Laying the Foundation

Bernadette Judaea
6 min readJul 16, 2023

If every customer that walked into my store was taking into consideration their overall health, they would probably find out they don’t really need most of the supplements they habitually buy.

Photo by Siddhesh Mangela on Unsplash

Instead, they turn to celebrity-doctor recommendations to keep up with the latest health fads and then come to me with it written down on a sheet of paper asking if we have it in stock. The truth is: the closest anyone is going to get to that magic potion is a multivitamin, probiotics, and some fish oil. If you make those three supplements the foundation of your health routine, you will very likely fill in any common dietary deficiencies (i.e vitamins, minerals, omega-3 and good gut bacteria) that can lead to chronic conditions and ailments.

I can confidently say so because this information comes straight from a naturopathic doctor that I worked for while I was pursuing my degree in Biology. She was the sponsoring physician at a health food store that she co-owned with her husband. They were quite an odd pair for our city at that time. She wore her hair straight, platinum blonde, cut just below her chin curled under. I don’t think I ever saw her without red lipstick and some sort of animal print on her clothing. Her husband was no less eccentric, as I recall seeing him dressed in all black but as a cowboy, wearing gold chains and small hoop earrings. Despite their peculiar appearances, they were very well respected in our community because they brought with them awareness of the holistic world.

The Doc had small-town celebrity appeal because she and her husband also hosted a radio show and I would argue that was the reason for their success. This was long before the days of the Podcasting Explosion, so they were ahead of the curve in that sense. Customers would flock to the store on Doctor Day for five-minute consultations with her. They wanted to be seen and to be heard by someone they felt like they could trust. By the very nature of not being strictly an allopathic doctor, any naturopathic doctor has clout with the health food store customers. There is a general feeling amongst those of us that participate in the counter-health-culture that we are all fighting on the same team against the big-pharma-monsanto-adversary. Doc was leading our troops in the crusade.

Having a sponsoring naturopathic physician was a huge benefit to our store. In the United States, dietary supplements are not regulated by the FDA, but the FDA did create rules for the industry to abide by in the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994. In short, supplement bottles are not to feature any claims of having the ability to cure disease. As a sales associate, I am also required to stick to a lose script. Very obvious things, like when someone asks if a supplement would be interact with their pharmaceutical medications, you quickly remind them that is a question for the pharmacist. Then there are less obvious things like not making recommendations. Instead, you offer customer feedback or literature from the company. However, in the store we could say, “Our sponsoring naturopathic physician recommends…” and that is a way better sales pitch than any brand rep ever gave me. It also felt like I was actually helping people.

That job did not only empower me with a list of doctor recommendations, it also afforded me the opportunity to interact with customers as a consultant. My expertise? The Doctor’s recommendations; not my own and not those of a brand that just wants the profit. Of course, our doctor benefitted from the fact that she co-owned the store, but you gotta give it to the dynamic duo for their brilliant strategy. She was the star and he was her sidekick, so nobody thought twice about the fact that they were profiting just like the big guys. There was something personalized about this experience for the customer.

Personalization can be a problem when it comes to supplementation. This is why people get caught up taking so many supplements they could fill a whole dinner plate. They are thinking about their body like a machine. “I’ve gotta take a supplement for my cholesterol and one for my blood pressure.” They think this because that’s how it works when you treat symptoms of conditions with pharmaceuticals and specialists. The underlying condition might be resolved with a single herb, or better just by taking fish oil once a day. Holistic medicine zooms out to the entire body to see where there may be a deficiency or perhaps an overabundance of something that our body cannot produce or process properly.

The Doc formulated these kinds of supplements for individual body parts, too. We had Liver Formula and Stomach Formula, but she did make it very clear that the base layer of any supplement regimen should be a multivitamin, omega-3, and probiotics. She emphasized that the multivitamin and mineral supplement would make up for any deficiencies that might be the result of a less-than-perfect diet. The Omega-3 provides the good fats that make up the membrane of every cell in our body. Finally, the probiotics provide us with our first line of defense: good gut bacteria, a vital part of our immune system. With those three supplements, all of your basics are covered. You can add calcium if you need, or an herbal hormonal blend, but when the body is functioning properly it has the ability to heal itself. We don’t often think that way because modern medicine has led us to believe otherwise.

Eventually, all of Doc’s local stores were sold to a well-known corporation in the natural health industry. I remember when we found out because at that time my boss had worked for the company for over 20 years. She was visibly distraught. The whole process was surreal, with the complete remodeling of the stores, everything was fresh and bright but it felt so plastic. We no longer had to wear big frumpy collard shirts from the 90s, but nothing else they did was an improvement. We still had Doc’s recommendations, but she lost a lot of her credibility for selling out. The community still trusted us as sales’ associates, but the radio show seemed to be what really kept us alive. Either that, or people lost faith because there was no longer anything there for them to get behind. Fortunately, the health movement had made its way out into the community and a Saturday Farmer’s Market exploded into a huge success. It wasn’t long before the stores went out of business, but the market continues to thrive.

There’s something here about laying foundation. Supplements can’t be the entirety of a human diet, that’s why they are called supplements. The big three I keep listing are intended to be added to a good diet (you could add them to a bad diet, too). Now, think about this in the context of a corporation moving into a well-functioning holistic community. They’ve got the supplements, but they didn’t take into consideration the full picture. In this example, I think of the foundation that Doc laid with the radio show, the stores, the newsletters, and the Doctor Days. I think about the employee bowling league and the Christmas Party I can’t remember. Building on that model, a business thrived for decades. The pop-up franchise did not.

Originally written to begin a series about the supplement industry before I realized I don’t intend to be in it for very much longer. Foundation problems, we’ll say, which is shaky ground to start a regular column okay I’m done with the puns bye.