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Netflix’s Wellness Programming Is Irresponsible and Misleading

"Down to Earth," hosted by Zac Efron, is just one new show on the platform to peddle pseudoscience about health.
31 July 2020, 7:00am
Netflix’s Wellness Programming Is Irresponsible and Misleading
Illustration by Hunter French

In Netflix's new docuseries, Down to Earth, off-duty actor Zac Efron, and Efron’s favorite guru, a supplement enthusiast named Darin Olien, travel the earth together to eat, skateboard through the airport, and ponder the major elements of modern life. The show, which came out earlier this month, is twofold in its pursuit: It examines both climate change and "wellness," as if biodiversity and electromagnetic grounding to fight jet lag are logically connected through some hazily earth-positive feelings. It’s a link that starts out as simply foolish, but proves more frustrating and irresponsible as the series continues.

In Down to Earth, the lack of attention to detail reaches innovative levels: In an episode about water, Efron, in a voiceover, informs us that the human body is between 50–65 percent water. Not eight minutes later, certified water sommelier Martin Riese says the body is over 70 percent water. The discrepancy is ignored. In an accompanying infographic about H2O, the two oxygen atoms are different sizes.

At a water tasting, Riese, who also runs a water academy for aspirant water sommeliers, presents Efron and the show’s guest, actress Anna Kendrick, with three different mineral waters to swill. As they sample, Reise vehemently warns them never to touch purified water or “boiled-up tap water,” as these have been demineralized, and so the pure water “will find minerals in your body,” he says, and it “pulls out” these nutrients, so “you’re losing actual minerals by drinking water.”

Instead, Riese touts mineral water, which he claims is flush with nutrients like magnesium and calcium. Of one, he says, “This is not for hydration. This is pretty much medication.” This spiel—in a way emblematic of the show—is patently untrue.

Nitpicking the show, while very easy, isn't really my point. My concern is that the show has abysmal factual standards and a relationship to reality that’s faulty at best. And when you’re dealing with the subject of health, accuracy is not inconsequential.

“There is all this pseudoscience sprinkled throughout,” Jonathan Jarry, a science communicator who combats pseudoscience as his profession for McGill’s Office for Science and Society, told VICE. “It reaches a critical mass in the water episode. I stumbled on Down to Earth when I was on vacation,” Jarry said, “It ruined my vacation for that day.”

In the most simplistic way, as the show would have it, Down to Earth is the boy’s version of The Goop Lab, which premiered in January to great derision. The Goop Lab and Down to Earth are Netflix's in-house contributions to an array of questionable health and wellness documentaries that Netflix has surfaced and promoted within its catalogue of documentaries. Though the frenetic Bill Nye Saves the World (which sometimes touches on health related topics like sleeping and diet) is a cheerleader for science as a concept, Netflix’s documentary programs that focus on health exclusively are overwhelmingly slapdash regarding facts. (Netflix declined to comment for this piece.)

Netflix’s original health programming finds easy, strange bedfellows with the other woo-health garbage it hosts. The overall approach, in its tolerance for scientific illiteracy and pseudoscience, sows misinformation among its viewership.

Netflix’s catalogue of health-related documentaries are marked by a comfort with non-factual bias. Last year, Netflix gave a home to The Game Changers, a documentary about vegan athletes. While the show's encouragement of more environmentally sustainable, plant-based diets is somewhat admirable, Jarry (and other critics) said the show “makes a lot of unsubstantiated claims about veganism,” like that cow’s milk increases estrogen in cis men's bodies, an idea which extrapolates research from particularly small sample sizes.

In 2018, Netflix showcased What the Health, an Indiegogo-funded movie produced by Joaquin Phoenix that was roundly criticized for cherry-picking evidence and mischaracterizing the links between food and disease. The documentary is a bastion of gotcha journalism with laughable shock value footage (two tiny white children eat hot dog buns filled with lit cigars to demonstrate the carcinogenic quality of processed meat: perfection).

The many factual sins of What The Health include misreading of a 2015 World Health Organization report to overstate the link between processed meat and cancer; and a constant, erroneous comparison between eggs and cigarettes, though the 2012 source cited in the documentary was revised in 2016.

The documentary’s lazy, biased sourcing is reflective of its simplistic framework, Julia Belluz wrote in Vox: in the spirit of dubious diet books, the pointed message of What The Health erases all complexity: It erroneously “promises us there is one healthy way to eat.”

Similarly, fact-checking Down to Earth was an experience in delighting and surprising various doctors and scientists. Though the show vehemently insists that water should be a source of minerals, Ngai Yin Yip, who (along with every other doctor or scientist VICE spoke to) said that we get these elements in plenty from our food. “The amount of magnesium and calcium that we can potentially get from drinking water is negligible compared to what we get from our main diet,” said Yin Yip, an assistant professor at Columbia University’s Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering.

Yin Yip distinguishes filtered water from distilled water, which the show confuses. Distilled water is an expensive process that captures pure H2O. Despite the show's implication, water filters (like a Brita) don’t remove calcium or magnesium, and the vast majority of bottled water at the grocery store is not distilled.

Though it’s unlikely that you’re drinking distilled water, the show is right, said Yin Yip, that “one should not be drinking distilled water for prolonged duration. That might have detrimental health effects, though the Western diet so rich in calcium and magnesium, usually we are able to recover whatever losses are leached out.”

The episode also spends a good deal of its time frightening viewers about the perils of tap water, because tap water is chlorinated, which Joe Schwarcz, the director of McGill Office for Science and Society, said is deeply uniformed. Schwarcz emphasized that “the addition of chlorine to water is probably the single most important health advance in the history of public health. The only thing that rivals it is penicillin. It’s incalculable how many lives it has saved.”

