Health food stores began to appear in America around a century ago, driven by a passion to spread the word about nutrition and natural health. Over the years, what started as a grassroots movement turned nutrition into a hot topic and a multi-billion-dollar industry, but some things don’t change.
“Mission still matters,” says Jay Jacobowitz, founder and president of Retail Insights, a consulting company that specializes in working with independent health food stores. According to his company’s research, there are more than 6,800 independent health food stores and co-ops around the country (not including chains of natural supermarkets), and the dollar value of the natural products they sell equals that of roughly 30,000 conventional supermarkets.
Despite the many shopping choices today, says Jacobowitz, “There will always be people who find solace and answers in the independent health food store.”
History Repeats Itself
The products and advice dispensed by health food stores in the early days might surprise you. Those “health foods” had the quality of today’s superfoods—exceptional nutrient density found naturally in certain foods, such as wheat germ oil, brewer’s yeast, and blackstrap molasses. And long before Dr. Oz was born, health foods were popularized by celebrities.
Paul Bragg opened a health food store in 1912. But he gained fame for his lectures, which denounced sugar and advocated whole foods and juicing. Although many people now equate the Bragg name with liquid amino acids, he passionately promoted the broader concept of healthy living, and he had a profound effect on at least one other member of the health food movement.
As a very sickly and troubled teen, Jack LaLanne attended one of Bragg’s lectures. The next day, he began putting the health advocate’s principles into practice. During the rest of his 96-year-long life, LaLanne credited Bragg with setting him on the path to health. Other celebrities who followed (or currently follow) Bragg’s teachings include the Beach Boys, Clint Eastwood, and George Clooney.
Starting in the 1920s, Gayelord Hauser gained fame as a nutritionist to stars such as Gloria Swanson, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Grace Kelly, and Ingrid Bergman. He wrote newspaper columns and books, and lectured frequently. His message: avoid sugar, white flour, starch, gluten, and excessive meat. Instead eat these “wonder foods”: yogurt, brewer’s yeast, powdered skim milk, wheat germ, and blackstrap molasses.
By the 1950s, Adelle Davis was a celebrity nutritionist, best-selling author, and TV personality whose teachings inspired millions to lead healthier lives. Unlike her predecessors, Davis had conventional training and experience in biochemistry and nutritional science, and she conveyed that knowledge in a new way. Her best-selling books, distributed widely by health food stores, continued to educate and motivate Americans until her death in the 1970s.
Over the years, many other people helped popularize nutrition through books, pamphlets, scientific articles, radio, and television, and health food stores carried the torch by educating consumers and making cutting edge products available.
The Revolt Against Processed Food
Starting in the 1950s, food-preserving technology that had been developed for World War II drove the creation of new processed foods. But as baby boomers reached adulthood in the ’60s and ’70s, they revolted against this prefab fare. In response to spongy white bread, health food stores sold whole grains. And herbal remedies gained popularity as an alternative to over-the-counter pharmaceuticals.
Chris Kilham, known as The Medicine Hunter (medicinehunter.com), began working in a health food store in 1971. At the time, popular books on botanical remedies were based on tradition rather than clinical studies. But that didn’t diminish their effectiveness.
“We had an intuition that turned out to be spot on,” he says, “that herbs are better and safer than pharmaceuticals.” Since then, science has corroborated some of that intuition and described some of the underlying mechanisms, but it doesn’t change that fact that, as Kilham puts it, “The nature of nature is self-evidently wholesome.”
Getting that message across has created a bigger impact than simply relieving ailments with natural remedies. “Independent health food stores have had an enormous influence on our culture,” says Kilham.
The 1980s marked a different type of transition. “As more people became interested in their health, and better quality products appeared, things started changing,” recalls author and educator Terry Lemerond. “The connection to science started.”
A health food store owner since 1969, Lemerond started a supplement company, Enzymatic Therapy, in the back of his store in 1981. It broke new ground by introducing “standardized” herbs, meaning herbal formulations that consistently contain the same components and strength in each dose. And many of his formulas were supported by scientific research being done in Europe.
