Health and Religion

We need retail outlets dedicated to both health and truth the essence of the Adventist health message.

William T. Jarvis, Ph.D., is assistant professor of communicative and preventive dentistry in the School of Dentistry, Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California. A specialist in consumer health, an area concerned with health misconceptions, quackery, and fraud, Dr. Jarvis has contributed a chapter to a book on the subject of quackery in dentistry, and is president pro-tem and chairman of the board of the Southern California Council Against Health Fraud.


Although the following article makes an important and valid point, it should not be taken as a blanket condemnation of the "health foods" industry, which, in addition to quacks, contains many individuals who are responsibly promoting products that have been demonstrated to be beneficial. Neither do we feel that the more "mainstream" medical and health-care establishment is without its share of misinformation and quacks. We do support the author's position and his appeal for integrity and valid testing of claims made in behalf of nutritional and health-care products. Especially is it important that Adventists present health concepts, as well as Biblical doctrines, in an integrated package resting on the solid foundation of objective truth. —Editors.

Health-food stores are not always what they seem. They may be—and most often are purveyors—of quackery. Even Adventist-operated businesses promote books, periodicals, and practices not recommended by nutritionists and other qualified health authorities, as a survey has shown. This mixture of Adventist truths and health nonsense should be of deep concern to the church.

The health message must play a vital role in restoring the image of God in mankind, yet there is no better way to cripple this "right arm of the message" than by associating it with quackery. The church faces a most difficult task if it is to correct this situation.

How did the health-food industry get so intimately involved with charlatan ism? Can one distinguish between the true and the false in health information? What can the church do to ensure that its message reflects integrity and Bible truth in the field of health as in theology? There is a way— If there is the will to do it.

"Health foods" have been part of the Adventist scene for as many years as most church members can remember. The term itself appears to have originated as a convenient, abbreviated way of referring to foods associated with the health-reform movement. Ellen White sometimes used the term "health reform foods" (Counsels on Diet and Foods, p. 273) for wholesome foods, properly selected and healthfully prepared.* The church became involved in their production to provide substitutes for meat as it became more objectionable (ibid., p. 350) and to supply the world with food as famine increases (ibid., p. 271).

Nutrition was new as a science at the turn of the century. The life-sustaining elements in food began being isolated as the first vitamins were identified in 1895. With public interest high and scientific discovery causing great anticipation, the charlatans came on. Prevented from peddling dangerous nostrums by the nation's first pure food and drug law (1906), they became promoters of "health foods."

As early as 1929, Walter Campbell, of the Food and Drug Administration, called the term "health foods" a misnomer. "The use of the word 'health,' " he said, "implies that these products have health-giving or curative properties, when in general, they merely possess some of the nutritive qualities to be expected in any wholesome food product."

Whatever their merits, health foods were with us to stay. Kellogg's successes with breakfast cereals spawned numerous imitators and changed the then-small health-food business into a national enterprise. Profits were enormous and fortunes were made.

To Adventists during those earlier years the health-food business meant a place to buy meat substitutes and lard-free and whole-grain products. To the public these specialty stores were merely curiosities where one might buy an unusual product or an old-fashioned loaf of bread. Then came the turmoil of the sixties and demands for a new life style. Ecology and environment gained new prominence; "It's natural" became the imprimateur for consumer approval. Products capitalizing on the new vocabulary ranged from Playtex clothing to El Producto cigars (the braless bra and "Father" Nature cigars). But no one got more mileage out of the new concern than the health-food industry.

Although home economists complained of the high prices, which averaged 70 per cent more than comparable supermarket items, for many price was no object. As one man put it, "A society that annually spends 4 billion dollars on candy, 3 billion dollars on soft drinks, and 11.5 billion dollars on alcohol should think twice before criticizing those who spend a little money on stone-ground flours, whole-grain breads and cereals, pressed oils, or fresh fruits and vegetables grown without chemical fertilizer or insecticides."

