How many times has this happened to you? You're in a natural food store walking near the supplement section and an employee graciously asks if you need any help, and proceeds to offer advice on healing what ails you. You'll notice it's illegal for food and supplement companies to claim they can prevent or cure disease. That's why you'll just see so-called structure and function claims on labels like "supports immunity." Federal law also basically prohibits people from diagnosing and prescribing without a medical license, yet you can probably walk into any health food store and get all the claims, diagnosing, and prescribing you could ever want. The question is: How good is that advice? I was delighted to learn that this very question was the subject of multiple studies spanning a decade.
In my 2-min. Health Food Store Supplement Advice I profile a study in which a researcher posing as a daughter of a breast cancer patient went into 40 health food stores asking for their recommendations on cancer care. Ninety percent of the stores tried to sell her something--understandable, that's their job. Ninety-five percent didn't even ask a single question about her mom or the diagnosis, though, before recommending 38 different types of products at an annual cost of between $300 and $3000 ($18,000 in a similar study performed up in Canada). The most common recommendation was shark cartilage, a supplement studies have found effective only at causing side effects such as nausea, fever, dizziness, and even cases of life-threatening hypercalcemia and liver failure, but seemingly little else. (See my 2-min. video Dietary Supplement Snake Oil also).
What should breast cancer patients do instead? See some of my videos on extending survival in survivors including Raw Broccoli and Bladder Cancer Survival; Breast Cancer Survival, Butterfat, and Chicken; Breast Cancer Survival and Trans Fat; Breast Cancer Survival and Lignan Intake; and Flax and Fecal Flora.
Employees in natural food stores have been caught giving worse-than-useless advice that is not only scientifically baseless, but also risky and downright dangerous. In a study I cover in Dangerous Advice From Health Food Store Employees, 26 stores recommended 36 different products to researchers claiming to have HIV/AIDS. They included some like garlic that can critically interfere with certain HIV medications.
When the FDA and Health Canada issued advisory warnings to stop taking the herb kava kava due to one too many cases of fatal liver toxicity, this did not seem to affect health food store employee behavior. Would health food store employees recommend supplements contraindicated in pregnancy that could cause "significant harm to the mother and/or fetus"? You betcha. What kills me is that there are indeed pregnancy-safe, effective natural remedies for nausea like ginger, yet the women were instead advised to take herbs like feverfew and black cohosh, which can cause uterine contractions and possible miscarriage.
What kind of training do health food store employees get? As I detail in my 2-min. video Bad Advice From Health Food Store Employees, most got absolutely none or in-store training only. It is no secret that I've been very critical of drug companies biasing medical training--that was much of what my first book on medical education was about, but what do we think stores are teaching their employees to say?
Do pharmacists do any better? What is the accuracy of medical advice given by staff at natural food stores compared to that by staff at community pharmacies based on the balance of available scientific evidence? Find out in my 2-min. video Pharmacists Versus Health Food Store Employees: Who Gives Better Advice?
Of course doctors themselves tend to know precious little about what people should be putting in their mouths. See, for example, my videos Do Doctors Make the Grade?, Medical School Nutrition Education, and Doctors Know Less Than They Think About Nutrition. Even worse than just getting inadequate training, the medical profession has actively lobbied against doctors getting more education on the topic of nutrition. See Nutrition Education Mandate Introduced for Doctors, Medical Associations Oppose Bill to Mandate Nutrition Training, California Medical Association Tries to Kill Nutrition Bill, and Nutrition Bill Doctored in the California Senate. A doctor a day may keep the apple away.
-Michael Greger, M.D.
Image credit: SuperFantastic / Flickr