Melatonin, the natural answer to insomnia and jet lag, still ranks as a top seller; so does shark cartilage, the latest fad in cancer treatment and subject of the cult book Sharks Don't Get Cancer.
In 1991, the government created an Office for Alternative Medicine within the National Institutes of Health to research nontraditional therapies. OAM was the brain child of Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, who credited AllerBee-Gone-brand bee pollen with curing his allergies. OAM stalled in a morass of politics and potholes, not the least of which was that AllerBee-Gone's maker had to pay the FTC $200,000 for making false claims about the product's efficacy.
At Jane's Vitamins and Health Products at Central Avenue and Baseline Road in Phoenix, Jane Soza is trying to grab a slice of the health-product pie. She stocks it all--vitamins A through E, diet aids, garlic and goldenseal, astragalus and gordolobo, aloe vera and blessed thistle, teas and honeys, and more. As with other stores in Latino neighborhoods, Jane's Vitamins doubles in religious items.
"I've used it myself," Soza says of ua de gato. "It makes you feel good. People want it for rheumatoid arthritis, high blood pressure, aches and pains, tumors--you know, they say it cures cancer. They say it's a cure-all. Especially for diabetes--the sugar goes down."
Since Soza started selling cat's claw seven months ago, she's run out a couple of times. Some clients order in advance. She says she still sells a half-dozen bottles of 100, 500-milligram capsules daily for $10.95 apiece. At the Yerberia San Francisco store on McDowell Road near 16th Street, however, that's the price you'll pay for 30 capsules.
A woman at Yerberia La Unica, at Central and Southern avenues, says some customers come from Mexico to buy una de gato because they don't trust brands sold there. On the other hand, the brand sold at La Unica, Peruvian Rainforest Botanicals, bears an official-looking gold seal of authenticity. It will also run you $24.95 for 30 capsules.
Soza has had to convince customers that her Nature's Herbs-brand cat's claw is just as good as the Nutrivida brand (Es la autentica!) they've seen on TV.
In his starkly furnished house near Third Street and Broadway Road, Fidencio Hinojosa is a case in point. "This guy makes a lot of movies in Mexico," he says, referring to Nutrivida pitchman Andres Garcia. "I listened to him on TV. It's better buying from them instead of going to these yerberias. The quality is not the same."
An aging, bearded musician of 63, Hinojosa paid Nutrivida $59.95 for a shipment of una de gato and shark cartilage, a mix he heard was good for rheumatoid arthritis. The combination was promoted in a column by Yerberia San Francisco's Rosa Maria Estrada in Prensa Hispana, a local Spanish-language newspaper, but Estrada offered no substantiation for the claim.
Adela Lujan, a South Phoenix community organizer, says she also plans to order some for herself and a daughter-in-law who is ill. "I have faith in that stuff, especially when it comes from the jungle," she says. "But there's some stuff I don't believe in, like those creams that remove fat. You gotta exercise and eat right to do that."
One recent afternoon, a short, hale, 70-year-old man who regularly buys garlic from Soza enters the store and inquires as to this una de gato he's been hearing about.
Soza walks to the shelves where the cat's claw is displayed, and hands him a bottle for inspection.
He rolls it around in his hand for a few seconds, then looks up. Es la autentica? he asks.
Es la igual! Soza says. It's the same thing.
Don't you have the other kind? he asks.
Por que quiere otra clase? Why do you need the other brand? She tells him he's been watching too much Channel 33.
Later, she says: "People from Mexico watch Channel 33 [the Valley's Univision affiliate]. Everything it says is gospel to them. They don't realize this una de gato is distributed to all the health stores in the U.S.
"It's because of that actor, the one who says it helped his cancer. I'm not saying it didn't; I'm pretty sure it did. But they think it's the only one."
As one of the few bilingual staffers at Mountain Park Health Center on Baseline Road in Phoenix, Charmaine Trujillo, operations director for internal medicine, spends a lot of time translating for physicians attempting to communicate with Spanish speakers. Nevertheless, she says of una de gato, "this is the first I've heard of it."