Misleading Claims By Great Earth Vitamin Stores

Stephen Barrett, M.D.

In the 1980s, Great Earth Vitamin Stores was the nation's second largest health food store chain with about 190 stores. In 1990, the company advertised a 29-question "Nutritional Fitness Profile with claims that "Great Earth's highly trained Vitamiticians" were prepared to analyze the results and tailor "a nutritional support program that's just right for each individual's physical makeup and lifestyle." [1]

Each question had three possible answers, with the first indicating no problem, the second indicating what Great Earth apparently regarded as a slight or possible problem, and the third, in most cases, indicating a significant problem. Some of the questions—about diet, exercise habits and cigarette smoking—addressed important health issues. However, none provided a rational basis for recommending supplements or was detailed enough for analyzing anyone's diet.

Several questions asked about symptoms that might reflect serious disease. Heartburn, for example, could indicate the presence of a peptic ulcer. Forgetfulness could be a symptom of degeneration of the brain. Recurring muscle cramps or dry hair could be related to a metabolic disturbance. Fatigue could indicate a host of abnormal conditions. But each of these symptoms could occur for many different reason—minor as well as serious. And none was sufficient to pinpoint a diagnosis that could be used as the basis for a treatment recommendation, even from a physician.

A few questions appeared to serve no legitimate purpose whatsoever. For example, question 20 asked whether you "have one or more bowel movements every day." But if you don't, so what? Daily movements are not necessary for good health. If decreased frequency does reflect a problem, it would certainly be inappropriate for health-food-store clerks to evaluate it or recommend products to correct it. Question 12 asked whether you ate canned goods more than once or twice a week. This question was useless because although a diet composed solely of canned goods might be short in a few vitamins, eating one or two portions of canned goods per week would pose no problem whatsoever.

Investigative Findings

Well-designed questionnaires can provide an efficient way gather useful information about a person's medical history, symptoms, lifestyle, and diet. The data could then be used to help formulate a plan for further investigation or for dietary or lifestyle modification. But no questionnaire can legitimately be used as a sole or direct basis for recommending supplements.

Shortly after Great Earth's "vitamitician" campaign was launched, James J. Kenney, Ph.D., R.D., a nutrition research specialist at the Pritikin Longevity Center in Santa Monica, California, visited two nearby stores to see how the questionnaire was administered. He found that for each question where he checked #3, the "vitamiticians" recommended one or more products. The products included digestive enzymes to combat flatulence (even though he told them that it started when he began to eat more oats and beans), high doses of niacin to lower cholesterol, and vitamin E to combat air pollution (he lives in smoggy Los Angeles). He was also advised to take a high-dose multivitamin/mineral product even though he described a more-than-adequate diet and said he was already taking a product that contained 100% of the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs).

Dr. Kenney, who is certified by the American Board of Nutrition, later commented that the idea that flatulence due to a high-fiber diet can be reduced by digestive enzymes is "utter nonsense" because gas resulting from a high-fiber diet is produced by intestinal bacteria, not lack of digestion. He also noted that the scientific evidence that megadoses of vitamin E can protect against air pollution is "suggestive at best." [2]

The advice Dr. Kenney received was not merely useless. Although niacin can be valuable for improving blood cholesterol levels, it should never be used outside of a comprehensive, medically supervised program that begins with attention to diet, exercise and other factors related to heart disease risk. When niacin use is appropriate, the dosage should be built up gradually to minimize the incidence of side effects, and blood tests should be performed regularly to detect liver problems or other adverse effects. But neither "vitamitician" mentioned the potential dangers. And their recommended dosage (1500 mg daily) was far too high a starting dose.

A disclaimer at the bottom of the questionnaire stated that it was "meant for educational purposes only and should not be understood as a substitute for appropriate medical advice or treatment." It also stated that individuals under a physician's care should consult the physician "before embarking on any new diet, exercise or nutritional supplement program." However, Great Earth salespeople were obviously willing to sell supplements without regard for medical confirmation.

