Health Food Stores Give Misleading Advice

( Health Food Store_Catherine LingA recent study from the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, found that health food store employees often give misleading advice on natural health products (supplements). In 88 percent of the cases, health food stores gave advice that was unscientific or poorly supported by science. If one example 75 percent of staff said shark cartilage can help cure cancer compared to no one in a pharmacy making such a claim.

The Study….

Involved 4th year university nutrition students visiting 192 health food stores and 56 pharmacies across Canada.

The lead author of the study, Norman Temple, found that many health food stores, and their staff, routinely give advice aimed at selling a product. They often push overpriced supplements over less costly alternatives like making lifestyle changes.

Gathering information like this is not only informative, but necessary to illustrate the obvious. I hope no one would be surprised to learn that stores are in business to make money and that any advice from a health food store or its employee would include the intention to sell. I can’t imagine a store where a customer would be turned away or swayed from buying something – go into a store, with a health concern, looking for advice, and you’re going to be told to buy product x, y or z.

Health Food Store2_Kururu2The other obvious point is that people should understand that most of the rhetoric that health food store employees give, is nothing more than what they’ve read on the product pamphlet – stating a fact doesn’t is the same as understanding it. Saying ‘omega-3 fats from fish may help to reduce heart disease’ sounds like the person knows what they’re talking about, but ask them to explain how – and you’ll tend to get the whole ‘deer in the headlights’ starring back at you.

The author states the obvious concern that people may be getting ‘bad medical’ advice from these places, and it’s true, I hear it all the time myself – staff with no formal training are essentially giving medical advice to customers – the potential danger is that people with real medical problems may not seek proper advice or may be given advice or told to buy a product that can be dangerous to their situation.

Is tighter regulation the answer?

While I don’t agree with the authors argument for tighter regulation of ‘health foods’ and supplements (the Natural Health Product Directorate is doing a fine job) – I think people have the right to choose whatever they want to – this study stresses the importance for people to seek the advice on natural health products from a properly trained and educated health professional (Registered Dietitian, Pharmacist, Naturopathic Doctor or Medical Doctor, if they’re in the ‘know’) before heading out to the stores.

Photo credit: Catherine Ling, Kururu2