Thursday, April 4, 2013

Navigating the supplement section at the health food store

Having gone to health food stores since I was a kid and working in them I feel a duty to offer some guidance on navigating the endless shelves of pills, liquids, tinctures and snake oil. I even managed a supplement department once, so I know what I'm talking about here.

There are many kinds of health food and supplement stores. Many have their hearts in the right place, but mostly they are there as a business. Some stores are fueled by an overwhelming need to help people and their staff has been working there a long time with little turn over, though this is somewhat rare. Old ideas about health often become entrenched in these places (strong laxative cleanses, vegan diets, coral calcium or candida anyone), that may have little bearing on current states of research or knowledge. Some stores sell supplements simply because that's where the money is and it has come to be expected at places that sell the natural and organic lifestyle. And some jump on any bandwagon and customers are at the mercy of whatever recent product training the staff has had. Usually you have a mix. One thing to remember is that these stores usually pay only a little above minimum wage, attract a young workforce, and may require very little in education about health or natural healing. This is a problem when you have a $7 billion dollar a year and rising natural health industry and many many people looking for holistic health. Undoubtedly people come into the stores looking for a magic bullet, a magic pill that will cure their woes. They want whatever the Great and Powerful Oz has recommended that week on TV. This leads to allopathic style recommendations of take this for that. Experienced practitioners and healers can become jaded in this kind of environment because it doesn't take into account the individual person. Businesses love it  because people come back for more. Some people spend more on their monthly supplements than food to the tune of hundreds of dollars (because they can't afford to eat well (WTF!!!)).

Another issue that the public doesn't seem to understand is that many stores have rules about what people can say about a product, the same rules that apply to how the products can market themselves. A person in the store cannot legally say that something works. This is important to remember. If you ask this question you probably feel like everyone is giving you the runaround about products. They are, but you are backing them into a legal corner. Some stores don't care and staff will say all kinds of things about a product that would make the FDA fume. Both styles are something to watch out for.

I think I'll just break down some of my recommendations before I get fuming about the current state of the industry. I can't write when I'm fuming. part of my recommendations have to do with products, but most of it is about how to avoid purchasing unnecessary items that magically show up in your basket and you have no idea why you bought it when you get home.

1. Health foods stores offer the most staff help in the biggest money makers for the store: the wellness department, and the cookie aisle. The one aisle that can make the biggest difference in your health usually only has a person stocking and usually cannot offer much in the way of nutrition or cooking advice. The produce section is poorly manned in any store because it is usually a profit drain on the store. Up to 50% of the produce gets thrown away. They order too much so it makes the store look lush and healthy. It's grocery green-washing. Wellness products are confusing so people need help putting the most expensive ones in their carts. Cookies and snacks basically sell themselves, but you might need help finding the ones you want.

2. If it's in your hand there is 30-50% that you will buy it. This is the standard product training rhetoric that everyone in sales has been told. I'm not sure why it happens, but it's true. Avoid taking whatever you're being handed until you can look at the product in peace. Or take it but remember the aforementioned sales tactic. Make your own decision. Take notes if you have too.

3. Either the sales person has a personal history with a product or issue and they are honestly recommending something, they are health practitioners who keep up to date on research and products and think they have a winner, they just received a training on the product so they like talking about it because they got free stuff, the product is new and they recently read the label, or the store has told the staff to push the product. Trying to parse this all out is daunting. By asking about people's personal experience with a product you can hopefully avoid new product enthusiasm. Also, by asking pointed questions like "Do you know of any good research on this?" "What do people repeatedly come back for and say really has helped their arthritis/IBS/acne/eczema etc..." or "what good reports from customers have you heard from this product?" If they don't know they probably don't have a healing relationship with their customers and it might be best to talk to someone else. Also feel free to ask about what training they have had in natural health. If it's just store training, specifically from product reps, the likelihood is that the training was geared more towards the bottom line that your health.

4. If a product is never in stock, it doesn't mean it's good. Sometimes it does, but usually it means there was a media blitz on the product. Just blame Oz. Products with staying power are usually well stocked and don't usually go on back-order. This is not true of botanicals however. Herbs have to be grown. They are not synthesized in a lab. Sometimes demand outpaces supply. Sometimes there is a bad growing season or drying season. It's hard to know. Sometimes prices go up because half the worldwide crop was lost. This happens and not much can be done about it, so be nice to the salesperson who probably has no idea why they can't get holy basil (holy basil is awesome by the way).

5. Go when the staff isn't stressed out. Remember the making close to minimum wage thing. Ok, it's usually somewhere between minimum and living wage ($8-$15 depending on experience), but still not enough to feel financial security. In the early morning there are opening duties and lots of things to do. The staff might still be waking up, or had a harrowing commute, or be hungover. Give them a minute to warm up before going into all your health and life problems. The lunch rush can get particularly busy and the staff might not get to take their breaks until it is over. This is not the time to go if you need particular help with something or want to discuss an issue. At the store I worked for all we had time for was pointing to a shelf and checking out the long line. If you're in a hurry there is not much they can do to help you choose a good product for you. They will probably just point to a best seller. If you go at quieter times of day they can ask personal questions, refer to resource books, ask co-workers for input and it is a much more fulfilling experience for all.

6. If you have a particularly bad intractable chronic or rare illness you can't expect staff to know anything about it. The more information you can offer the better your experience will be. Maybe you won't find help or relief that day, but maybe you will. Alter your expectations. You don't want to fluster the person helping you because they may start recommending all kinds of products out of panic and overwhelm.

7. Not all products are safe or effective. It could be unsafe because you have a certain health concern, thyroid disease or a heart condition for instance, or a certain form of a nutrient is basically inert. The good stuff often costs more. Ask about the different forms of things on the shelf. If whoever is helping you doesn't know the answer, look it up on your smartphone. It's harder to know or look up information about nutraceuticals and health conditions. There is often conflicting data, no data whatsoever, or changes in standard treatment recommendations. The internet is a big place and tends to have someone spouting every possible answer to every question. Reference books go out of date, and not all books are well researched. It's better to do your research before you get to the store. At least know about your current health state.

8. It is your responsibility to know what you have, what you've taken before that has worked for you, and what you're trying to achieve. Product labels and formulas change all the time so it is good to know the details. Some people have trouble with the personal responsibility bit. Natural Health is work, and it involves taking care of the factors which are in your ability to control. If you yield that control to someone else, especially someone who doesn't have any stake in your health (a paid practitioner has a real interest in helping you, someone just working in a wellness department does not) you will end up with a basket of crap, taking 22 pills a day, and not feeling any better or worse, feeling better but not knowing why or which one. I have a story of a customer who came regularly to the store I worked at. She was probably in her 60's and she was coming in for thyroid issues and she wanted herbs. I hadn't worked with her before so I asked her what thyroid issue she had.

"I don't know," she said.

 "Ok. What are your symptoms then?" I asked trying to parse out what was going on.

 She snipped "I don't want to tell you. I just want the herbs the other lady gave me!"

"Ok. We can do that. Are they working? What did she give you?" I asked.

"I don't know if they're working! They're green!" She was almost yelling at this point.

I calmly told her that it is her responsibility to know her illness, symptoms, and what she's taking. I can't help her if she can't help herself. Oh man. She was fuming after that. Stormed out of the store and she even tried to get me fired!

I realize that a lot of my tips come down to personal responsibility. But that's really the only way I know to keep from being taken for a ride.




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