Words of advice from celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow, Katy Perry, and Tom Brady could be ruining your health or the health of the people around you.
This was the message from Tim Caulfield, author, law professor and research director of the University of Alberta’s Health Law Institute during a seminar at FarmTech.
“I really do think that popular culture is screwing with our health,” Caulfield told a packed room. “It’s a really interesting time in human history. Never have we had so much good science, so much good information. But at the same time, never have we had so much ridiculous bunk out there.
“And it really is absolutely everywhere.”
But, he told his audience, “we can all do something.”
The fight for sound science starts by recognizing the influence of big-name actors, singers, and athletes.
“Celebrity culture matters. It does have an impact and affects all of us. We are evolutionally evolved to follow celebrities. There is a scientific basis that we follow people based on prestige.”
Studies have shown that when celebrities — who typically have huge numbers of followers on social media — talk about topics such as health, nutrition, and GMOs, people become confused and unsure.
Many practices endorsed by celebrities — which can include everything from applying bird poop to make your skin look younger to the benefits of IV therapy for hydration — have no scientific evidence to support them, said Caulfield.
He cited the huge popularity of gluten-free diets in the United States, where about one-third of the population is shunning gluten from their diet.
“The stats in Canada are not quite as dramatic, but over four million Canadians are trying to go gluten free,” said Caulfield.
This number doesn’t include celiacs or people with gluten sensitivity, but people who think that they will receive health benefits or lose weight by removing gluten from their diet. People mistakenly believe that going gluten free is healthier, improves athletic performance, and reduces inflammation, even though there is no scientific evidence for these beliefs.
Many people are confused about genetic modification, and there is a huge gap between what the experts say and what the public thinks, said Caulfield. As new data emerges, science evolves, but that causes the public to think scientists can’t make up their minds. All of this leads to more confusion.
One study discovered that Americans find doing their taxes easier than understanding information about nutrition and health, he said.
Celebrities such as Vani Hari (the American blogger known as The Food Babe) can even influence policies. Hari has endorsed raw milk, and advocacy groups have pushed for it in the U.S. and Canada, even though the Centre for Disease Control has said raw milk can make people sick.
Football superstar Tom Brady has endorsed restrictive diets and heralded organic foods, even though there is no evidence that organic food is more nutritious. In fact, Caulfield said, fear of pesticides can reduce fruit and vegetable consumption, which can have a negative impact on health.
“Pop culture also has an impact on serious things like vaccination,” he said. “Right now, the president of the United States is a celebrity who is an anti-vaxxer. The scientific community is terrified about this.
“He has repeatedly said on social media and in speeches that there is a connection between vaccination and autism. There is no evidence to support this at all.”
While many Canadians may scoff at these fears about vaccines, a study found that one in four has some fear around vaccination.
Celebrities also perpetuate the idea of detoxing and cleansing, even though there is no evidence to support this multimillion-dollar industry.
Then there are ideas, such as cleansing, that are tied to ideas that sound like real science, which Caulfield calls “science-ploitation.”
Misguided celebrity advice can pose a serious health hazard, he added.
“There is also an erosion in critical thinking. Long term, that might be the most problematic aspect of this story,” he said.
To fight back, people need to demand truth in advertising. Caulfield points to the recent labelling of homeopathic medicine in the United States as an example of what can be done.
“We have to have more scientific literacy, and creative communication strategies, using stories and narratives to get the information out,” he said. “We need to support independent science.”
He called on the FarmTech audience to push back.
“Everyone in the room needs to call this bunk. When there is something that is not supported by science, we need to say that. Long term, that isn’t going to change people’s minds, but it has an impact because it sets the record straight.”
Sharing facts and real science can also help people be more critical in their analysis of what they see and read, he added.