Johannes Cullberg is a man on a mission. The Swedish ethical entrepreneur and founder of Stockholm’s iconoclastic organic store Paradiset, is waging war on what he calls ‘fake food’ – and the big grocery retailers who sell it.

In a talk at this week’s Natural Products Scandinavia event titled ‘David versus Goliath’ Cullberg explained what prompted him to open his first Paradiset store.

It all started, he said, with a miserable 37 minute shopping experience – the time it took to do the weekly family shop. “When they rearranged the store and it started to take an hour, I thought that’s it, there needs a different way.”

Cullberg’s early career was with Lidl where, as purchasing director, he helped turn the discounter’s fledgling Norwegian operation into a formidable force in the country. But it was his big passions in life – “good food, training and living well” – that turned him into an ethical entrepreneur and led to the Paradiset concept. “Paradiset is where all those things come together”.

Cut the crap 
Cullberg is very clear that there is also a need for retailers like Paradiset. “Why? Because the dominant grocery retailers sell so much crap.” At this point he shows an example of a breakfast cereal that purports to be ‘healthy’ but is one third sugar! Next up is an avocado dip that contains a risible 1.5% avocado, followed by a cheese dip that musters just 4% cheese (milk powder makes up the bulk). These are examples of the ‘fake food’ Cullberg wants to expose.

“The big grocery retailers are selling you a cocktail of stuff you really don’t want in your body,” Cullberg said. “Who benefits from this? Well, it’s mainly the 10 food multinationals who totally dominate the food business (cue a slide displaying a blizzard of household-name food brands fanning out from a nucleus of familiar corporates – Kraft, P&G Coca Cola, Mars, Unilever, Nestlé and so on). Companies “with budgets the size of small countries.”

Cullberg said that a triumvirate of interests – the big food multinationals, nutritional scientists and the media – all benefit from maintaining the status quo.

“These big food companies love nutritional scientists who love turning food into science because that makes food easier to ‘own’.” A manipulative media, meanwhile, fuels constant food anxiety that plays straight into the hands of Big Food’s interests in creating false needs.

“It is time for the grocery industry to grow a spine. The question the people who run these businesses should ask themselves is ‘would you want your family eating some of the crap you sell?’ If not, don’t sell it”

Would you eat this yourself?
“It is time for the grocery industry to grow a spine. The question the people who run these businesses should ask themselves is ‘would you want your family eating some of the crap you sell?’ If not, don’t sell it. Only sell food you’d like your family to eat!”

Cullberg opened his first Paradiset store in Stockholm in 2015 as a kind of antidote to the dominant food system. At 1600m2 (and located in the city’s hipster Södermalm district) it is the largest organic food store in Sweden.

“So, what is Paradiset? It’s three things in one – it’ a supermarket, where you can do a full shop, it’s natural beauty store, and it’s a food hall. And it has also has three restaurants, so you can come for lunch, or enjoy a beer or coffee, or have an ice cream.”

Two more Paradiset stores have followed, including a city centre store – “think Whole Foods Market but with better prices and a nicer shopping experience” – and Cullberg plans to launch a crowd-funded online Paradiset store in 2018.

” … crowd-funding is a great tool we can work with to drive the fight against fake food, and for real food”

Here, Cullberg  took his cue from the Park Slope Food Coop (a highly successful community food coop that’s operated in Brooklyn, New York, since the 1970s) and the Scottish craft brewery Brewdog, famous for its ‘equity for punks’ crowd-funding scheme. Cullberg calls crowd-funding “a great tool we can work with to drive the fight against fake food, and for real food”.

The Paradiset stores are “70% organic and 100% natural”. Knowing full well that ‘natural’ is a conveniently elastic term in the hands of big food brands, Cullberg has developed ‘Black List’ of over 200 food industry ingredients and additives to keep things very simple. “We don’t sell anything that contains any one of these substances. It really is that simple.”