TORONTO — Timothy Caulfield targeted Goop’s famous founder with his last book, “Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?”
Years later, the Alberta-based health policy expert still believes the actress-turned-wellness entrepreneur is wrong, about so many things.
But he’s heartened by the prospect of increased scrutiny over Paltrow’s lifestyle brand and website, Goop, now in the crosshairs of the U.S. watchdog group Truth in Advertising.
“I loved it when I heard this was happening with Gwyneth,” Caulfield admits in a recent call from Edmonton, where he is a professor at the University of Alberta and a Canada research chair in health law and policy.
“Really, I think that’s great, great news. Now, whether it will work is another question but I just think it’s fantastic that the attempt is being made and it’s highlighting how this is not accurate.”
Truth in Advertising has called on California regulators to investigate Goop for using “unsubstantiated, and therefore deceptive” claims to promote its health products.
The Connecticut-based non-profit, which fights false advertising and deceptive marketing, sent a complaint letter to two district attorneys on the California Food Drug and Medical Device Task Force, urging “appropriate enforcement action.”
Paltrow shot back on the podcast Girlboss Radio, suggesting critics are really targeting women’s rights: “There’s something that feels inherently dangerous to people about women being completely autonomous” in their sexual and psychological health, she told interviewer Sophia Amoruso.
This riled Caulfield in a big way.
“Her response drove me absolutely nuts,” says Caulfield, a longtime critic of Goop’s claims that its products can treat, cure, prevent, or alleviate the symptoms of various illnesses including depression, infertility and arthritis.
“She keeps pushing this idea that Goop is about autonomy and anyone who questions the science is somehow infringing on women’s autonomy. Which of course is absolutely absurd because just look at it from an informed consent perspective: Misleading people is not enhancing autonomy. She’s actually eroding autonomy by providing information that is misleading…. We want accurate information. We don’t want misleading information and we don’t want the spreading of bunk.”
Combating bunk is the main premise of his new six-part TV series for VisionTV, “A User’s Guide to Cheating Death,” starting Sept. 18.
In it, Caulfield travels the world to expose the truth behind buzzy health trends that promise a better you, include detox diets, juicing, “anti-aging products” and genetic testing.
Along the way he speaks to experts including Joe Schwarcz, director of the office for science and society at McGill University who concludes: “The quacks will always have a solution. It will be simple. It will be wrong.”
A lot of these products are harmless, but the fact they are sold as if backed by real science can lead to a misinformed public, says Caulfield. That undermines our general understanding of science and can steer people away from real treatments that do help, he fears.
Caulfield turns to his friend and fellow Goop-debunker Dr. Jennifer Gunter for help in dismissing two Goop-endorsed practices — colonics and vaginal steaming. Both are unnecessary, and both carry risk of harm, declares Gunter, a Winnipeg-born OB/GYN now practising in the U.S.
Caulfield says he considered pursuing an interview with Paltrow for the TV series, but didn’t think she’d agree. He notes he reached out repeatedly while working on his book but never got a response.
Paltrow has lashed out at her critics, especially Gunter, through Twitter and on Goop, but Caulfield suspects all the controversy actually strengthens her brand and galvanizes her devotees.
“I used to think maybe she really believed this stuff…. That was going to be my one question to Gwyneth,” he says, choosing a more cynical take that it’s purely business.
“All this pushback helps her cultivate that sort of outsider brand that ‘we’re about being open-minded and trying new things and you science-y people are all about shutting down new ideas.’ Which of course isn’t the case at all.”
He admits to being frustrated by so much health information being twisted and confused in popular culture.
But he’s fascinated by the fact that otherwise reasonable people will believe unbelievable claims.
“I don’t think it’s right to blame individuals for making crazy decisions. This is a really complex phenomenon that involves a lot of systemic pressures,” says Caulfield.
Some people feel like conventional medicine isn’t meeting their needs, he allows, and perhaps the medical establishment isn’t doing enough to simply listen to patients’ fears and concerns, he muses. There are definitely trust issues, says Caulfield.
“Clearly something is missing,” he says.
“This is filling some kind of need for these people. They believe it works, and we even had some individuals in the later episodes say, ‘I don’t care if it’s a placebo effect, this is something that is meaningful to me.’ We need to learn from that.”