Hemsley + Hemsley: Sisters leading wellness zeitgeist with healthy recipes - but don’t label them ‘clean eating’

The Independent spoke to Jasmine and Melissa Hemsley about how a focus on digestive health produced a food and cooking empire as they launch their new TV show 

Heather Saul
Wednesday 11 May 2016 13:15 BST
Jasmine (L) and Melissa Hemsley
Jasmine (L) and Melissa Hemsley

It began as a bespoke food service, morphed into a well-illustrated blog encapsulating the food photography movement, was then adapted into a book, The Art of Eating Well, then another book, Good + Simple, and is now the subject of a new TV show. Suffice to say, the Hemsley + Hemsley business is thriving.

The eponymous brainchild of London-based duo Jasmine and Melissa, Hemsley+ Hemsley is a popular approach to diet and cooking that places an emphasis on health and wellness, a concept millennials are increasingly interested in. The Hemsley + Hemsley brand focuses on improving digestion and gut health to enhance overall health. If you haven’t heard of the sisters, you’ll have no doubt seen their courgette pasta alternative appearing on your Instagram feed or heard a friend boasting about their recently purchased spiralizer.

Jasmine and Melissa are incredibly likeable and sit at the front and centre of their brand, a position that contributes heavily to their broad appeal. They feel familiar and accessible because their faces and dishes populate the Instagram accounts of millennials keen to reform their eating habits. Now their followers can expect to see both on their TV screens in their first ever show, Eating Well with Hemsley + Hemsley.

A key aspect of their appeal lies in their holistic approach to diet: ‘wellness’ is the buzzword here, not weight. Their simple gluten-free, refined sugar-free and grain-free recipes naturally lend themselves to weight loss but the purpose of each ingredient is explained in terms of nutrition, not calorie counting. They have even had reports, the sisters say, that this approach to diet has achieved some success in encouraging patients with eating disorders to eat certain foods again.

“We’ve done lots of demos and I would say at least four times we’ve been approached by people who head up or help these different organisations and said that our book has got the girls eating fat and real food again,” says Jasmine. “I think it helps that there is that fashion side to it; maybe it is normally their parents or their doctors telling them to eat more and actually we are part of a big movement that’s talking about being healthy in yourself, being well in yourself, and that being the most powerful thing.”

However, they are keen to distance their food from the ubiquitous clean eating label that has engulfed Instagram, a label often attributed to the Hemsley brand. They attempt to disassociate from this label by claiming that clean eating is associated with just salads while their food incorporates meat and dairy. Their desire to create this distance is understandable: clean eating has been associated with orthorexia, an eating disorder characterised by an obsession with healthy food that often leads to potentially dangerous ‘cleanses’ and excluding entire food groups. Unlike other eating disorders, achieving what is believed to be an optimum level of health is often the goal, not an ideal weight.

“We don’t like to use the term clean eating really,” explains Jasmine. “To us, clean eating is more about the kind of food that is free from chemicals and extra additives. We prefer to kind of call it ‘whole food eating’ or ‘real food eating’ to really stress the point. And we love fats and stews and gravies. And, I think clean eating can sometimes sound like salad. Then you’ll get really confused when you see a pile of bacon on our Instagram food. So yeah, clean to us is more sort of food grown without chemicals or recipes without added extra chemicals that just don’t need colourants and stuff like that.”

Initially, a business like Hemsley + Hemsley relies heavily on testimonials, especially with the increasingly dominant presence of social media. The testimonials that continue to captivate followers are those that speak of the noticeable effects of consuming food that is prepared to ensure it is as close to its original form as possible. Many describe how following the diet has reduced symptoms of fatigue and improved physical aspects such as their hair.

“We very much don’t claim to make anyone’s illness better in so many words, but they come to us and we get the feedback or we get messages on social media,“ Jasmine adds. ”From a very basic level, we’ve had people just go ‘I can’t believe […] how good I feel’. ‘I don’t feel foggy headed’, or ‘I’ve got more energy’, or ‘I’m a nicer husband’, or ‘I really understand now what my lunch has done for me.’

“A lot of our clients feel like they are thinking straighter, they are making better decisions, their sleep has improved so much because they are not going to bed after highs and lows of coffee and sugar; their appetite is better, they know when they are full, they make better choices, they don’t need to go to the gym to feel the same benefits as much, they feel like they are less moody, they have more patience with their children and their partners; their hair is better. We had a lady come to the [Hemsley + Hemsley café] and she had been to see a talk we had done at the College of Naturopathic Nutrition and Medicine, and she said: ‘Yes, excuse me you two, I’ve lost two stone and I’ve put it all on upfront’ – she had gotten pregnant. So she was seven months pregnant at 42 and looking wonderful.

