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August 2nd, 2010
Freethought San Marcos: How Whole Foods Markets promotes quackery

“Step on a crack, break your mother’s back”
— A children’s rhyme

Freethought San Marcos: A column

When the president of Whole Foods told us last year that he didn’t believe in health insurance reform if the government is involved, I should have dug deeper to learn if there was something that he wasn’t saying–something that might affect his bottom line directly. Inadvertently, I may have found a reason beyond his libertarian political views that motivated him to oppose health insurance reform.

Whole Foods claims on its website that “We believe in promoting the health and wellness of our customers, Team Members and community through education and support.” That educational effort includes promoting and teaching about “homeopathic medicines,” which Whole Foods sells at a great profit. Here’s how Whole Foods Markets educates customers regarding homeopathy:

“Why choose homeopathy for allergies?
• Homeopathic medicines are safe, simple, and easy to use.
• They generally don’t have any side effects and don’t cause drowsiness.
• They don’t interact with other medicines a person might be taking, including allergy medications.
• They are Ideal for self-care over the counter use
“How do these medicines work?
• It’s hard to describe how homeopathy works in short amount of time, but this is a brief explanation:
• Microscopic doses of active substances (like a plant, mineral or animal substance) are taken.
• The very small doses have a very particular action on the body and on the symptoms.
• The micro doses treat the symptoms that would be caused by the same substance at a very high dose. …
“How people take homeopathic medicines:
• Once you find the substance that you think most matches your symptoms, start taking the selected medicine at the onset of the season; 5 pellets in the morning, 5 pellets in the evening.
• If it’s needed, you can take more. A person can take 5 pellets 3 or 4 times a day.
“Advice for the novice?
• It can be difficult for a beginner to figure out which homeopathic medicine is best for their particular collection (of) symptoms.
• There are what we call “combination products” or “specialties products” that make is easier for beginners.
• Combination products have been developed based on hundreds of years of use in homeopathy and by experts who know the most common allergy medicines in homeopathy.”

Homeopathy developed from a simple process first proposed by German physician Samuel Hahnemann over 200 years ago:

1. Do a “proving “–take substance X and give it to a person who is well and if he develops symptoms a, b, c, write those symptoms in a book

2. When a patient presents with a symptom that is the same as one noted in a proving

3. Give the patient a highly diluted solution of that substance

4. A typical dilution is noted as 30X , which is 1 followed by 30 zeros, which is the same as taking one grain of rice, crushing it into a powder and diluting it in a solution equal to the size of the solar system and diluting it 2 billion times.

Homeopathic formulations are sold not only at Whole Foods, but in pharmacies and “health food” stores all over the country. Some are being promoted as antidotes for radiation poisoning, bubonic plague, small pox, and anthrax.

Now, I don’t expect anyone who believes in homeopathy to take my word for this. I’m not a scientist, and I’ve not formally studied the efficacy of homeopathic products. In fact, I’ve had friends recommend certain homeopathic products to me, whispering, “This stuff really works. I believe in it.” I don’t expect many people to rush off and do some research of the literature on their own. And I’m aware of the scientific research that shows that rationality and evidence do not convince true believers.

But I have always been outraged at the behavior of those who take advantage of superstition, irrationality, and miseducation to rob people of their money. Homeopathy is one of those enterprises that takes advantage of people in this way. And Whole Foods is just one of legion corporations that depend on the gullibility of people to sell them a product that is completely worthless. Some homeopathic products have no measurable quantity of the substance that is supposed to cure whatever ailment it is meant for. So far as anyone can tell, the products are just distilled water, though some homeopathic purveyors claim that one of their bottles may have the essence or spirit or aura of the “active” ingredient remaining.

This explanation by Stephen Barrett, M.D., states the case: “A 30X dilution means that the original substance has been diluted 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times. Assuming that a cubic centimeter of water contains 15 drops, this number is greater than the number of drops of water that would fill a container more than 50 times the size of the Earth. Imagine placing a drop of red dye into such a container so that it disperses evenly. Homeopathy’s ‘law of infinitesimals’ is the equivalent of saying that any drop of water subsequently removed from that container will possess an essence of redness. Robert L. Park, Ph.D., a prominent physicist who is executive director of The American Physical Society, has noted that since the least amount of a substance in a solution is one molecule, a 30C solution would have to have at least one molecule of the original substance dissolved in a minimum of 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 molecules of water. This would require a container more than 30,000,000,000 times the size of the Earth.”

Earlier this year, the British Parliament’s Science and Technology committee concluded that homeopathic products are not medicines and should no longer be licensed by medicine regulators. Homeopathic treatments are “scientifically implausible” and work no better than placebos, according to the committee’s report. According to Dr. Barrett, “If the FDA required homeopathic remedies to be proven effective in order to remain marketable—the standard it applies to other categories of drugs—homeopathy would face extinction in the United States.”

