TREND: IN WELLNESS WE TRUST

People increasingly want to separate the wellness wheat from the chaff, and more resources and platforms will help them do it.

By Richard Panek

“Nonsense[1].” “A false antidote[2].” “Snake oil[3].”

Google “wellness,” and these pejoratives might be among the first adjectives you’ll find. And not without reason. Years of baseless claims about pseudo-scientific products have blurred the distinctions between legitimate wellness practitioners and the charlatans who threaten to give wellness a bad name.

Semantics, in fact, is part of the problem. Anybody can package a vaginal egg and call it “wellness,” just as anybody could peddle a miracle elixir as part of a “medicine show.” And in many ways, wellness is in its own Wild West phase. The industry has been ripe for a reckoning—a rigorous accounting, whether through intense media criticism, internal vetting, or outside regulation, all based on empirical supporting evidence. And now it’s come.

There’s a new sheriff in town: the wellness watchdog.

People increasingly want to separate the wellness wheat from the chaff, and more resources and platforms will help them do it.

MEDIA AS WELLNESS WATCHDOG

Nothing says “wellness” like goop, literally

Goop—Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle website and product line that reportedly is worth $250 million—has become “the epicenter of the wellness industry,” according to Bloomberg News[4]. By attracting a disproportionate share of media coverage (due in part to the celebrity of its founder), goop has become nearly synonymous with the market identity it’s appropriated: a “wellness” brand.

“The beauty of the term ‘wellness’ is that it encompasses almost everything and can cost almost anything,” writes Eva Wiseman, life and style columnist for the Guardian, in an article highly critical of goop in particular and—as if the leap were natural—the wellness industry in general[5]. Jennifer Gunter, the OB-GYN who has made a second career out of wellness skepticism, first came to prominence in 2017 as a goop critic (“Dr. Jen Gunter Wants to Protect Your Vagina from Gwyneth Paltrow,” read the headline on a profile of her in Mother Jones[6]). But Gunter, too, has broadened her attacks, in best-selling books and as a columnist at the New York Times, to encompass what she calls Big Natural (as opposed to Big Pharma)[7].

The leap is somewhat understandable. With its high prices, its sometimes questionable (and in at least one case, actionable) claims, and its cult of personality, goop gives the Jen Gunters of the world plenty of valid ammunition.

But what are they at war with?

Exercise? Healthy food? A good night’s sleep? A sense of community? Stress reduction?

Presumably not. These five cornerstones of wellness have plenty of proof as contributing to a healthy lifestyle. Studies abound for the wide-ranging health benefits of each of these bedrock principles of wellness, from studies agreeing that sleep deprivation affects productivity, concentration and mood to those proving a healthy diet leads to greater longevity. Nothing—no pill or Big Pharma solution—has more evidence for its impact on health than these five pillars.

Callout websites have begun to add nuance to the criticisms. Estée Laundry, which Refinery29 named the 2019 “Influencer of the Year[8],” is an anonymous Instagram collective that regularly takes on the misleading or outright false claims of influencers, brands and publications in the beauty industry. “Our goal is to inform and empower our followers,” someone(s) from the website told Glamour in a rare interview[9]. “Our fans have shown that they are not afraid to stand up to brands and vocalize their concerns.”

That kind of proactive fandom is what rocketed The Dream to the top spot on Apple Podcasts charts; in its first season, where it took on multilevel marketing schemes, it recorded 10 million downloads[10]. The target of the podcast, in its second season, is wellness: What is it? Who sells it? What’s actually based on truth? Episodes explore its more “bombastic” and “unfathomable” promises.

So, it’s not wellness itself that today’s callout culture is calling out. Instead, it’s the sense that, whatever the merits of wellness in principle or in fact, the industry hasn’t been policing itself.

Who’s minding the ($4.5 trillion) store?

GOVERNMENT AS WELLNESS WATCHDOG

In June 2019, US Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)[16]. The subject was a new fad in the wellness marketplace, one that had grown into a $62 million industry in virtually no time at all: teatox. The product—teas loaded with caffeine and laxatives—would supposedly help customers achieve the goals implicit in the names of some of the products that Blumenthal cited in his letter: “Flat Tummy Co.,” “Boo Tea,” “MateFit.”

“These teas,” Blumenthal’s letter said, “do not have any clinically demonstrated benefit, and some components of the tea can be downright dangerous[17].”