If that's all there were to health foods we would have to concur; but there is more for sale at the local health-food store than stone-ground flour and "organically grown" products. A philosophy comes packaged with every item sold. Simply stated, it says, "You can't trust orthodoxy."

This concept pervades the books, magazines, advertising, and promotion of the health-food business. Customers are told that modern agriculture, food processors, and supermarkets can't be trusted. Government is accused of lethargy, incompetence, or dishonesty for permitting the sale of chemical-riddled products. The medical establishment is said to be looking the other way while the United States Public Health Service puts poison (fluoride) in our water. The American Cancer Society and the Na tional Cancer Institute are accused of not wanting to cure cancer because of the money they are making on it. Even such time-proven public-health measures as pasteurization and immunization are labeled unhealthful.

Why does the health-food industry seek to undermine the public's confidence in orthodoxy? One answer is that without public distrust there would be little reason for health foods to exist. If the normal food supply is safe and wholesome, what need do we have of health foods, especially since they are more expensive? People must be motivated to spend more for a product. The health-food industry perpetuates its existence by the negative philosophy of distrust.

Distrust is the common bond shared by the unorthodox, nonscientific healthcare practitioners, all of whom are closely associated with the health-food industry. Almost every legitimate health product and service has its substitute in the world of unorthodoxy; every strange notion of health proposed in the history of quackery is promoted. The "evidence" for effectiveness is always the same—testimonials that sound convincing, even though there is no way to check their accuracy or authenticity.

Testimonials impress people because they can relate to them in a personal way. Unfortunately, except for some times providing a research lead, they are worthless scientifically as evidence of effectiveness because they fail to control the confounding extraneous variables that can also produce apparent cures.

Even from a common-sense point of view, it should be obvious that testimonials have little worth. Every healing procedure ever practiced—including mesmerism, psychic surgery, phoney electronic devices, sleeping on the magnetic lines of the earth, and witch-doctoring—has produced testimonials from people who claim it worked for them. Even in cases where deliberate fraud has been admitted by the perpetrator, patients have testified in court that the nostrum cured them. If testimonials were sufficient evidence for the effectiveness of a treatment, we could conclude only that everything works at least for someone.

Because of the Adventist emphasis on good health, many church members are involved in the health-food business. Many use their establishments as a means of evangelistic outreach—a worthy endeavor. But the church should be concerned when, mixed in with publications bearing the Adventist name, are books and pamphlets promoting the most blatant forms of quackery. While some nostrums may have popular appeal for a while, in time truth will prevail, and they will be exposed as fraudulent. Associations are bound to be made between our message and these materials. When that happens the message suffers and the cause of God is impaired.

Curious about whether Adventist health-food stores might differ from other outlets, I conducted a small study in connection with a consumer-health course I teach at the La Sierra Campus of Loma Linda University, using students majoring in health sciences as interviewers. I wanted to know whether Adventist health-food stores were selling books that would not be recommended by responsible nutritionists and other educators, including Loma Linda University's own Department of Nutrition and Dietetics. Also I wanted to know whether cancer remedies condemned as quackery by medical authorities, both Adventist and others, would appear be side them. My survey included twenty-nine health-food stores in fifteen communities of a particular State. Of these, seven were owned and operated by Seventh-day Adventists.

I found that less than nine percent of the titles in these stores were recommended by nutritionists or other authorities. About sixty percent appeared on the lists of books "not recommended," while the remaining books were unclassified. Most of these bore suspect titles, but in the absence of evidence of their unreliability, I listed these as "unclassified."

In some cases the not-recommended books were dangerous because they offered substitutes for legitimate cancer therapy that could delay someone from receiving proper treatment in time to thwart an advancing tumor. Overall, I could detect no difference in the quality of information offered by Adventist health-food stores and that found in stores owned by non-Adventists. Stores owned and operated by Adventist institutions had significantly greater proportions of recommended books and fewer of the not-recommended variety, but they still had more than half again as many of the not-recommended as recommended titles. At the time of this writing it was not possible to compare the number of books promoting unproven cancer remedies offered by the Adventist health-food stores with those in the non-Adventist health-food stores. I am able to report only that some books promoting such remedies were found in stores operated by Adventists. As I feared, church missionary publications also appeared along with specious health information in some stores.