Great Earth's ads stated that its Nutritional Fitness Profile was developed by Ira A. Morris, M.D., "a noted Johns Hopkins physician." In June 1990, intrigued by Dr. Kenney's findings, I telephoned Morris, who said he practiced internal medicine in the New York City area but was still a staff member at Hopkins. When told about Dr. Kenney's experience, Morris replied: "That's exactly what they're not supposed to do" and agreed that the advice Kenney received was inappropriate and unsafe. Morris said that recommendations were supposed to be based on overall score and that he would try to provide me with a copy of the scoring manual. But I never received it, and further attempts to interview him by telephone were not successful.

In September 1990, Consumer Reports on Health labeled the Nutritional Fitness Profile a "scam," and its medical consultants asked the FTC to investigate [3]. Since that time, I haven't seen any evidence of its use, but Great Earth still offers the services of "vitamiticians" at its stores. In July 2004, 104 stores were listed on Great Earth's Web site and a site that appeared to be operated by one of its stores stated:

Great Earth Vitamiticians are not doctors, dieticians or licensed health care practitioners. They're the next best thing-enthusiastic and learned experts who play an important educational role. Every Vitamitician goes through a unique and extensive training program which has been honed and refined over the 25 years Great Earth has been in existence with input for leading nutritionists, pharmacists, doctors, fitness experts and herbalists. Vitamiticians are schooled on over 1,000 pages of educational literature covering vitamins, minerals, herbs, homeopathics and other natural substances. They participate in classes which teach them how to combine supplements together for maximum benefits and to create support programs for specific lifestyle needs. And they all must spend several weeks working with customers under the tutelage of an experienced trainer and certified Vitamitician. Upon completion of the training program they take a Vitamitician Certification Test. After passing, they become a certified Vitamitician. Advanced and Senior certification programs take Vitamiticians to the next level in supplement knowledge. But their education doesn't stop there. Continued Education Seminars and nutritional bulletins keep our Vitamiticians fresh, informed and on the cutting edge of health and nutrition. In short, Great Earth Vitamiticians know nutrition inside and out [4].

Questionable Product Claims

In 1985, Consumer Reports listed Great Earth Vitamin Stores among 42 companies that were breaking the law by making illegal therapeutic claims for their products [5]. One product that concerned CU—listed in the article—was Great Earth's Maintain DHEA Complex, which was claimed to inhibit weight gain. Another product CU collected, though not mentioned in the article, became the object of enforcement action by the Federal Trade Commission. That product was GHR Formula P.M., an amino acid concoction falsely claimed to "help burn fat and increase muscle." In 1987, the Federal Trade Commission secured a consent agreement under which the company was prohibited from making unsubstantiated claims that this or any product will cure or prevent any disease or other undesirable physical or mental condition or improve or strengthen any body organ or function [6].

Great Earth's Web site has described the company's laboratory as "one of the most scientifically advanced facilities in the country" with "thousands of square feet, a team of graduate-level chemists, and millions of dollars worth of equipment are dedicated to rigorous testing procedures that ensure the effectiveness and integrity of our products." In 2000, the site's "Consumer Education" page offered two pathways to learn what the products are for:

In July 2004 and August 2006, I revisited the site and saw similar claims that included:

I have asked the FTC and FDA to put a stop to these claims.

References

  1. Ads appeared in Bestways (March 1990) and other supplement-promoting magazines.
  2. Kenney JJ. Have you seen your vitamitician lately? Nutrition Forum 7:13, 1990.
  3. Vitamagician? Consumer Reports on Health, Sept 1990.
  4. Your vitamitician knows. Great Earth Web site, accessed July 4, 2004.
  5. Foods, drugs or frauds? Consumer Reports 50(5):276-283, 1985.
  6. Franchisor of food supplement stores prohibited from making false claims, under consent agreement with FTC. FTC News release, Jan 4, 1988.
  7. Ailments & Remedies. Great Earth Web site, accessed July 4, 2004.

This article was revised on August 20, 2006.

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