In an interview with Goop.com, Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle company, a former cable-television technician named Clint Ober explained the practice of “earthing,” or walking barefoot on the ground. What he seemed to draw from his experience in cable systems was that, not unlike live wires, humans’ electrical charges could be neutralized through contact with the earth. Doing so, he explained, “prevents inflammation-related health disorders:”
It’s intuitive that—like in a cable system—grounding would neutralize any charge in the body. After grounding myself, and a few friends who had arthritic-type health disorders, I became convinced that grounding could reduce chronic pain.
To help readers reap these supposed health benefits without having to touch their bare feet to the ground, the Goop article provides a link to bedsheets and mats that can be plugged into the grounding port of an electrical outlet. One queen-sized sheet goes for $200.
The post claims several people in the Goop “community”—including “GP” herself—swear by earthing for “everything from inflammation and arthritis to insomnia to depression.” But Truth in Advertising, a consumer advocacy group, cited earthing in a database of 50-some instances in which Goop promoted unsubstantiated products or claims. Last month, Truth in Advertising urged two California district attorneys to investigate Goop and take “appropriate enforcement action.”
Yet by outward appearances, it’s still a very successful media company. Its June “In Goop Health” summit, crammed with crystals and aura photographers, sold out of its $1,500 tickets, and there are two more like it scheduled. Each month the site is read by 1.8 million people—people who have the very advertiser-pleasing characteristics of an average age of 34 and a household income in the six figures, according to Adweek. In April, Goop announced it was teaming up with Conde Nast, which publishes the New Yorker, Wired, and other prominent magazines, to create a quarterly print publication debuting this month. According to People magazine, in the inaugural issue Paltrow’s editor’s letter describes the joys of cleanses, bee-sting skin treatments, and, of course, barefoot strolls:
“For me, when I take my shoes off and walk in the grass, it’s so healing. It’s hard to find scientific evidence for the idea that ‘I feel good.’ But by trying, you get so much juice out of life.”
(Goop did not respond to multiple requests for an interview. In a statement provided to The Hollywood Reporter, Goop said, “while we believe that [Truth in Advertising]’s description of our interactions is misleading and their claims unsubstantiated and unfounded, we will continue to evaluate our products and our content and make those improvements that we believe are reasonable and necessary in the interests of our community of users.”)
How to explain Goop’s popularity? In many ways, it exemplifies—and has capitalized on—several recent trends in health media. Fact-checking often doesn’t fit into increasingly tight media budgets, or isn’t much of a priority, so dubious health claims about prolonged fasting or avoiding gluten ricochet around the internet. The rich are already more likely than the poor to be healthy, so they shell out for alternative treatments and supplements in hopes of achieving even greater vitality.
And as news consumers increasingly seek out their own preferred sources, finding reliable expert advice becomes a choose-your-own-adventure game. Or, to use a Goop-ier word, journey.
* * *
When it hits newsstands later this month, Goop magazine will join a large roster of celebrity-blessed lifestyle publications, following in the footsteps of Oprah Winfrey, Martha Stewart, Rosie O’Donnell and Rachael Ray. The idea behind celebrity-led publications, says Brooke Erin Duffy, a Cornell professor who researches women’s magazines, is that “celebrities were not just individuals we saw on the screen, but we had a connection to them. We could emulate them in our everyday lives.” By some measures, it works: Dr. Oz’ The Good Life and O, The Oprah Magazine were both top-10 monthly magazines at newsstands last year, according to the trade publication Min.
The print magazine and events business are part of a broader shift in how women’s publications position themselves. With news-media profits shrinking, publications want to be a “cross-platform brand, a place that people will come to even if the print publication no longer exists,” Duffy said. Rachael Ray, for instance, has her own line of products, and Cosmopolitan hosts events (as does The Atlantic.) Goop has its own online shop, complete with pictures of Paltrow sporting whimsical tops.
For a media company, Goop already seems to be doing relatively well. Revenue reportedly tripled between 2015 and 2016. That year, Paltrow announced she had raised $10 million from venture capitalists.
The site may be benefitting from a growing interest, at least among wealthy Americans, in all things healthy-ish. Organic food sales have grown, well, healthily over the past decade; even Gatorade now comes in an organic variety. Nearly 10 percent of Americans do yoga, and 8 percent meditate. People are skipping soda for “mindful” beverages like coconut water. Americans now spend about a third as much out-of-pocket on “complementary” practitioners as they do on regular doctors.
Millennials, in particular, are more likely than older Americans to say “health” means more than just not being sick. Goop gives many of these Soul-Cycling, chia-chomping young people a place to ramp their zen to the next level.
One health reporter and editor who has worked at various women’s magazines suggested that Goop’s fun approach to wellness might be more appealing to readers and advertisers than more serious health fare, such as how to prevent diabetes or avoid the flu. Goop “already has a readership built in,” she said. Plus, “Gwyneth Paltrow is an interesting figure and really beautiful … She is living proof of Goopy health.” (She asked to be kept anonymous because she was not authorized to speak to reporters and was worried about jeopardizing her professional relationships.)
