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Bad Health Food Store Advice

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, proceeding to offer advice on healing what ails you. You’ll notice on labels 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 like “supports immunity”). Federal law also restricts 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 medical studies spanning a decade.

In my 2-min. video 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 $300 to $3,000 ($18,000 in a similar study performed in Canada). The most common recommendation was shark cartilage, a supplement studies have found effective 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.

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 advice that is not only scientifically baseless, but also potentially dangerous. For example, 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, including some (like garlic) that can critically interfere with certain HIV medications.

Would health food store employees recommend supplements contraindicated in pregnancy that could cause “significant harm to the mother and/or fetus”? You betcha. And 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 these health food store employees get? As I detail in my 2-min. video Bad Advice From Health Food Store Employees, most get 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? Find out in today’s video pick featured above.

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.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

Image credit: SuperFantastic / Flickr

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Dr. Michael Greger

A founding member of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, Michael Greger, M.D., is a physician, author, and internationally recognized speaker on nutrition, food safety, and public health issues. Currently Dr. Greger serves as the Director of Public Health and Animal Agriculture at The Humane Society of the United States. Hundreds of his nutrition videos are freely available at


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4:09AM PDT on Jun 28, 2013

I like your articles guys keep it up.
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12:01AM PDT on Jun 19, 2013

This blog site has really a huge collection of articles with impressive information.
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11:37AM PDT on Sep 19, 2012

would he recommend cannabis oil as a breast cancer cure? The truth is out there, but you have to weed out the vested interests.

3:18PM PDT on Aug 5, 2012

Thank you!

3:16PM PDT on Aug 5, 2012

People should research and fact check and not rely on health store employees for advice in the first place.

12:56AM PDT on Jul 21, 2012

I agree with Phillipa W...we cannot expect health food stores to ba able to diagnose or prescribe things that are way out of their league!
but i do find Dr Gregor's site to be very informative! (and accurate)

6:07AM PDT on Jul 5, 2012

oooh harsh. Health Food Store workers aren't medically trained. They're only trained to know what the herbs and products can and can't do. Not to diagnose anything. Pharmacists have a little more training in that field, but they still can't make diagnoses. Health Food Store workers are RETAIL workers. Pharmacists have extensive university training and are trained to know about health conditions. When it comes to foods and herbal supplements which are known to be contraindicated for medications, doctors look up MIMS or whatever the version is from overseas, but it's the pharmacist who is trained to know that. So that they didn't get 100% is scary. And equally correctly, doctors aren't nutritionists. Yes, many take an interest in health beyond their training, but not all do, and it's not strictly their job to. And if their treatments and medications didn't scare the living daylights out of people and they were more open to the benefits of herbal remedies, then so many problems like this would be avoided.

5:06AM PDT on Jul 4, 2012

A pharmacist, I know very well, receives monthly literature similar to the PDR updates about the contraindications of herbs and other supplements when taken alone and/or combined with the various pharmaceuticals. Those references should be made available to the public, especially to supplement retailers. Why can't the public be fully informed as a means of preventing injury instead of condemnation of millenniums old beneficial products? What is the stumbling block?

4:48AM PDT on Jul 3, 2012

What, I believe, is the most egregious of this is the Health Food stores preying upon the sick and vulnerable. Of course, there are herbal remedies that can help in some situations but reading your studies just highlights that profit and sales is most important over an individual's well-being. For a store clerk to recommend an herb or substance that could seriously harm an unborn child, without the mother knowing, is shocking to me. I have accelerated coronary artery disease (at 36 years) and went into a vitamin shop to find something to help with hypertension, unbeknownst to my cardiologist, and was recommended magnesium supplement. Took it for about a week until I had an appointment with the doc and when i told him (proudly) that I had started taking the supplement to help control the hypertension (along with the meds I was on), he was less than thrilled. In fact he chastised me for taking it without his knowledge and said that I could have seriously disrupted my heart rhythm. Luckily there was no damage for me and I am super vigilant when discussing supplements with my cardiologist, now. However, I feel for the people that haven't been so lucky. Something needs to be done. An on call doc that the store clerk could call to verify supplement intake matched with the brief history of the consumer, perhaps?

6:34AM PDT on Jul 2, 2012

Always do the research yourself.
I'd sooner trust a natural healer than a conventional doctor any day, but I know that corruption is unbiased. You can just tell who's actually interested in helping out a patient/customer from who's just interested in the money.

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