Week 42: Why You Should Never Discount the Value Of Placebos

“So what is this?” A mousy woman asks as she peers into our display at a local Whole Foods.

“It’s called Origins,” says Pete, the man training me for my latest odd job. “We sell cold-pressed, organic, non-pasteurized juices.” Cold-pressed means the beverages are formed by applying an extreme amount of pressure to produce, then bottling whatever juice comes out. Organic means we can sample the product at Whole Foods without fear of being stoned by their clientele. And non-pasteurized is another way of saying incredibly expensive. Like $10-a-bottle expensive.

“Oh my. Non-pasteurized.” The woman says. She places her hand on her collar-bone. Pasteurization is a method drink companies use to preserve juice that ends up compromising its nutritional value. At Whole Foods, using the phrase non-pasteurized is also a mild aphrodisiac.

“Here, try some.” Pete pours her a cup. We don’t work for Whole Foods, we work for Origins. Our job is to sell, and Pete is good at his job. He can tell what people want to hear, and he knows how to give it to them. “It has ginger, which, as you know, has been used for centuries to settle upset stomachs.”[1] Internally, I roll my eyes. Ten dollars for an upset stomach? I think. What are you? Five? If I had an upset stomach, I’d want it to go away, but if I was told it would cost ten dollars for something that might work, I’d fucking tough it out. But this sales pitch isn’t for me. It’s for her. And she eats it up.

She slurps loudly. “Ooohhh, yup.” She says as though it just settled an upset stomach that, moments before she met us, she presumably didn’t have.

“And it’s also been found to improve the circulatory system.” Improve the circulatory system? Is that something we’re worrying about now? Our circulatory systems?

The woman sips again. “Oh yeah.” The circulatory benefits are too much for her to handle. She is now bobbing back and forth on her feet like an excited child. “Gotta take care of that circulatory system.” You can tell that she now feels the blood racing through her circulatory system at maximum efficiency. “How much does it cost?” She asks.

This is where we lose her. No one is going to spend $10 on a juice. I mean, who’s ever heard of such a thing?

“Right now, it’s only $9.99 a bottle.” He says.

Yup, $10. For juice. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking you have mortgage payments that are cheaper than that. But hey, I don’t blame y-

“Great, and what aisle do you sell it in?”



Over the next couple of months, I become an expert myself. I use visual aids to show just how much produce we cram into every bottle. I talk about the cold-pressing and the non-pasteurization and the wonders it does for your circulatory system. By the time I am done, it seems amazing that we can sell these drinks for as little as we do.

And as I stand at my booth, talking to customers and employees, I stare out, observing the Whole Foods ecosystem. Everyone who shops or works there is attractive and educated. They gush when they see terms like organic and locally-grown, and they recoil when they see terms like “high fructose corn syrup” and whatever the word is for non-locally grown.[2]

“Who do you work for?” A slightly older woman asks me.

“FarmFresh.” I answer. “We’re a company dedicated to selling healthy, organic food in ways that are ethical and environmentally friendly.”

“Okay.” She leans in closer, fixes her right eye on me, and asks warily, “But who do you really work for?”

“The same company I just told you about the first time you asked the question.”[3]

“So you’re not owned by Coca Cola?” She almost spits in disgust as she says the name “Coca Cola.”

“Nope, we’re an independent company.”

“Good.” She smiles. Now that she knows I’m on her side, she drops the aggression and talks like we are old friends. “I met a person doing a demo for healthy drinks once and it turned out that her company was owned by…” She pauses to build suspense though I feel it’s pretty obvious at this point that she’s about to say Coca Cola. “Coca Cola.” NO! OMG!

“I don’t get it.” I say. I do get it, I just like to be difficult.

“Well, here they are, claiming to be this healthy drink company, but they work for the unhealthiest drink company of them all.” She speaks like she is revealing someone’s plot to assassinate the President.

It occurs to me that Coca Cola presumably has one of the largest, if not the largest, drink manufacturing and distribution infrastructures on the planet, which is probably how the drink companies they own can sell beverages at such affordable prices. And while Origins is great for the rich shoppers of America, the fact that lower class people now have access to healthy drink options is actually a good thing. “Oh wow,” I say. “That sounds terrible.”

At first, I mock. But, as time goes on, I find myself becoming one of them. After all, if everyone who shops here is educated, then buying these products must be a smart decision. And if everyone who shops here is beautiful, then healthy products must make you look better.

Meanwhile, the food is delicious. And who wouldn’t want to buy from a company that supports the environment and treats their workers well? I find myself shopping there and checking labels for things like omega fatty acids which I’m told are good for you despite sounding like they are bad for you, all the while having no clue what they do for you.

I start to feel better. I sleep better and have more energy when I’m awake. I don’t groan like a 40-year-old when I get out of my chair. I don’t know whether the effects are real or placebo. But hasn’t science resoundingly proven over the years that placebos are really effective?

And as I become one of them, I realize that more than products that are actually good for them, people are looking for products that they can tell themselves are good for them. That we come in hoping to find a drink that costs $10, because just by pure math, it has to be five times as good for us as that crappy $2 drink. Because it feels good to tell ourselves that we’re spending ten dollars on our health.

I’m not saying that Whole Foods food doesn’t actually make you healthier. I’m just saying that I’m guessing there’s a gap between how much good it does for you and how much good you convince yourself it does for you. But maybe the positive feeling that fills that gap is part of what you pay for. And maybe you get your money’s worth.


One day, instead of a juice, I am sampling bite-sized pieces of a chewy, almost gummy product. They claim to be a natural energy boosters. Though I am working on four hours of sleep and have been downing these things like M&M’s all morning, and I don’t feel a difference. A woman who looks so tired that she might topple over walks up to me. She skeptically tosses a handful into her mouth, eying me as she chews, then swallows.

“Oh wow!” Her face lights up. “I do have more energy. I didn’t believe it at first, but this totally works.” She happily tosses a bag into her cart and walks away. I watch, speechless as she disappears on the horizon. While I doubt that anything short of snorted cocaine could work its way into her bloodstream as quickly as she thinks that food did, it is undeniable that she is no longer as tired as I am. And as she walks away, I can’t decide if I pity her or envy her.


Odd Job: Sampling Health Products at Whole Foods

Pay: $1300 over the course of a couple months

1.  Somewhere on the path to eating right, the phrase “used for centuries” became synonymous with “healthy,” presumably under the logic that if we used a product at a time when we had minimal understanding of our bodies and when the average person died at 55, then it must be good for us. 

2. I believe the term is “affordable,” but I’m not positive. 

3. Okay, I didn’t actually say this. But that was the gist of it. 

In some but not all articles, names or identifying characteristics or individual lines of dialogue have been changed to protect identities or because remembering exactly how things happened is hard. Like, really hard. But in every case, an effort was made to maintain the integrity of these events that did indeed actually happen.