The National Council Against Health Fraud (NCAHF) in the US had this to say on the subject in 1994:

“The marketing of homeopathic products and services fits the definition of quackery established by a United States House of Representatives committee which investigated the problem (i.e., the promotion of ‘medical schemes or remedies known to be false, or which are unproven, for a profit’). The United States Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act lists the Homeopathic Pharmacopeia of the United States as a recognized compendium, but this status was due to political influence (of US Senator and Homeopathic Physician Royal Copeland), not scientific merit. The FDA has not required homeopathic products to meet the efficacy requirements applied to all other drugs, creating an unacceptable double standard for drug marketing. The Federal Trade Commission has not taken action against homeopathic product advertising although it clearly does not meet the standards of truthful advertising generally applied to drugs. Postal authorities have not prosecuted mail-order product promoters that make unproven claims for mail fraud.”

Without action by Congress to undo its over eighty- year history of allowing such quackery to gain a foothold in the US, it is unlikely that any regulatory or legal action against homeopathy will occur.

Many organizations and individuals in the US spend some of their time debunking unscientific medical claims. They include Quackwatch (headed by Dr. Barrett), the Institute for Science in Medicine, Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, James Randi Educational Foundation, Penn & Teller, the Millennium Project, the New England Skeptical Society, the Skeptics Society, and others.

The Amazing Randi (James Randi) said about those who promote homeopathy that “these are swindlers, liars, cheats, frauds, fakes, criminals.” Randi is a magician (or conjurer) who practices his magic for entertainment. He has spent decades investigating frauds who try to convince people that what they do or promote is legitimate. He has exposed fraud practiced by Uri Geller, faith healers, and psychics, among others. Along with numerous scientists who have studied the practice, Randi has concluded that homeopathy has no scientific basis.

On stage, James Randi likes to take an overdose of homeopathic products to demonstrate their lack of efficacy. He did this most recently in Utrecht, Holland on June 24, 2010, before a live audience when he took an overdose of homeopathic sleeping pills (which are an extract of caffeine). Randi swallowed about thirty times the maximum recommended dose of the sleeping remedy with no apparent effect. To assure that you get one molecule of caffeine from the homeopathic sleeping pills, you would have to swallow 60 swimming pools full of the pills. Randi calls homeopathy a delusion, quackery, a fraud. He has offered a $1 million prize to anyone who can demonstrate the efficacy of any homeopathic remedy. A few years ago, the British Royal Society of Medicine conferred with Britain’s best homeopathic experts and together they designed a scientific study to test homeopathy. The test was a complete failure, proving the remedy worthless. Randi’s $1 million was secure.

I support the right of all Americans to waste their money in any way they choose. But I object to hucksters who prey on the gullible for corporate profits. Unlike the many pharmacies and health food stores that sell homeopathic products, few have a website that actually promotes homeopathy as good medicine, as does Whole Foods. Why would anyone trust such a corporation’s advice about anything?

Although I am interested in natural remedies and often investigate claims for such products, I try to make medical decisions for myself based on science, not quackery. The one thing I know for sure is that of the thousands of times I stepped on a crack, not once did it break my mother’s back, and she lived for 88 years without homeopathy.

© Freethought San Marcos, Lamar W. Hankins

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5 thoughts on “Freethought San Marcos: How Whole Foods Markets promotes quackery

  1. “But I have always been outraged at the behavior of those who take advantage of superstition, irrationality, and miseducation to rob people of their money.”

    What are your feelings toward doctors who prescribe placebo’s yet still charge full price for the sugar pill ?

    Medicine in general is taking people’s money offering them a solution to a problem that more often than not will heal on its own, its just takes awhile. I trust whole foods with my medical cures about the same amount as I trust the government.

  2. Lamar said, “Although I am interested in natural remedies and often investigate claims for such products, I try to make medical decisions for myself based on science, not quackery.”

    The relevant part of this is “I try to make medical decisions for myself,”. Why then does he support government run healthcare that allows for federal bureaucrats to get between the patient and the doctor? He seems to be quite the contradiction.

  3. To Eleane:

    No federal bureaucrat has ever come between me and my doctors since I became eligible for Medicare and I can say the same for both of my parents who have had together over 50 years on Medicare. But the same can’t be said for the private insurance bureaucrats, whose health insurance I used for 45 years prior to turning 65. I fail to see any contradiction in my views.

  4. Quotes that start of Mr. Hankin’s article here:

    “I’m not a scientist, and I’ve not formally studied the efficacy of homeopathic products.”

    “I have always been outraged at the behavior of those who take advantage of superstition, irrationality, and miseducation to rob people of their money. Homeopathy is one of those enterprises that takes advantage of people in this way.”

    Seem a little contradictory, don’t they?

    Mr. Hankins, your “experts,” the National Council Against Health Fraud (, are against Acupuncture, Chiropractic, Applied Kinesiology, Chelation Therapy, Herbal Remedies as well as Homeopathy, all long-standing methods of improving health – with proven effectiveness (and I speak from personal experience plus formal study). Basically, they’re against everything but good ol’ Amurican medicine as promoted by the AMA, and it appears that you are too. You’re entitled to your opinion, but it’s really not worth much since it’s based on just nuttin’. Know what I mean?

  5. Some radio stations north of Boston are promoting a firm called Advance Allergy Treatment. They claim to eradicate all allergies with acupuncture and “frequency” treatments. The radio commercials utilize “testimonials” that are obviously done by actors. Their website actually says IT DOES NOT CURE ALLERGIES, but then says its treatments work. Duh.

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