The connection of science to supplements drove innovation. Whereas in the early days, there were only a few vitamins and minerals, the ’80s saw an explosion of other nutrients (see “Highlights of History,” p. 34). Since then, such innovation has continued.
Lemerond no longer owns a health food store, but carries on the tradition of educating people about the fallacies of much of today’s common wisdom, such as the idea that statin drugs benefit heart health. And, through in-person presentations, books, and his web site (terrytalksnutrition.com), he continues to spread the message that health food stores have been passionately advocating all these years.
Influencing Our Lives
Health food stores are special places that influence people’s lives. Richard Passwater, PhD (drpasswater.com), benefitted from health food store products as a child, which led him to become a biochemist and leading advocate of nutrition and natural health—with 46 books and more than 500 articles to his credit. One of his books, the best-selling Supernutrition: Megavitamin Revolution, first published in 1975, along with work by Linus Pauling and Abram Hoffer, introduced the concept of megavitamin therapy.
Aundernourisheds a youth during World War II, Passwater had weak bones. “I was near having rickets from vitamin D deficiency and my tibia and fibula had slight curvatures,” he recalls. His mother brought him back to health after a local health food store owner sold her a book published in 1940, You Are What You Eat (whose author, Victor Lindlahr, helped popularize that expression). With the help of brewer’s yeast, wheat germ oil, and basic vitamins, Passwater’s health was restored. But that was just the beginning of his experience with nutrition and health food stores.
“As I grew into my teens and became interested in playing sports, I no longer was , but I wanted to be stronger,” he recalls. So he went back to the same health food store that had helped him before, this time for products such as soy and egg protein and vitamin E—and they worked.
By 1959, Passwater was a research biochemist, studying ways to slow the aging process. In the following years, he discovered that combinations of antioxidants can extend life and help prevent cancer; he did extensive research on selenium and chromium; he documented the benefits of vitamin E and other nutrients—and he went on to become a driving force of discovery and development in the world of dietary supplements.
“The independent health food store has been a phenomenally galvanizing, revolutionary force.”
—Chris Kilham, The Medicine Hunter
“A lot of conditions that people are challenged with are metabolic disorders because the body is out of balance. Drugs kill more people than the combination of alcohol and tobacco.”
—Terry Lemerond, health food industry pioneer
Fighting the FDA
Independent health food stores have fought arduously for our freedom to have supplements and nutritious foods, by lobbying for laws that protect our rights, such as the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA). “Otherwise, left to the FDA’s desire, they would have been banned forever and people wouldn’t have access to them, ” says Richard Passwater, PhD; “It took a lot of courageous, hard-working people to bring this about.”
James Gormley (jamesgormley.com), former editor of Better Nutrition and an ardent advocate for health freedom, has documented the battles between the health food industry and the FDA in his book, Health at Gunpoint. The government’s tactics have included intimidation, raids, and seizures of products, books, and other literature. Described in detail in Gormley’s book, these are a few highlights of illegal FDA raids:
1960: Two books and bottles of vinegar and honey are confiscated by the FDA from the Balanced Foods Company in New York City.
1987: Armed government agents raid the Life Extension Foundation in Florida, confiscate products, office files, and newsletters, and detain and search employees.
1988: The FDA confiscates black currant oil from Traco Labs in Illinois, because it is being put into capsules.
1990: Holistic pet food products are seized from Solid Gold Pet Foods in California, and the store’s owner is inhumanely imprisoned, suffering a near-fatal stroke.
1990: FDA agents and US Marshals spend 11 hours raiding Highland Labs, a vitamin company in Oregon, and miles away, the owner’s daughter is held under house arrest for 12 hours.
1991: Nutricology, a vitamin company in California, is raided and shut down for two days.
1992: Perhaps the most famous, the Tahoma Clinic Raid occurred in Washington when armed FDA agents stormed the medical offices of Dr. Jonathan Wright because he was (legally) prescribing a supplement.
These and other raids before 1994 set off a grassroots effort that led to the passage of DSHEA. However, there have been other raids since then, as well as attempts to pass legislation that limits our health freedoms and access to supplements and wholesome (not genetically modified or otherwise adulterated) foods. To stay abreast of these issues and help protect health freedoms, visit Citizens for Health at citizens.org.