Where do consumers go for special low cholesterol, low sodium, or “allergy free” foods? Probably the local health food store.
Many health food stores do carry specialty items and assorted whole grain products. But health food store shoppers risk being the target of poor—even dangerous—medical, nutrition, and supplement hype.
Last year, Claudia Morain, San Jose Mercury News staff writer, and I surveyed nine health food stores from Campbell to Cupertino. While Morain observed and took notes, I posed three questions to a clerk or “nutritionist” in each store.
These store “nutritionists” cited a variety of questionable qualifications including “learning from my customers,” “used to be a pharmacy professor,” and “I’m a registered nutritionist in Japan.” One store was staffed by a new clerk who “didn’t know” the answers to my particular queries, but suggested instead an assortment of vitamins for “energy.”
What else did these health food store salespeople recommend? None answered all three questions correctly though all gave nutrition advice and recommended vitamins and other supplements without hesitation. And, none volunteered disclaimers about their lack of medical training.
Here are the three questions asked and a summary of store personnel response:
BONE MEAL AS A CALCIUM SUPPLEMENT FOR TEENAGERS
QUESTION: My 16-year-old daughter takes dolomite as a calcium supplement. Is that a good idea?.
CORRECT ANSWER: No, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has warned consumers, especially pregnant women and growing children, that bone meal and dolomite are sometimes contaminated with toxic lead.
HEALTH-FOOD STORE SCORE: 5 WRONG, 3 RIGHT
Four clerks incorrectly said dolomite is OK or safe and one said it’s “too powerful.” Two correctly said it contains “impurities” and one specifically identified the impurity as lead; one didn’t know. Most recommended a more expensive substitute for dolomite, frequently a “chelated” calcium for “better absorption,” although scientific tests show no advantage for chelated products. A hodgepodge of other vitamins and minerals also were recommended to go along with the calcium. No clerks suggested calcium carbonate, the inexpensive form of calcium most often recommended by nutrition professionals, and none emphasized that food, especially low- and non-fat milk products, is the preferred source of calcium.
BLOOD PRESSURE ABOVE 200
QUESTION: A friend’s blood pressure is 200.What should he do?
CORRECT ANSWER: See a doctor—pronto! A systolic blood pressure above 200 is dangerous; stroke and kidney failure are but two possible results.
HEALTH FOOD STORE SCORE: 6 WRONG, 2 RIGHT
Six clerks failed to recommend a doctor; two did so correctly; one didn’t know what to do. The best response was in Cupertino: “He’d better hot-foot it to a doctor,” said the salesman. “With pressure like that, you ‘re going to start popping things.” Most clerks wisely promoted eating a low fat, high fiber diet; not smoking; reducing salt; and exercise. The worst recommendation came from San Jose: “Take 1000 mg of Vitamin C. Vitamin C builds up your immune system. If you have a strong immune system, you can beat anything.” Altogether, salespeople at the nine stores recommended a total of 14 vitamins, herbs, and other food supplements—some worthless, most costly, and all dangerous when used instead of medical care.
FLASHING AND HALOED LIGHTS
QUESTION: I’m seeing flashing lights and halos around lights at night. Is there something you would recommend?
CORRECT ANSWER: See a physician immediately. Those symptoms could describe glaucoma, a serious eye disease.
HEALTH FOOD STORE SCORE: 2 WRONG; 6 RIGHT
Six clerks correctly recommended seeing a doctor. However, in Sunnyvale one alarmingly recommended 25,000 units of Vitamin A (the recommended Dietary Allowance [RDA] for Vitamin A is only 5000 units); one dido ‘t know but nonetheless suggested trying Vitamin A; and one didn’t know at all. Other inappropriate suggestions included Vitamin B; the herb, eyebright; “vitamins for night vision”; and carrots. The recommendations for Vitamin A were especially dangerous since the elderly are the most likely to experience visual problems and may be adversely sensitive to even low-level Vitamin A supplements. Tufts University researchers recently found liver damage in the elderly taking as little as 5000 units of Vitamin A.
When looking for health advice on nutrition products, use these guidelines:
- Get medical and nutrition advice from trained professionals rather than from salespeople.
- Reliable nutrition information is available from nutrition departments of universities and medical schools; and from Registered Dietitians in private practice or with cooperative extension, hospitals, and public health departments. Another consumer resource is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Nutrition Information Service.
- When shopping for specialty nutrition products, look around for the best prices. Lend a deaf ear to the nutrition sales pitch for the many supplements that pose a threat to both your wallet and your health.
Vera L. Fritz was a registered dietitian with a masters degree in public health. This article originally appeared in the Winter 1988/89 issue of The Health and Nutrition Newsletter which was published by the Santa Clara County Medical Society in collaboration with the San Jose Peninsula District of the California Dietetic Association. Claudia Morain also wrote about the investigation, but the editors of the San Jose Mercury News rejected it because they felt that the Information was obtained under “false pretenses.”