There obviously is something missing in the service these well-meaning brothers and sisters bring to the health message. That important missing ingredient is the very essence of the Advent message—the stewardship of truth. Unless our dedication to health is exceeded by a dedication to truth we are sure to stumble. The great deceiver mixes truth with error to accomplish his deceptions (see Evangelism, p. 589; The Great Controversy, p. 587). If we do not apply the strictest methods to distinguish truth from error, we are almost sure to fall prey.

By what means shall we discriminate between truth and quackery in matters of health? Shall it not be by adhering to the same rules of investigation that any one honestly seeking truth must utilize when dealing with questions in the natural world—a valid scientific methodology? Such a methodology includes using controlled studies rather than testimonials and case histories to prove the effectiveness of a treatment. (Many other factors can be responsible for apparent cures when no controls are used.) They also involve using sufficient numbers of subjects, proper sampling techniques, and statistical analysis to avoid being confused by individualistic or idiosyncratic reactions not applicable to the majority of people.

There is need for businesses that convey a total message of health and truth. The concept of retail outlets that combine dedication to both scientific truth and health—the essence of the Adventist health message—is tremendously exciting. There is some question, however, of how compatible the concept is with financial success. It may be difficult to tell someone who wants to buy vitamin tab lets that he doesn't need them, that he should instead improve his dietary habits. In contrast to true health education, quackery always has something to sell and seeks to make its victim dependent upon its product to assure his health and well-being. Truth does not enslave the health-seeker, but, as in spiritual matters, sets him free! Financial success may not be the best measure of the value of a properly conducted health-reform store.

I would not want, however, to dis courage this kind of venture. It can succeed with the right kind of management and the blessing of God. It certainly would be a proper statement for Adventists to make to the public concerning the values we hold.

I would suggest that such Adventist enterprises not use the designation "health-food stores," not only because it is a misnomer but because of the close association the health-food industry has with quackery. "Nutrition Centers" or "Better Living Centers" would be preferable. The books, magazines, products, and services promoted should be of a higher quality than the hucksterism of the regular health-food outlets.

These stores should be a fitting witness to the high principles of truth the Seventh-day Adventist Church seeks to promote. As Ellen White says in Counsels on Diet and Foods, page 76: "When people become interested in this subject [health reform], the way is often prepared for the entrance of other truths. If they see that we are intelligent with regard to health, they will be more ready to believe that we are sound in Bible doctrines."

The greatest resistance to such reform will no doubt come from members already involved in the health-food business. They have been exposed to the propaganda of the health-food promoters, purveyors of unorthodox cancer remedies, arthritis treatments, and spurious health-care practitioners for so long that many may be beyond help.

For those willing to learn techniques of critical evaluation, I would propose that seminars and workshops in scientific methodology be sponsored by Loma Linda University or other Adventist institutions of higher education. Our ministers learn hermeneutics—the methodological principles of correctly interpreting the Bible. Health evangelists—as proprietors of better-living centers should be—must learn the hermeneutics of health.

The question is, Do we have the courage to undertake such a difficult task? The answer lies with the ministers, conference officials, and concerned laymen who read MINISTRY.


* She referred to early Adventist health-reform restaurants by a variety of terms, including ''hygienic restaurants" (Counsels on Diet and Foods, p. 276) and "health restaurant" (ibid., p. 275).

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

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William T. Jarvis, Ph.D., is assistant professor of communicative and preventive dentistry in the School of Dentistry, Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California. A specialist in consumer health, an area concerned with health misconceptions, quackery, and fraud, Dr. Jarvis has contributed a chapter to a book on the subject of quackery in dentistry, and is president pro-tem and chairman of the board of the Southern California Council Against Health Fraud.

October 1978

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