However, the odds for print health magazines are steep these days. Conde Nast recently closed Self magazine in print, and last month American Media ended the print version of Men’s Fitness. (The print version of Fitness died in 2015, 23 years after it was born.) Women’s health magazines are “chasing an older and smaller pool of women,” said Mike Lafavore, the long-serving former editor-in-chief of Men’s Health, who also served in top editorial roles at Meredith Publishing and Rodale. “Is Gwyneth Paltrow going to appeal to that group? Or will millennials flock to a magazine about Gwyneth Paltrow? I don’t know. All you have to do is ride the subway and count the number of people who are holding a piece of paper.”
“Anyone launching a print magazine in this environment,” he added, “God bless ‘em.”
It’s even tougher in the health space, he points out, since WebMD and similar sites attempt to answer people’s health questions for free. And unlike Dr. Oz—who has his own magazine and controversy—Paltrow doesn’t possess medical credentials.
The recent criticisms of Goop’s claims mirror the plight of Jessica Alba’s personal-products brand Honest Company, which has been beset by recalls and lawsuits. A celebrity like Paltrow might well attract advertisers, Lafavore said. But, “if there’s any controversy at all, advertisers flee.”
* * *
As she explained to attendees at her June summit, Paltrow became interested in wellness after her father was diagnosed with cancer. “Why do we all not feel well? Why is there so much cancer? Why are we all so tired? Why have we created a society where so many of us feel over-obligated with responsibility to the point where we aren’t feeling good — and what can we do about it?” she told audience members, according to the L.A. Times.
Since the launch of Goop in 2008, her vision of “what we can do about it” has become untethered from mainstream medicine. One Goop post suggested that bras might be linked to breast cancer, based on the notion that they restrict the flow of “toxins” through the lymph nodes and magnify radiation from cell phones. A large 2014 study found no link between bras and cancer. The Goop post mentioned that study, but it nevertheless wrapped with a round-up of unproven recommendations, including, “Consider a traditional internet connection for your home instead of Wi-Fi. The whole family will be healthier for it.”
I sent several of Goop’s articles to Scott Kahan, the director of the National Center for Weight and Wellness in D.C. Kahan specializes in nutrition and obesity treatment and serves on the faculties of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and George Washington University’s schools of medicine and public health.
The pieces I sent him included one titled “You Probably Have a Parasite—Here’s What to Do About It,” in which a homeopathic doctor claims, “If you have a health system with a low vibrational field or a weakened immune system, you’re more susceptible to parasites.” Another featured an interview with a doctor about the role of hormones in weight loss and included a “shop now” link for supplements. Finally, one interviewed celebrity fitness trainer Tracy Anderson, who claimed, “people can generally lose around eight pounds” in a one- or two-week timeframe.
“You absolutely can lose eight pounds in a week whether you’re 400 pounds or 150 pounds,” Kahan said, “but relatively little of that is actually fat.”
Kahan said the site resembles other celebrity-driven platforms: “A well-presented mix of a lot of harmless pseudoscience combined with a lot of high profit-margin snake-oil promotion, combined with some potentially harmful pseudoscience and product sales, and also combined with some reasonable, if repackaged, recommendations, that are completely accepted but by themselves aren’t enough … to sell copies of their products,” he said. Cleanses, he said, are usually harmless, but if done for weeks they can lead to extreme dehydration. Supplements, meanwhile, can affect the body in unpredictable ways, and splurging on them might leave some patients with insufficient funds for more effective treatments.
Goop’s most vocal critic is Jen Gunter, a San Francisco ob-gyn who has assailed the site for everything from its detox smoothies to its series of “anti-bloat” recipes. Her most viral posts are takedowns of the jade egg, the infamous green weights that Goop has suggested women insert into their vaginas for “spiritual detox.” Goop sells the eggs through its online shop, and despite their $66 price tag, they’ve reportedly sold out at times.
Gunter, who did her residency at the University of Western Ontario and a fellowship in infectious disease at the University of Kansas Medical Center, remembers feeling lured to the depths of internet pseudoscience in 2003, when her sons were born very prematurely and with multiple health issues. “I started researching things online that I had never researched before,” she told me. “I was Googling stem-cell therapy. It was a minefield of bad information.”
“I knew where to step,” she said—but others might not. “I realized what it’s like to be desperate at 3 a.m.”
Gunter has written, repeatedly, that the jade eggs discussed in Goop can cause pelvic pain and infections. “Jade is porous which could allow bacteria to get inside,” she wrote in January. “It could be a risk factor for bacterial vaginosis or even the potentially deadly toxic shock syndrome.”
Nathaniel DeNicola, a faculty ob-gyn at George Washington University, confirmed that the risk of infection with a jade egg is “worrisome,” though it depends on how porous the egg is and how it’s sanitized.
