Gwyneth Paltrow's wellness obsession has become one of the more reliable punchlines in Hollywood, but she may very well have the last laugh. The actress-turned-wellness-guru is now known as much for her acting as for her scientifically dubious lifestyle brand, Goop. In 2016, the company raised tens of millions of dollars in venture capital, all despite unrelenting mockery in the press. The marketing for some products is so ridiculous I sometimes wonder if Goop is really just a form of clever satire aimed at the dangers of pseudoscience. (If this is true, mission accomplished.)
But assuming this isn’t performance art, the increasing popularity of companies like Goop is a cause for legitimate concern. Despite the best efforts of journalists and doctors, the debunkers are not winning the wellness war. Indeed, there is evidence that the trust people place in traditional sources of science is eroding.
And it’s not just science — global trust in institutions everywhere is plummeting. While these are socially complex phenomena, I believe there are several powerful — and, ultimately, tremendously harmful — rhetorical devices deployed by the multibillion-dollar wellness industrial complex that have facilitated its cultural ascendency. By examining these devices, perhaps we can make people think twice before they try being voluntarily stung by bees as a cure for inflammation.
What’s in a name?
Before we can talk about the scientific failings of this movement, however, we first need to talk about its masterful branding.
Rather than positioning themselves as anti-science, Paltrow and her peers frame themselves as proponents of “wellness,” a vague if benign-sounding term that almost always involves the embrace of concepts like “holistic” (whatever that is) and “natural” (again, whatever that is). In scientific circles, these concepts are generally viewed as near meaningless marketing slogans. But in the world of wellness, they are typically paired with a largely uncritical acceptance of alternative therapies, often with a dash of spirituality and a large serving of fear mongering.
In this context, Goop recommendations like vagina steaming, luxury crystal therapy and raw goat milk cleanses are presented as cutting-edge innovations while science-y cynics are contrarians on the wrong side of history.
These false dichotomies are profoundly misleading, but the fact that they are so effective tells us a lot about what is driving the popularity of alternative approaches to health — and perhaps how we can return to a more science-informed approach.
Big Pharma is bad, but alternative medicine is good
The wellness industry didn’t appear out of thin air, of course: Goop itself was founded as a simple newsletter back in 2008. But the brand’s current popularity may be related to a lack of trust in the medical establishment. The pharmaceutical industry, or Big Pharma, has taken a particularly severe beating in the court of public opinion. Studies have consistently shown that the involvement of industry can erode public trust, and that is clearly happening in wellness space — even if the articulation of the concern often gets twisted into a maddening anti-science slogan.
Enter wellness gurus, who claim that opponents to their alternative remedies are either corporate shills or naïve simpletons unaware of the harm Big Pharma is causing.
Of course, these kinds of assertions are completely nonsensical. Most people who criticize the marketing of bunk health products are advocating for science and critical thinking, not the blind use of more drugs. Yes, there are obviously many problems with conventional medicine, including patient safety issues and the overuse of prescription pharmaceuticals and diagnostic tools. And the involvement of large industries can have a less-than-ideal impact on research and knowledge translation.
But in general, those advocating for a science-informed approach are fully aware of these challenges. (Indeed, I have done a great deal of research with my colleagues at the University of Alberta on the adverse impact of the commercialization of science.) More important, the existence of these issues does not justify the marketing and use of unproven therapies. And the fact that pharmaceutical companies have behaved badly — and they certainly have — does not make homeopathy effective or prove the existence of a supernatural life-force energy that runs through mysterious meridians.
At the same time, the wellness world remains plagued by its own conflict-of-interest concerns. Do naturopaths and holistic nutritionists work for free? Are supplements produced and delivered by altruistic vitamin pixies? Indeed, there are reasons to believe that conflicts of interest can affect the actions or beliefs of alternative practitioners more than conventional healthcare providers. For example, if homeopathic remedies don’t work (and let’s be clear, studies show they don’t), homeopaths are out of both job and identity.
Though not a coherent argument, the ubiquity of the industry-is-evil ploy underlines the need for science and sources of scientific information that the public trusts.
Traditional medicine fixes symptoms, not root causes
This is another common assertion — and false dichotomy — rolled out by wellness aficionados like Gwyneth. But just because you believe in a science-informed approach to health does not mean you think prevention and health promotion aren’t important. On the contrary, we know about the elements of a healthy lifestyle because of science. And for many science-informed healthcare providers — including primary care physicians and public health experts — this is a core part of their practice. I don’t know of a single science advocate who thinks health promotion isn’t important.
But despite its incongruity, the root-causes contention continues to help legitimize many wellness-focused alternative practices. You see it used by wellness-focused alternative health clinics, for example, on the websites for schools of alternative medicine, and of course, on Goop.com.
While the promotion of healthy lifestyles is important, the wellness industry’s desire for ownership over health promotion does far more harm than good. We have long known the key elements of a healthy lifestyle — don’t smoke, drink in moderation, exercise, eat a healthy diet, get enough sleep and have good relationships. But in order to rationalize wellness ideas, the wellness industry has made these basic truths as complicated possible, often requiring the purchase of special products and procedures. A healthy meal can’t just include fruits and vegetables, anymore. Now it’s got to include kale, quinoa, $38 “brain dust” for “cosmic flow” and pink Himalayan salt.
In order to be motivated enough to purchase these expensive products, however, pressure must be applied. And thus the wellness community has stoked fear about chemicals, toxins and even technology. (Indeed, Jessica Alba’s Honest Company, which is worth over a billion dollars, is almost entirely built on a chemophobia-infused credo.)
The ultimate irony here is that all this pressure may actually be turning people away from healthy behaviors. One study, for example, found that the push for the consumption of organic foods can cause lower-income families to purchase fewer fruits and vegetables over all. From a health promotion perspective, this is a terrible outcome.
This is not to say that medical professionals can simply ignore wellness culture. To dismiss it would be to miss an important truth: rightly or not, many people feel that something is missing from conventional approaches to health promotion. (This is particularly true for women — Paltrow’s key demographic — who may feel their needs are not being taken seriously by conventional medicine.)
The Gwyneth Paltrows of the world sense and exploit these failings, often packaging their offerings in a shiny message of empowerment. So while these, and many other, illogical arguments deployed by wellness advocates can be frustrating, we need to consider the circumstances that make them so effective.
There are plenty of things the medical establishment can and must do better, including adopting an approach that does more to promote healthy lifestyles. But what we may need now more than ever is good, trustworthy science and evidence-informed communication strategies that resonate with the public. Because the truth is simple: There are things that work and things that don’t — and it is science, not goop-y speculation, that will tell us which is which.
Timothy Caulfield is a Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta and author of “Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?: How the Famous Sell Us Elixirs of Health, Beauty & Happiness” (Beacon, 2015).