MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd.

When I discuss published articles on this blog, I usually focus on recent papers. Not so today! Today I write about a small study we published 17 years ago. It was conducted in Canada by researchers whom I merely assisted in designing the protocol and interpreting the findings.

They trained 8 helpers to pretend being customers of health food stores. They entered individually into assigned stores; the helpers had been informed to browse in the store until approached by an employee. At this time they would declare that their mother has breast cancer. They disclosed information on their mother’s condition, use of chemotherapy (Tamoxifen) and physician visits, only if asked. The helpers would then ask what the employee recommend for this condition. They followed a structured, memorized, pretested questionnaire that asked about product usage, dosage, cost, employee education and product safety or potential for drug interactions.

The helpers recorded which products were recommended by the health food store employees, along with the recommended dose and price per product as well as price per month. Additionally, they inquired about where the employee had obtained information on the recommended products. They also noted whether the employees referred them on to SCAM practitioners or recommended that they consult a physician. Full notes on the encounters were written immediately after leaving the store.

The findings were impressive. Of the 34 stores that met our inclusion criteria, 27 recommended SCAMs; a total of 33 different products were recommended. Here are some further findings:

  • Essiac was recommended most frequently.
  • The mean cost of the recommended products per month was $58.09 (CAD) (minimum $5.28, median $32.99, maximum $600).
  • Twenty-three employees (68%) did not ask whether the patient took prescription medications.
  • Fifteen (44%) employees recommended visiting a healthcare professional; these included: naturopaths (9), physicians (5) and nutritionists (1).
  • Health food store employees relied on a variety of sources of information. Twelve employees (35%) said they had received their information from books, 5 (15%) from a supplier, 3 (9%) had formal education in SCAM, 2 (6%) had in-store training, and 12 (35%) did not disclose their sources of information.

Since our paper has been published, several other investigations have addressed similar issues. Here are a few excerpts:

But why do I mention all this today?

The answer is that firstly, I think it is important to warn consumers of the often dangerous advice they might receive in HFSs. Secondly, I feel it would worthwhile to do further research, check whether the situation has changed and repeat a similar study today. Ideally, a new investigation should be conducted in different locations comparing several countries. If you have the possibility to plan and conduct such an experiment, please drop me a line.

9 Responses to Beware of health food stores!

  • What a great piece of research!

    I occasionally look at the magazine produced by Germany’s Al Natura health food stores, and that is always full of the most extraordinarily dangerous hysterical anti-scientific babbling, often aimed at parents. The rage against “modern technology” is palpable — scientists are trying to poison your children, so buy my book and avoid “chemicals”, etc etc.

  • I recall being in the local branch of a national chain of ‘health food’ stores some years ago – about 17 years actually – just to buy some mundane item like a packet of nuts. I overheard the assistant at the checkout advising a lady who was holding various bottles of pills. “This will do x, and that one will improve y” she was advising.

    I recall reflecting at the time “Well, those are powerful physiological effects she is promising. If those pills really do those things, the assistant should be a Doctor with a prescription pad”.

  • Indeed yes. But it should really be caveat vendor.

  • Venditor. Sorry, I never took Latin. I don’t got me no book larnin’.

  • This has nothing to do with SCAM but I was once told by the owner of a health-food store in New York City that people should not eat many different foods at the same time because doing so would “confuse the digestive system”. I am neither a physician nor a dietitian and cannot say with any assurance that this claim is untrue. However I can say that I thought the guy was completely nuts.

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