British shores in the early Seventies. Because Oshawa was Japanese, macrobiotics had a distinctly Japanese flavour. And because he cured himself with a rigid diet, his followers, whatever their health, adhered to the same strict regime.

"A lot of people got it wrong," admits Craig Sams, a macrobiotic pioneer, president of Whole Earth Foods and council member for the Soil Association. "It became extremist, because of what it was up against. In 1966 the FBI was burning books on the subject. But before Oshawa died, in the same year, he explained that what he ate was right for him and that others should find their own way, one right for their health, constitution and heredity."

"We've learnt lessons," says Nigel Walker. "Brown rice, aduki beans and seaweed were seen as the way to enlightenment, but it didn't work out that way. The mistake people were making was like that made by those who convert to a new religion: they took it all too literally. We now say: `Eat chocolate cake if you want to. But be prepared to feel unwell.' "

Craig Sams is convinced that macrobiotics is the way forward for the food industry: "Now big companies such as Heinz are researching the `nutraceutical' idea of adding goodness to food, but macrobiotics is already there," he says. "The idea that if food is organic, fresh and properly cooked, it is better for you, has taken hold. The public awareness is beyond anything we could reasonably have expected."

This awareness helped his company, Whole Earth Foods - which distributes all manner of organic and macrobiotic products including chocolate and peanut butter - double its turnover last year to pounds 7.5m. Clearspring, which imports macrobiotic basics such as seaweed and miso, turned over pounds 4.5m last year and is enjoying a steady 20 per cent annual growth.

However, the British Dietetic Association remains unimpressed. "It's fine if you are middle-class, middle-aged and trendy," says Luci Daniels, a dietician. "But we wouldn't recommend it for children, who need dairy products for calcium - not part of a strict macrobiotic diet. Before anyone embarks on such a diet they should seek the opinion of a state- registered dietitian."

Maria Gillott snorts at this. "There's this myth that only dairy food contains calcium but there's plenty in vegetables, nuts and seaweed. I've never given my girls any sort of vitamin or mineral supplement," she says.

Maria will be expanding on this, and other macrobiotic themes, on 2-8 August at the One World Camp, near Oxford, an annual gathering of macrobiotic minds. This year they expect 400 guests, compared to just 80 last year.

"You have to put it into perspective," concludes Maria. "Everything is macrobiotic. Even ice-cream - just don't eat it every day. I eat fish and chips - I love it. And chicken (organic, of course). And, yes, Eve and Iona do eat chocolate."

Macrobiotic Association: 0181-741 0279. One World Camp: 01273 279439

Macro Facts

A recent study by Harvard University found that a macrobiotic diet exceeded World Health Organisation dietary requirements in every respect.

Overweight people lose weight on a macrobiotic diet. Underweight people gain weight.

A macrobiotic diet can save 30-50 per cent on food bills.

Experiments have shown that mice raised on a diet of miso (fermented soya) are less likely to develop cancer than mice fed a conventional diet.

Calcium in the green vegetable kale (an important component of the macrobiotic diet) has been shown to be more easily absorbed by the body than calcium in milk.

Women who consume a diet high in complex carbohydrates and low in fats and protein reduce their risk of suffering from premenstrual tension.