Call it ‘bunk’ when it’s ‘bunk’: professor

Smearing feces on the face for that healthy glow is one of the many jaw-dropping things celebrities promote, says Timothy Caulfield, author and university professor.

“The Beckhams actually put bird poo on their face. It’s nightingale bird poo, so it’s very sophisticated. But it’s bird poo,” saidCaufield, who works at the faculty of law and school of public health at the University of Alberta.

Caulfield was referring to former international soccer player David Beckham and his model wife Victoria.

Caulfield recently attended Ag-West Bio’s annual meeting in Saskatoon, where he discussed research into the impact celebrity culture and more broadly, pop culture, has on how people think about health, nutrition and food.

Caulfield’s latest book, Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? is a researched and serious, yet fun look at the state of the $4 trillion wellness industry and the rise of celebrities as spokespeople.

“It’s really about the influence of celebrity culture on how we all think about health but also science more broadly. This really is a battle we must win,” he said to the room of agricultural scientists and industry representatives.

“It’s absolutely crazy,” Caulfield said in describing the amount and degree of health and diet advice that is being spread through popular culture.

“Did you hear of the guy who tried to live off his wife’s breast milk for a year, which made for very awkward lunch dates,” he said.

“Then you layer on top of it all of the other stuff. You have anti-GMO, pro-organic, probiotics, all of the vitamins and supplements, genetic testing. You have all of that and it creates an incredible amount of noise that is difficult for the public to navigate. It’s difficult for experts to navigate.”

Caulfield said he used Paltrow to focus many of his discussions because of the outrageous and scientifically unfounded health information the celebrity provides through her website.

“One of her most ridiculous pieces of health advice came about a year and a half ago. It’s so mind-numbing ridiculous. It is the vagina steam. She recommends that people steam their vaginas in order to detoxify,” he said.

“It’s ridiculous and potentially harmful…. Any evidence to support that? Absolutely not.”

He said other popular, money-parting procedures that have no science-based evidence include cryotherapy, intravenous therapy and cupping therapy.

Cryotherapy involves drastically lowering body temperature to achieve alleged health benefits.

Intravenous therapy is purported to boost energy by delivering vitamins, minerals, amino acids and saline intravenously.

Cupping therapy is an ancient Chinese treatment that places cups at pain points on the body. The cups are attached to a suction pump and may be heated. When applied to the body, the skin is drawn up into the cups.

Cryotherapy and intravenous treatments have been blamed for deaths in the United States, but both have been endorsed by celebrities and athletes for years.

Caulfield said the rise of gluten-free food is another cultural phenomenon, which continues to increase in popularity.

University and government-led studies show about 30 percent of Americans are trying to go gluten free and think they should go gluten free, while about 10 million Canadians are trying to do the same, or think they should.

He said these numbers do not include people with celiac disease, who represent about one percent of the population.

“We’re talking about people that think going gluten free is inherently healthier. They think it’s a good way to lose weight. They think it has better nutritional value,” he said.

He said there is no evidence to support that people not affected by celiac disease will be any healthier with a gluten-free diet.

However, the gluten-free market is expected to be worth $8 billion by 2020, despite scientific evidence that the diet can pose serious health consequences because of a lack of whole grains.

Another popular craze is for organic or natural products, which Caulfield said has become a multi-billion dollar marketing ploy.

Some of the many products with organic labelling include deodorant, car seats, cat food, shampoo, jeans, Gatorade, beds and vodka.

“Organic cigarettes: how ridiculous is that?… Organic water: it’s just insane and it’s not cheap,” he said.

“What’s being pushed by (Paltrow) and others is that eating organic is nutritionally better for you. Is there any evidence to support that? And the answer is ‘no,’ ” he said.

Caulfield said celebrity culture is having a major impact on the public’s health decisions.

“One of the ways that celebrities have an impact on all of us is just talking about this stuff. By making these things seem more plausible, they make it seem like it’s something that perhaps should be considered,” he said.

“It doesn’t matter how much data you have around efficacy and safety, the celebrity narrative wins.”

Caulfield encouraged people to consider certain factors:

  • Just because a treatment is popular does not make it beneficial.
  • Something new is not necessarily better.
  • Treatments usually come with harms and benefits.
  • Look for people who might have conflicts of interest in promoting a product.
  • Personal experiences, expert opinions and anecdotes are not reliable sources of information.
  • Look for the real science by accredited sources.

Caulfield said in an era of fake news, it is important to get the science right and effectively communicate it.

“I think we need to push back against the false balance and what I think is a tolerance for pseudo science.

“We should call it bunk when it is bunk.”

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