This year I ended up on a Cision Journalist Database. According to its website, Cision “wrote the book on how to target print, broadcast, and online journalists.” This book appears to have instructed PR representatives to email me 10-to-15 story pitches and press releases every day, mostly related to food, health, and fitness.
That makes sense, because I mostly write about food, health, and fitness. But it’s clear that most of these PR reps have never read what I usually write about food, health, and fitness, and that makes these emails worth discussing. By the end of this you’ll understand why I have a folder in my Gmail labeled “Shitty Health Pitches,” and why these emails represent the brokenness of our approach to health and wellness.
I’ll give you an example.
On Wednesday I received an email from someone in California named Thom. Thom sent me a press release on behalf of ARYA Curcumin +, a line of beverages and antioxidant chews which according to the press release provide 27 times the absorption of regular curcumin! (emphasis mine). Curcumin is a substance derived from turmeric, the yellow spice found in many Indian curries. This ingredient has wellness benefits, according to the folks at ARYA, who claimed in this email that their drinks “may help to recalibrate your body daily and combat unhealthy inflammation triggered by diets rich in sugar and saturated fat, weight gain, physical inactivity, chronic stress, smoking, and sleep disorders.”
While I was tempted to delve into what it means to “recalibrate your body,” I instead pondered whether there were some other things that don’t cost more than three dollars per can, that might help combat unhealthy inflammation triggered by diets rich in sugar and saturated fat, weight gain, physical inactivity, chronic stress, smoking, and sleep disorders.
Then it hit me!
In order to improve health, instead of developing a new product that is not regulated by the FDA, makes vague and un-measurable health claims, and plays upon people’s limited understanding of science and health, why don’t we address diets rich in sugar and saturated fat, weight gain, physical inactivity, chronic stress, smoking, and sleep disorders?
But wait—aren’t we doing that? Well, not effectively. And it’s precisely because we are not properly addressing the underlying drivers of about 70 percent of deaths in the U.S. (and most of our health care costs), that companies like ARYA can step in and sell you an ingredient that has been removed from a food because that food may have been shown to have some health benefits.
I’m not here to argue whether or not curcumin or other supplements have demonstrated any specific health effect. Curcumin does indeed appear to have antioxidant properties. The problem is that you can walk past the produce aisle in any given grocery store—past piles of whole plants and fruits that contain almost everything a person needs to thrive—and make your way to something called the “Adult Nutrition” section. There you’ll find row upon row of products that contain isolated ingredients from the plants you just walked past that companies claim can help you deal with the health problems that arise from not eating enough of the plants you just walked past.
“We’re always looking for the next great thing. When you’re looking for the next great fruit and you come across the goji berry and the noni berry, then the marketing gets out of control and you miss the fact that oranges and pears and strawberries are just as wonderful,” Bellatti said.
“I like to remind people that those making these claims have a very vested interest in selling their products. They’re not the most objective purveyors of information. Also remember that when it comes to antioxidants or vitamins and minerals, food is always best, rather than ingredients from that food,” he told me.
The diseases and health problems that come from eating poorly and not getting enough physical activity are the perfect fodder for an industry that has asked me to write about the following:
· Essential mints, that promise not only fresher breath, but also weight management and increased energy;
· Something called Chlorophyll Water that both “cleanses” and has antioxidative properties;
· Alkaline water, which Beyoncé, Gwyneth Paltrow, Janet Jackson (and others) drink for greater energy, better sleep, improved digestion, and which might even prevent cancer, apparently;
· Celsius, an energy drink that helps to “burn up to 93 percent more body fat” and contains a “proprietary blend of quality ingredients”;
· WTRMLN WTR, “the future of clean, natural hydration,” which is just watermelon juice (this actually sounds pretty delicious, but what does “clean, natural hydration” even mean?);
· CitraGreen, the world’s first effervescent wheatgrass tablet that promotes a “healthy immune system, overall wellness, sports recovery and lots of energy”;
· Coral EcoPure Powder, which is yes, literally ground up coral, like from the ocean, and contains “73 essential minerals” (there are only 16 essential minerals and you probably get them all in the food you eat every day);
· Kuali Real Food, a “Miami-based brand which has learned to harness the flavor and simplicity of Amaranth, a super-nutritious seed,” which “delivers a host of [undefined] holistic benefits” . . . to “health-conscious men and women between the ages of 24 and 55 who care about what they feed their bodies.”
It’s doubtful that any of these supplements offer health benefits beyond what you would get if you got adequate amounts of physical activity every day, limited empty calories, and consumed a sufficient volume and variety of fruits and vegetables.
The ARYA email was especially telling because the writer just came out and admitted that the product is aimed at helping mitigate the problems that come from a poor lifestyle (sugar, inactivity, etc.). So whether or not these products work as claimed (evidence points to no), using them is essentially admitting defeat to a situation that is causing illness, costing money, and claiming lives.
The constant barrage of marketing and news stories touting the latest health product or “scientific breakthrough” obscures public health interventions that could actually make a dramatic impact on our wellbeing, like curbing food marketing to kids, improving our food system, and developing infrastructure that favors active transportation. But those things don’t sell products, and they don’t make for good news stories.
As Bellati told me, “This may not sound ground breaking, but we have a pretty good idea of what’s bad for us: Too much sugar, too much starch, too much salt, too much red meat, and too much fried food. As long as you’re avoiding these things you’re on a pretty good track.”
It’s hard to write about health. I feel for the full-time health reporter who needs to file something, who needs to break through the endless siege that is underway for the public’s attention. The good health reporter has to deal with science. And the science, when it comes to lifestyle health and wellness, plods along, imperfectly, in fits and starts, and generally doesn’t result in the miracle discoveries and cures that you’ll hear about on the Dr. Oz show.
So it’s not news, but apparently it bears repeating: No, you do not need that supplement. No, the latest fitness craze is not going to sweep the nation and get everyone in shape. Every one of these emails reminds me that it will need repeating again, and continue to need repeating, until people begin to realize that if they are being sold “health,” what they are probably getting is snake oil.
Don’t smoke. Choose whole foods. Move your body, often. Don’t eat too much junk. But more importantly, recognize that the real power in reversing chronic disease trends lies in reshaping our environment—from one that promotes poor diet and physical inactivity, to one that makes healthy foods and healthy movements the easy choices, rather than the difficult ones.
If that ever happens, maybe I’ll stop getting these stupid emails.