7 Odd Things I've Discovered Working at a Health Food Store

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These days it's common to bump into people that are pursuing some form of healthier living, exercising more, and watching what they eat. Eventually, a lot of these individuals will start to do their grocery shopping at health food stores, places specializing in the food and products that they feel will benefit their new dietary requirements.

I spend the work week toiling away in a health and natural food store. My current job is interesting to me, because I encounter lots of people who are trying to live healthier lifestyles, but who also seem to buy things that aren't particularly healthy, or are completely ineffective. There are a lot of examples, but some of the biggest would have to include:

7. Farm Raised Tilapia

A lot of my customers will ask very specific questions about products we carry, voicing their concerns (some of which are silly, I'll get to that later) about various foods, including fish. But one thing almost no one ever seems to have a problem with is the farm raised tilapia. I get interrogated about whether our salmon is wild or farm raised, but people buy a ton of farm raised tilapia, a fish that's known to have high levels of unhealthy fats (it's been compared to bacon), and that is also often imported from countries like China where it's common practice to use manure as fish feed. Besides the inherent icky factor of consuming a shit-eating fish, that practice is risky because of the possibility of disease transmission.

6. Turkey Bacon

A lot of health-conscious customers ask for turkey alternatives to foods traditionally made from beef and pork. It's understandable, because turkey breast is very lean and a good source of protein. The problem arises because plain ground turkey is kind of bland, and it takes a lot of salt and other spices to make it a flavor substitute for say, a hamburger. Even further down the "turkey dreamer" list is bacon. I get the appeal. Bacon is delicious, even the vegetarians I work with mostly concede that they miss eating bacon occasionally. But real bacon comes from the fatty part of a pig's belly, and there's really no way for a health nut to reconcile eating a lot of bacon as part of their diet.

The confusing thing about turkey bacon is that there is a large range in regards to how healthy any one brand is. A few even rival real bacon when it comes to levels of fat and sodium, so it's not a cut and dry question of "Turkey bacon is healthier than pork bacon." In a few cases, the turkey version even exceeds regular bacon in both fat and sodium content.

5. Homeopathic Cures

The "vitamin and natural cure" section of most health food stores is full of various herbs and other substances that many people believe can help relieve them of their maladies in ways that are better than conventional modern medicine. In a few cases there might be some basis in fact to support that opinion, but there are many products that take a leap of faith into the realm of magical thinking.

My store has as many homeopathic cures as a person could shake a magic stick at, and homeopathy is, at best, lacking evidence that it has anything other than a placebo effect. Homeopathic cures differ from herbalism in that many herbs do have measurable medicinal effects on the body, but homeopathy supposedly works by a system of dilution.

Pioneered in the 1700s by a German physician named Christian Hahnemann, homeopathy is based on the magical idea that if a certain substance causes symptoms in large doses, then in tiny concentrations it will remove those symptoms. Science!

So basically homeopathic cures take minute amounts of various substances thought to cause unpleasant symptoms, and then dilute that substance in water or alcohol. There's even some weird ritualistic rules concerning the way these concoctions are mixed, and needless to say homeopathy doesn't have a whole lot of scientific evidence to back any of these claims. If a person spends much time looking at the shelves of the "medicine" section of most natural food stores, there's an awful lot of dubious cures being sold. Some herbal remedies probably help, but buyer beware for homeopathic treatments, and some of the other magical bullshit out there.

4. Organic Junk Food

Organic is always better right? Well yeah, a lot of organic foods do taste better to a lot of people, and are probably healthier for them than the non-organically grown alternatives. But organic is one of those healthy living buzzwords that not everyone understands. Many of my customers seem to think they NEED to eat organic veggies and meats, but don't even understand what the term means, or why it's supposedly healthier for them. Possibly one of the stranger manifestations of this ignorance are people that buy what is essentially organic junk food and think that it's a healthy meal.

Now, eating organic mac and cheese and an organic brownie from time to time is perfectly fine, as a treat. But just because something is made from organically grown ingredients does not mean that it's particularly healthy to indulge in often. That would seem like common sense, but it see a lot of folks that just dive in and assume that "organic" anything is healthy, and it's not. Which is similar to...

3. Vegetarians that eat crap

This seems most common with recent converts to vegetarianism, and of course lots of people become vegetarians for ethical reasons, and not because they want to be healthier. There are also some that believe a meatless diet is automatically healthy regardless of the other stuff they eat. Believe it or not, there are vegan meals that are fatty and full of sodium, and I've seen vegetarians that seem to survive on a diet of potato chips and other garbage, often substituting an increased amount of dairy and cheese products for the meat they're avoiding. Avoiding one source of fat doesn't mean that a person's body allows them to eat anything else they want with no potential negative repercussions.

2. Gluten Free Everything

Gluten free is also a catchphrase today when healthy diets are discussed. I get asked if products are gluten free many times a day, and have come to the conclusion that a lot of people on gluten free diets don't actually understand what gluten is, or what it's in. This dietary movement seems to be the equivalent of the older "no carb/low carb" diets that were in vogue a few years back. Like those diets, there seems to be a sizable population of people eager to try a gluten free lifestyle without really knowing what that entails.

Basically, a small percentage of the population suffers from celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that is triggered by gluten, and a small number of others have allergies to wheat. The number of people with celiac disease amounts to about 1 out of 133, which is significant, but not nearly as rampant as some of my customers seem to think. I'd have to estimate that at least a third of the people I encounter daily at work claim to have problems with gluten. Now it's true, I work in a health food store, so it's possible that an inordinate number of individuals suffering from gluten sensitivities are shopping there for that very reason, but I have my doubts. After awhile it begins to sound like Gluten = Poison, which seems a bit extreme.

A lot of those customers don't seem to actually know much about why they're avoiding gluten products, other than a vague "I feel better when I don't eat them" sort of response.

Fair enough I guess.

1. Granola and "Power Bars"

There's a huge section of power bars, granola bars, and meal replacement bars at almost any health food store. People buy these things, and I think most of them think they're getting a conveniently packaged meal or snack that's healthy, maybe even "very healthy."

In many cases, they might as well be eating a chocolate bar. Honestly, that might be better, simply because the chocolate bar is about as healthy as some of these "health bars", and probably tastes yummier. Looking at the nutrition information on the wrapper will often reveal that a person just bought a well marketed candy bar.

People that care about their health, and who want to eat better have my admiration, but a healthy lifestyle takes work and research. It's hard sometimes, and the people marketing some of the foods and products that line the shelves of a health food store are aware of this. Buyer beware.

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