Are wellness bloggers motivated by good health or financial interests?

There's a lot of money to be made from food and wellness trends.

There is a growing trend where health conscious consumers are choosing to follow wellness bloggers over qualified professionals when it comes to what they eat. But experts are fighting back, and saying that dietary choices should be backed by medical science.

The proliferation of social media has given rise to a brave new world of bloggers who discuss everything from pogonophilia (an obsession with beards) to advanced wizardry.

One topic proving more popular than both mutton chops and Dark Void spells is known as “wellness” blogging. Replete with its own particular coterie of self-styled celebrity “experts”, wellness is distinguished by its emphasis on ancient wisdom and “all natural” products.  

 In fact, wellness bloggers use social media to publicly denounce what they have branded as “pseudoscience” in favour of alternative treatments, many of which make claims that are unsubstantiated and unsupported by empirical evidence.

Despite this, they attract significant support from people who are equally as unqualified to dispense nutritional advice.  

Vani Hari, an ex-financial consultant turned food blogger now known by the popular moniker “Food Babe,” has more than 990,000 Facebook followers and a unique blog readership of 3 million worldwide. Hari is on a crusade against large food corporations and what she refers to as food toxins, which she defines as ingredients that are harmful to human health because they have names that are difficult to pronounce.

In just four years, she has targeted more than 610 products, vendors and brand names.  

Wellness v. ‘Big Food’

In 2013, Hari managed to successfully petition Kraft Foods to remove a chemical dye that gives its signature Macaroni &Cheese its hallmark golden colour.

This year, she turned her sights towards General Mills and Kellogg’s, using her immense following to petition the food giants to remove butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) from their breakfast cereals… and she succeeded.

But the US Food and Drug Administration classifies the additives against which she crusades to be “generally recognised as safe” for human consumption. As a result, toxicologists and medical experts widely dispute her claims, and maintain that Hari is taking advantage of the fact that her audience is comprised almost entirely of people who do not have scientific expertise.

Professor Alastair MacLennan, head of obstetrics and gynaecology at the University of Adelaide and the Vice President of Friends of Science in Medicine, agrees.

“You need to lose the public with big long words and chemical terms to make it sound good. [In fact] a huge amount of it is rubbish,” he tells INTHEBLACK.

This logic works well for people who distrust long, complicated names like butylated hydroxtoluene more than they distrust people who claim that consuming raw milk is perfectly safe (it isn’t).

MacLennan believes that this comes down to education.

“The Australian public has very little scientific education [and] critical thinking is not taught in schools… so they can be conned very, very easily. And the government does not have rules to prevent people from being conned.”

This tactic appeals to consumers who want to be spoken to as if they fully understand the process of food production, even if their education and professional background preclude them from having the very expertise for which doctors and nutritionists are paid.

The toxin revolution

Hari published her first book earlier this year. The Food Babe Way: Break Free from the Hidden Toxins in Your Food and Lose Weight, Look Years Younger, and Get Healthy in Just 21 Days! is now a New York Times bestseller.

That’s a whole lot of life-changing advice that flies in the face of “Big Food’s” money-making agenda – and all for the low, low price of $19.99 on the Amazon Kindle store! And with a claim that apples are actually more fattening than ice-cream sundaes, how could anyone say no? Who doesn’t prefer ice cream sundaes to apples?

Not so fast…

When it comes to Food Babe and many other wellness bloggers, scientists and researchers are saying no, amongst many other things, and the media is beginning to pay attention to the potentially disastrous consequences of suspending conventional medicine for unproven therapies.

Just as Hari was capitalising on her Food Babe lifestyle with the success of her first book, Jess Ainscough, blogger and self-styled “wellness warrior”, was suffering the consequences of her own, succumbing to a long battle with a rare type of cancer called epithelioid sarcoma.

In the years leading up to her death, Ainscough rejected conventional medicine (including a disfiguring but potentially life-saving surgical treatment) in lieu of the controversial Gerson therapy, which advocates a diet comprised of organic fruits, vegetables, coffee enemas and an A$15,000 two-week clinic stay as a means of curing cancer.

“There is no credible scientific evidence for any of these alternative treatments that claim to cure cancer,” John Dwyer, the president of the group Friends of Science in Medicine and an emeritus professor at UNSW told the Sydney Morning Herald.

He also notes that the Cancer Council does not classify Gerson therapy as a valid or effective treatment – nor has it ever been linked with curing cancer.

But in 2011, Ainscough claimed that she had done just that and on 26 February of 2015, she passed away.

A dangerously marketable method

While Ainscough’s story is tragic, perhaps equally as concerning is the response with which her claims were met. Ainscough successfully commercialised the methods by which she claimed to be cured. Her story was met not with healthy scepticism, but adulation… and revenue.