“When you think about your lunch today and what you managed to grab, how has that set you up for the rest of the day? And how has that made you feel as a person, as someone working, as a friend – it can cover so much. Our kind of [philosophy] in a nutshell is good food, good mood. I think that we try and get quite a lot of that across.”

But not everyone is convinced by a diet that emphasises the benefits of a healthy gut to such an extent. Bake-off constant and cook Ruby Tandoh recently spoke out against “wellness evangelism” in a number of tweets criticising the perception of food as medicine.

Tandoh questioned the sister’s endorsement of the book GAPS (Gut and Psychology Syndrome), by Dr Natasha Campbell-McBride, which claims all diseases begin in the gut, and digestive health should therefore be prioritised when it comes to diet.

On her website, Dr Campbell-McBride says the GAPS nutritional protocol can help with digestive disorders, autoimmune disease, eating disorders, epilepsy, childhood disease, problems with development, autism “and much more".

“The problem with vague 'wellness' is that it chucks a one size fits all diet at us all - which harms as many as it heals,” wrote Tandoh. “And contributes to food fear, fatphobia, classism and, crucially, mis/under diagnosis of people who actually need these diets for their health."

She also highlighted an NPR article questioning the health properties of bone broth, a trendy food and one of the products most commonly associated with the Hemsley sisters, who laud it for its nutritional values.

The sisters have an ease with each other and a trademark chatty, colloquial way of speaking about food that exudes confidence, makes their message easier for the audience to engage with and - crucially - makes the pair appear authoritative when addressing wellness and health in relation to food. Yet they are surprised at how rapidly the business has grown and, despite their congenial, relaxed presence in front of the camera, insist they were both shy when they launched the Hemsley brand.

Their healthy eating empire is bolstered by their professional backgrounds: Melissa was working in marketing and Jasmine as a model. Both skill sets allowed their business venture to develop organically.

On their website, they are forthright about not having the “cordon bleu” qualifications that many acclaimed chefs bring to the table. “I think we just embraced what really made sense,” says Jasmine. “Diets are always very popular because they are kind of very extreme ways of limiting what you are eating for kind of fast results, but are famous for the results not being long term and for causing you these massive feelings of guilt. But we’ve gone round the long way by making sure that we share what we discovered and point people in the right direction.

“One of the rules of our pillars is the [ Maya Angelou quote]: ‘when you know better, do better’. And it’s that kind of idea, that there is nothing wrong with educating ourselves a bit more and sharing those experiences with others, and we could arrive at a much better place when it comes to food being enjoyable and nourishing.”

Another aspect of their diet that likely proves compelling for busy working people is the principle of following it as best you can, but not beating yourself up in situations when you can’t, such as when eating out, when grabbing lunch at work or when stuck in an airport.

Some of those practising what the sisters preach say their books have even helped alleviate symptoms of depression, according to Jasmine. “We were doing supper clubs last summer and we actually had two GPs who told us how much sending people to our books has changed them and really helped lift that fog. One of my best friends who has suffered from depression in the past came and we helped her with her food. [After] she said: ‘I’m so cross that no-one has told me about this and made me think that diet is not a solution.’ And she actually went on to study naturographic nutrition, because she was so, like, ‘why do we not know about these things?’”

Their recipes are often straightforward but healthy twists on comfort food: southern fried chicken, spaghetti bolognese made with courgette noodles instead of pasta, fish finger sandwiches. Simplicity is key to engaging a target audience of busy millennials and families.

But a diet advocating organic food and shopping at places such as farmer’s markets leaves them deflecting suggestions that it is a lifestyle accessible only to those who can afford it.

Jasmine insists that their approach to wellness is both cheap enough and quick enough for the average person to easily follow. “Our wonder foods, our pantry foods that we use again and again are bones, which are free. Bone broth is an incredibly nutritious food, and that’s why you’ll find it in cuisines the world over. Lentils: so good, so nourishing. We have been in Selfridges [in London, where they have recently opened a cafe] and showing off our spiralizer, and over the last year we have become friends with lots of the staff here. I just happened to be eating my soup out of a thermos in the staff room and waiting to do our demo on the floor, and I don’t think anyone really knew who we were then. But they were very curious as to who I was and why I was eating soup out of a thermos, and I just explained that it was a veggie soup that I threw together with all of the leftovers and blended up and it’s hot and lovely, and they all said, ‘I haven’t got time to cook, I work long hours.’ Before you knew it, they were all buying thermoses, and I keep bumping into them and they say ‘do you know what, I have saved so much money, even though I was just eating at the local sandwich shop and they said ‘we cannot believe how much cheaper it is to cook at home.’“

Eating Well with Hemsley + Hemsley starts tonight at 8pm on Channel 4.

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