The controversial magazine What Doctors Don’t Tell You is now back in Tesco despite warnings from doctors that it is dangerously misleading. This, however, is not the only link between Tesco and quackery: the supermarket giant now seems happy to be associated with the harmful products and bad advice offered by NutriCentre.
Located on the high street and inside many Tesco supermarkets, the health food chain NutriCentre has twenty-two branches across the UK, as well as an online shop boasting “a team of fully qualified nutritionists”. By relying on NutriCentre’s unproven and potentially harmful products, customers are encouraged to waste money and could even be risking their health. Furthermore, in our opinion, public health messages are repeatedly undermined and regulations flouted.
Looking first at NutriCentre’s website, alongside popular supplements and health foods, visitors can find colloidal silver, Pau D’Arco, apricot kernels and coffee enema kits. These products have no proven benefit, but all have clear side effects, and all have been marketed as alternative cancer treatments. Although Pau D’Arco liquid does not appear to be a licensed medicine, NutriCentre’s website suggests it can treat vaginal infections, internal parasites and viruses including flu and the common cold. While NutriCentre do not claim any of these products can treat cancer, they do sell an astonishing number of highly questionable books on cancer, including: A Homeopathic Approach to Cancer, The Cure for All Advanced Cancers by Hulda Clark, and Max Gerson’s A Cancer Therapy: Results of Fifty Cases. Indeed, there’s a wide choice of dubious books on seemingly any health topic imaginable, including autism, vaccination, mercury toxicity and multiple sclerosis.
Of course it’s one thing to go online and seek out such products, but quite different to encounter them at your local supermarket. With this in mind, I decided to go along to Tesco Extra, Horwich, in order to discover what a typical shopper would find.
Wandering around the shop can be a bewildering experience.They’ve got it all, from fluoride-free toothpaste and ‘natural’ hair dyes to DEET-free ‘bug bands’ and MohDoh. There is a wide selection of homeopathy, displayed alongside advertising which contravenes medicines regulations and which has been removed from Boots and Holland & Barrett following investigations by the Medicine and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). There are shelves and shelves of herbal remedies and supplements, including the aforementioned Pau D’Arco and colloidal silver. Many of these products carry seductive health claims on the packaging – such as the claims made by makers of Raspberry Leaf that their product “Promotes a Healthy Female Reproductive System”, or Liver Tone’s claim to “support liver function”. As far as I could see, despite their health claims, these products don’t appear to be regulated as traditional herbal medicines. Another supplement which caught my eye was Nascent Iodine, described on the NutriCentre website as “consumable iodine in its atomic form”, which has “an incomplete number of electrons” and somewhat alarmingly promises “a huge energy release when consumed”.
The shop also houses a “Consulting Room” as well as a book corner – a table and chairs set next to shelves filled with books organised by topic, including Allergies, Cancer, Chronic Fatigue and Diabetes. While it might not be surprising to find such books for sale online, it was a shock to find Donald R Yance’s Herbal Medicine, Healing and Cancer and Conventional Cancer Cures – What’s the Alternative by Chris Woollams displayed here. These books, which offer insight on “anti-carcinogenic herbs” and promise alternatives for “people who don’t want orthodox treatments like surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy”, were available to browse alongside books by Patrick Holford and Lynne McTaggart and guides to the latest fad diets. Further titles are available to order, organised by subject in a handy folder. I was appalled to find that this folder includes a whole page on vaccination, listing such titles as Homeopathic Alternatives to Immunisations, Natural Alternatives to Vaccination and Vaccines, Autism and Childhood Disorders. I feel such content is potentially dangerous and should not be advertised by Tesco.
Another folder was crammed with leaflets and business cards for local therapists, many of which were clearly in breach of advertising guidelines. One local practitioner claims homeopathy can be used to treat depression, chronic cystitis, arthritis and childhood infections. Another advertises Energy Therapy to treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, migraines and chronic pain. Several advertise ineffective tests for food sensitivity, one of which even carries the NutriCentre logo. Presumably these tests take place in the “Consulting Room” at the back of the shop.
To put all this into context, Horwich Tesco Extra is a large store which also accommodates a pharmacy and optician. The NutriCentre is located opposite the main checkouts, from where advertising boards are visible, encouraging customers to consult NutriCentre’s “expert nutritionists” for health advice.
To present nutritionists as health experts could put the public at risk. If a medicine contains an active ingredient and is able to provide benefit it will inevitably have side effects, whether it is a conventional medicine, a herbal remedy, a “supplement” or an unregulated and untested product. Unlike pharmacists, nutritionists are not qualified to advise customers on the safety of the products they sell.
Although it is not the case in Horwich, in some Tesco stores the NutriCentre is located close to the pharmacy, giving nutritionists the opportunity to intrude on conversations between customers and pharmacists. Indeed, we were contacted by one pharmacist who experienced this very problem when advising a customer about protection against the sun and insect bites prior to a foreign holiday. The nutritionist interrupted the conversation, recommending natural yogurt for sunburn and citronella oil in water instead of “nasty chemical insect repellents”. This was irresponsible and potentially harmful advice – not least because the customer could have been travelling to an area affected by malaria.
Although they can be misinformed, adults are free to choose which medicines, remedies and supplements to take. Children are not, but can be put at risk if their parents are misled. I phoned one of NutriCentre’s “expert nutritionists” to find out what NutriCentre would suggest for a healthy, well nourished 12 month old. I explained that my child was due to have some vaccinations, including the MMR, and that I was a little concerned.
I was encouraged to spend over £60 on supplements, whether my baby has the vaccinations or not. The nutritionist told me, quite correctly, that if I did not vaccinate my child and he came into contact with measles that he would probably get measles. However, she also stressed that it is a personal decision and that some of her colleagues have not had their children vaccinated. She suggested that I ring a homeopath for further information, although she warned me that they can be against vaccines. She also suggested that caesarean births can lead to eczema, asthma and hayfever and recommended not just a multivitamin and mineral complex, but also probiotics, fish oil and freeze-dried fruit and vegetable extracts.
In exploring what Nutricentre has to offer, I found much to be concerned about, including many products and claims I felt to be potentially harmful.
When I contacted Tesco, I was told that they would look into this in more detail would respond soon. It might help prompt a response if you also raise a concern by emailing email@example.com with a simple one sentence email: “Dear Tesco, I have read this blogpost concerning NutriCentre outlets within some of your stores and the selling of quackery: http://goodthinkingsociety.org/tesco-embraces-nutricentre-and-peddles-quackery/. I hope that you will look into this matter with the utmost urgency and respond to the author of the blog.”
I have also reported my concerns to the MHRA.
Project Leader, Good Thinking Society