What was remarkable about Senator Blumenthal’s response wasn’t that a government official was exercising the right to oversight. It was that the oversight emerged so quickly and with such precision.

Teatox is symptomatic of a couple of the major challenges that wellness regulators face. One is that new subcategories keep popping up—subcategories in which a lack of “clinically demonstrated” benefits is almost to be expected. Prescribed medicines, of course, are subject to strict government oversight. But US authorities have usually taken a hands-off approach to dietary supplements—the category to which detox teas belong. The FDA doesn’t require that manufacturers prove that they work—or even that they’re safe[18]. Yet here was a US senator not only identifying a new subcategory of wellness but exercising a new urgency in monitoring its claims.

Even so, government oversight of wellness products is not always welcome by the public. For some consumers, a lack of verifiable information might even be a benefit; they can fill in the blanks on the label with the cure for whatever ails them. In the early 2000s, more than a million Europeans signed a petition opposing the EU’s effort to impose uniform standards on food supplements[19]. Such products are “a salesman’s dream,” wrote Amanda Mull on the Atlantic website in January 2020[20]. “When little is known, virtually anything can be passed off as possible.” The directive, nonetheless, went into effect.

The second way that the teatox phenomenon has been symptomatic of the challenges that wellness regulators face is the promotion of wellness products. The concept of “influencers” in a pre-Internet age would have been meaningless. Yet watchdogs are now getting paid to think about what the Kardashians are getting paid to think about—or at least what the Kardashians are getting paid to promote.

But which watchdogs? Government regulators, yes: In 2017, the FTC, for the first time, sent Reminder Letters to prominent social media influencers and marketers about the legal requirement of adhering to the facts[21]. But the responsibility for monitoring influencers also extends to trade organizations. The Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland, for instance, reminds opinionators that their online advocacy must match the language requirements on the EU register of nutrition and health claims[22]. The website for the US consumer advocacy group Truth in Advertising lists three thousand examples of dubious marketing of supplements and other wellness products.

Wellness industry regulations may move to a more formalized model; case in point: the US Department of Agriculture’s recent “interim final rules” for domestic production of hemp and CBD.

The response of these oversight agencies might reflect a turning point in the regulation of the wellness industry toward a more formalized—and, therefore, a more consistent and reliable and empirical— model. One possible portent: In October 2019, the US Department of Agriculture published “interim final rules[23]” for domestic production of hemp, including the hemp by-product cannabidiol, or CBD—the explosively popular ingredient in gummies and juices in marijuana-friendly states… and in oils that might help you sleep and in wipes that might calm your nerves.

“How big a deal could this be?” wrote Forbes columnist Louis Biscotti. “Think about the end of Prohibition. The federal government is finally creating standards that could help create a national marketplace. That could help move CBD from the margins to the mainstream, adding security, safety and consistency to manufacturing[24].”

Forecasting the Future

  • Wellness is, by nature, a consumer industry, which arose to “supplement” that which traditional healthcare hasn’t done well: inciting lifestyle change and focusing on exercise, healthy food, stress reduction, sleep, community, etc.—all proven to have a massive impact on health. But a free market Wild West of Wellness is one thing when it does no harm, and another when false claims for various products’ ability to prevent COVID-19 give people a dangerous, false sense of security.
  • While “belief” has a surprising impact on health outcomes, more people will now demand proof of efficacy in both traditional medicine and wellness. It’s become a collective joke that with Coronavirus, people tossed aside the organic cleaning products for the most toxic, germ-zapping options available. That’s the new mindset: it had better work.
  • Wellness bashing will rise, but so will evidence from clinical trials on what best supports immunity: exercise, good sleep, a balanced diet and stress reduction. These are the un-sexy but core pillars of wellness, and a return to simplicity may lie ahead. Resources like www.wellnessevidence.com, providing easy access to thousands of medical studies for 30 wellness approaches, should become more important tools.
  • Wellness markets have been extremely unregulated, and while most would not want yoga, meditation, fitness or our diets regulated, greater regulation for supplements that make false claims, or worse, do actual harm, are likely ahead—beyond the new warning letters from government agencies.

This is an excerpt from the “In Wellness We Trust: The Science Behind the Industry” trend in the 2020 Global Wellness Trends Report.

This is an excerpt from the TRENDIUM, a bi-weekly communication exploring the wellness trends identified in the Global Wellness Trends Reports.

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