What’s most frustrating about this show is not its sprinkles of bunk; the most frustrating thing about this show is that it mixes bunk with earnest reporting. The water episode tours Paris’ enviable hydration infrastructure, which provides clean water for free across the city. But the episode contains many specious particles—enough bad dye to color the whole system.

“The problem with the show,” Schwarcz said, “is that it’s a mixture of sense and nonsense.” It’s just true enough to be confusing on a first Google; just plausible enough to be misleading.

This is exemplified also on the Costa Rica episode of Down to Earth, which explores biodiversity and sustainable practices on a farm there. The resident botanist suggests that Efron avoid coffee to combat “adrenal fatigue.” Olien agrees—coffee really does “slam the adrenal glands” (bro woo is a fascinating linguistic paradigm, which I can’t get into at this moment, but adore unequivocally). Adrenal fatigue, says the botanist, ”can feel like burning the candle at both ends. It’s like you’re exhausted and you can’t fall asleep.”

Efron looks truly frightened, for, he too, has experienced exhaustion… which is what that actually is. It’s not adrenal fatigue, an erroneous, medically unsupported diagnosis that has preyed on the chronically exhausted for decades. Adrenal fatigue is not recognized by the ICD-10-CM index of diseases that the whole world uses. (Adrenal failure is something else, as is adrenal insufficiency.) It’s also not recognized by the Internal Medicine Society or the Endocrine Society.

Pursuing a “diagnosis” like adrenal fatigue worsens conditions for suffering patients, worried Marcelo Campos, who wrote about the falsehoods of adrenal fatigue for Harvard Health Publishing. “Patients get into this spiral where there is no end,” he said. “They get into this stress running after a solution and the solution is actually to stop looking at stuff, to relax. It’s just absurd. There is no end.” Unfortunately, this running towards insubstantial claims is a central momentum of the show.

In this pursuit of vague wellness, Down to Earth veers into exoticizing territory. The show continually falls prey to the delusion of “the ancient," as if an old practice or an ancient grain is inherently more valid or superior than something newer. The show’s logic also prioritizes anything “natural” as inherently better. (Jarry, the anti-pseudoscience warrior, reminded me that asbestos and scorpion venom are both natural.) In one moment, Efron unquestioningly drinks raw goat milk, though raw milk carries dangerous bacteria including E. coli, Listeria, and Salmonella.

Criticism of white celebrities leeching off other cultures’ health practices was also wielded at Goop Lab.  At Slate, Julia Craven and Shannon Paulus wrote about  the show’s episode about conscious breathing, which overlooked “centuries of indigenous tradition and practice to center a white man who is monetizing a bastardized version of said practice.” (The show profiled Wim Hof; whose fast breathing exercises share central characteristics with Indo-Tibetan spiritual practices).

One of the most disappointing things about Down to Earth is that it’s half-noble. The show upholds environmentally responsible and sustainable practices. The show's episode about Puerto Rico doesn’t shy from the life-ravaging effects of Hurricane Maria and the continuing housing crisis on the island.

“It’s a very frustrating trend,” said Tim Caulfield, the research director of University of Alberta’s Health Law Institute, that combines causes like “saving biodiversity with magical thinking. It puts them in the same cognitive file, giving the impression that one goes with the other.”

Caulfield said, first thing that he “has a little conflict” because he, too, had a health-centric show that aired on Netflix. “We really tried to make a documentary show that was science-based,” he told VICE; A User’s Guide to Cheating Death aired on Netflix for two seasons. Then, before Netflix aired Goop Lab in January of this year, they pulled Caulfield’s show. (This may or may not be related to a book that Caulfield had published a few years beforehand, in 2015, called Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?)

Without fact-checking, supported sources, and scientific literacy, a program that that seems like a documentary could fairly be described as a glorified infomercial. In January, The Goop Lab was eviscerated as a six-episode-long infomercial for Gwyneth Paltrow’s brand, though Down to Earth has yet to receive the same shakedown as an infomercial for Olien’s Shakeology brand.

At some point in Down to Earth, Efron cites an unidentified source to define the concept of a miracle: “as ‘the impossible inexplicably becoming possible,'” so, he muses, “then, real or not, doesn’t matter, does it?” It does, and this full acceptance of magical thinking, across Netflix's original docuseries as well as the externally produced health-centric offerings the service airs, is distressing. When it comes to public health and individual choices that impact someone’s well-being, the truth does matter. There are consequences to misinformation. During a pandemic, especially, it's inarguable that precise, truthful, scientific fact about health should be prioritized over high-spirited, eccentric romps through wellness.

This is not to say Down to Earth is high-spirited or eccentric. I wish it was. While I really do care about truth and science, I also care about being amused and having fun. I saw someone compliment Down to Earth as “pure,” which, at first, riled me. The show is pocked with falsehoods! But there is something pure, I guess, to the openness, to the vulnerability to any claim. That is a purity—it’s just a treacherous one. And this purity across Netflix's health programming—like the exaggerated threat of evil distilled water coursing through my system—does leach out everything that might have been good for me. The show’s mistakes are duplicitous to the people seeking information about their bodies from a network with  little interest in any responsibility toward them.

At the water tasting she attends with Efron in Down to Earth, Kendrick wonders if she’s being “punked,” in the fashion of MTV’s old prank show. "What if these all turn out to be the same water? she asks, “and this actually an episode is about the power of suggestion?”

Down to Earth would never be so knowingly clever, unfortunately; and it turns out Punk'd probably has a more admirable relationship to truth. At least in Punk'd, you knew where you stood.

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