Being a curmudgeon, the first thing I wonder when I see a Health Food Store is, where the hell is the food?
I haven’t gone into one of these places in years, because the woo-vibrations might interact with my critical thinking chakra and make me spontaneously combust. Or – this actually did happen to me – some nineteen year old kid with a scraggly goatee who calls himself The Sage might follow me around begging me to let him read my Tarot. But from what I can tell on the outside looking in, there are shelves and shelves of pills and potions and powders and tinctures and lotions, but not much you could make a meal from.
In general, so-called alternative medicine pisses me off to no end. There are treatments with evidence supporting their effectiveness, and there are only two alternatives to that: treatments with no evidence to support their effectiveness, and treatments with evidence against their effectiveness. I really don’t think the latter two should be called medicine at all. Also, the description “natural” for a health or beauty product drives me up a wall, especially when it’s used to imply that it’s gentle or safe or has fewer side effects or is otherwise better for you than an “artificial” “chemical”. Go take some straight willow bark extract for your headache, and then get back to me about how natural products are so gentle.
On the other hand, for minor irritations and the afflictions of the worried well, bringing in modern medicine can be a bit like this:
For natural remedies that have some evidence of safety and effectiveness, why not give them a try? A couple of my favourite examples (but not the only ones by a long shot):
Cranberry juice can sometimes cure a minor urinary tract infection, and while it’s probably more expensive than a generic antibiotic, it has the advantage of not contributing to the evolution of antibiotic resistance, and it won’t kill off your good bacteria and leave you with a yeast infection. As long as you have the good sense to know if it’s not working and to call in the big guns of modern medicine, you really haven’t lost anything, and you got to drink some tasty, nutritious juice. Win-win.
Or consider coconut oil. I recently joined a forum for people who want to grow their hair really long (or who have succeeded in doing so), and a thread there titled “How do YOU use coconut oil” currently has over 300 replies. From all the uses, it seems like coconut oil is the duck tape of topical natural remedies. And for good reason: it has both antibacterial and antifungal properties; it prevents both protein and moisture loss from hair; it feels lovely on your skin; and it’s tasty. At the grocery store it’s also pretty cheap. If you don’t like it as a beauty product, and you’re not allergic to it, you haven’t lost anything because you can cook with it.
You could probably find cranberry and coconut at a health food store, but unless you really hate cranberry and would rather have it as a pill, why bother? For the coconut, you’re more likely to find lotions and potions with coconut oil, than just the plain oil. And you’re going to pay a whole lot more. Will the quality be better or the effectiveness higher? My guess is, not likely. It might be picked by vestal virgins under the full moon, and if that’s important to you, go for it.
With the stuff in the grocery store, you know that since it’s being sold as food, it’s subject to a certain degree of regulatory oversight. While the regulatory oversight of our food system is far from stellar, it’s still more reliable than the oversight on natural health products – which, depending on your jurisdiction, may only be happening when they get a complaint. On top of that, much of the supplement/natural health care industry depends on either exploiting the fears of the worried well, or selling false hope to the desperate. Go support a local grocery business or fair trade organization instead.