Ainscough opened an online store to sell products such as jewellery, e-books and life coaching sessions. Between that and her Life Transformation Guide, which she priced at $979 each, she had successfully packaged her story and turned it into a marketable brand – one that attracted 2.5 million visitors to her website.

While wellness claims can be hyperbolic, they’re not illegal. They’re not even regulated.

“You can sell your grass cuttings on the internet… As long as you don’t claim that you’re curing cancer, you can make any general claim and say that it’s for ‘wellness’,” says MacLennan.

Ainscough credited social media with the widespread attention she attracted to her treatments, publicly thanking “Facebook and Twitter and the mass inundation of awesome blogs” in one of her written posts from May 2011.

She wasn’t the only one. By now the public is only too familiar with the tale of Belle Gibson, who famously lied about having a brain tumour to launch her celebrity wellness blogging career, including a cookbook and an app called The Whole Pantry (which was downloaded 300,000 times).

And while her net-revenue amounted to only about A$100,000 (in a matter of months) that’s no small amount of pocket change for someone in their early 20s.

Following Gibson’s public confession, outrage was swift and the media attention unrelenting. Many simply could not believe that they had been duped by such a young woman with a heart-warming story. Yet, many are still unwilling to ask of themselves why they are so quick to believe a pretty face over a trained medical practitioner.

The big business of wellness

Wellness has reinvigorated an ongoing conversation on what goes into the body, with a renewed interest in organic eating.

Many consumers are becoming increasingly concerned about the very ingredients that bloggers like Hari, Gibson and Ainscough position themselves against. And while organic food labelling does ensure that food comes free from pesticides, hormones and other additives, it certainly doesn’t come cheap.

Organic foods are priced at three times more expensive than non-organic foods in Australia.

According to The Australian Organic Market Report by Swinburne University and the Australian Bureau of Statistucs, consumers spend A$5 billion a year on organic food and other organic products. Demand continues to grow between 15 and 35 per cent each year.

But where does this money go?

If Food Babe has anything to say about it, the money will go to brands like Nutiva, Eden and Kaia foods, all of which she endorses and makes available on her website. 

But while Food Babe swears by their independence from corporate oversight, many other popular organic brands are actually owned by large food corporations.

Naked juice is owned by Pepsi. Kettle is owned by Diamond Foods. Green & Blacks is owned by Mondelez International.

Concerned consumers can take comfort in the number of studies that exist concluding that there is, in fact, very little nutritional value between eating organic and non-organic food…a fact that carries little to no weight when pitted against strong personality driven wellness advocates, like Food Babe.

The cyberpsychology of wellness

Understanding the motivation behind why some people are so quick to yield common knowledge of food and science to wellness bloggers is surprisingly simple.

Medical science can only offer probability of a treatment’s success or a rate of survival. Wellness bloggers offer total recovery (with the use of the right supplements, at the right price and at the expense of medical advice).

“The public love a personal anecdote” says MacLennan. He is not surprised that stories like Gibson’s carry so much more favour that medical advice. “That means far more to them than understanding a randomised, controlled trial.”

Unlike medical science, wellness blogging doesn’t leave room for doubt, even though doubt is a critical component in scientific advancement.

“Debate is an inherent part of science,” Prof Darren Saunders, a leading cancer researcher at Sydney’s Garvan Institute of Medical Research tells Australian Women’s Weekly.

“Uncertainty is part of the scientific language. This leaves scientists fighting back against [alternative wellness] nonsense with one-hand tied behind our backs.”

Dr Helen Zorbas, the CEO of Cancer Australia, advises people to be wary of any internet-based advice when it comes to life-threatening illness.

“[On the internet], so many statements are made as statements of fact, which are very hard to discern from opinion,” she tells SBS.

Unlike wellness bloggers, Zorbas and MacLennan encourage concerned patients to speak openly with their doctors about alternative treatments – noting that conversation is the best way to dispel potentially harmful myths. They encourage the public to ask themselves the very questions that wellness advocates so often aim at medical experts:

  • Why is [the wellness product] being sold in this way and not through conventional medicine?
  • Is someone making money off of you?
  • What is the commercial background of the wellness advice being given?
  • Is it being sold through personality advertising?

If, however, patients are hesitant to do so, then MacLennan suggests a more novel approach: “If you want to test the claim yourself, ask yourself if it stands up to common sense.”

So while conscious consumers deliberate over whether or not their canola oil is trying to kill them (it isn’t) they may want to assuage their fears with an ice cream sundae… until their doctor tells them otherwise.

Read next: The pickiness epidemic: when eating right goes wrong.