Goop’s editors struck back at Gunter with a post titled, “Uncensored: A Word from Our Doctors,” in which they explained that “we are drawn to physicians who are interested in both Western and Eastern modalities.” Its readers, they implied, can decide for themselves whose advice to follow: “We chafe at the idea that we are not intelligent enough to read something and take what serves us, and leave what does not.”
The “uncensored” post included a note from Steven Gundry, a doctor who has contributed to Goop. In it, he chastised Gunter for using the word “fuck” in her posts, defended his credentials, and claimed Gunter “did not do even a simple Google search of me before opening your mouth.”
On Goop, Gundry promotes the idea that lectins, a type of protein found in certain plants, such as kidney beans, cause diseases like asthma, multiple sclerosis, or irritable bowel syndrome. It’s true that lectins from uncooked beans can cause food-poisoning like symptoms, but as my colleague James Hamblin reported in April, experts say cooking prevents any potential harm from the lectins. Gundry has also been quoted warning against taking Advil and antibiotics, as well as eating tomatoes, potatoes, corn, and soybeans, among other foods.
In our interview, Gundry described his portion of the Goop editorial as a plea for civility. “Discussion should always be welcome, but discussion … has always been at a collegial level, and there’s no shouting or screaming or profanity,” he said. (Paltrow has been quoted using the phrase, “If you want to fuck with me, bring your A game,” and reportedly has cocktail napkins stamped with the motto.)
Gundry told me he began contributing to Goop because he knows Alejandro Junger, a Uruguayan cardiologist who, according to the New Yorker, has treated Paltrow and helped her with her vitamin business. “When he says it’s a good place, that’s good enough for me,” Gundry said. He said he does not get paid for contributing, and he did not know about Goop’s plans for a print magazine.
I asked him where he recommends people get their health advice. “I’ll toot my own horn, GundryMD.com,” he said, referring people to a site where, alongside a blog with health tips, he sells $70 supplement bottles. “I personally feel that it’s the best source of health advice. I think there’s other sites, like Mercola.com, which gives very useful health advice.” When I checked Mercola.com, the site of Dr. Joseph Mercola, a few weeks later, a prominently placed ad on its “vaccine” subsection offered to show readers “How to Legally Avoid Unwanted Immunizations of All Kinds.”
* * *
It’s not clear how, or if, some of Goop’s claims would survive the editing process at more traditional health publications, including at other print magazines. The fact-checkers Lafavore worked with at Men’s Health didn’t accept out-there theories or unproven treatments. If there were no independent studies to back an expert’s statement, the quote would be hedged, i.e. “Dr. Smith says this, however, there aren’t any studies to prove it,” he explained.
He said the fact-checkers still talk about the few mistakes they’ve ever made. “Every fact-checker lives in fear of letting something get through that harms someone,” he said.
The reporter and editor who requested anonymity also described a rigorous fact-checking process at one of the women’s magazines where she’s worked. If a source described a health condition to a reporter, for example, the reporter would ask her to sign a release and confirm the condition with her doctor. Claims by medical experts were cross-checked with a different expert. The marketing claims of products—such as jade eggs—would be evaluated by independent doctors. Experts were off-limits if they made questionable claims or sold supplements, as Gundry does. (At The Atlantic, print-magazine articles are checked by a separate team of fact-checkers, while web articles, with rare exceptions, are checked by the article’s author herself. Newspapers often do not have dedicated fact-checkers.)
Gundry said that after he’s interviewed by one of the site’s writers, a separate person will later “ask for a reference to back up what I say.” (In one Goop post about lectins, Gundry’s views are supported by his own book on the subject.)
When I asked about how something like Goop might be fact-checked, Mark Bricklin, the former editor of Prevention, emailed back simply, “Goop is total B.S. It would flunk fact-checking in 15 seconds.”
* * *
When one of my interviewees asked me what I, personally, thought of Goop, I wasn’t sure what to say. My job, you could say, is “wellness.” I, too, like to do yoga, eat berries, and wear flattering neutral tones. When I lived in Los Angeles a few years ago, I dipped toward the Goop-ier end of the spectrum, eating cashew cheese and avoiding “conventional” cosmetics. Even now, with the ruthlessly practical eyes of a Washingtonian, I can see that some Goop advice isn’t bad, like this post on how cognitive-behavioral therapy can help with sleep problems.
Gunter and Kahan both say they’ve seen patients who have read Goop-style questionable theories and brought them up in the exam room. Much of the time, Kahan says, questions about dubious health advice can lead to “a valuable discussion about the issues with the claims, the potential harms in some cases, or just the lack of potential benefit of most of them. In some cases, though, not uncommonly, it’s hard to convince patients that what they’re reading is gobbledygook.”
Gunter, who calls Goop’s advice “goopshit,” recently wrote that the misinformation “bothers me because it affects my patients …”
“They read your crackpot theories and they stop eating tomatoes (side note, if tomatoes are toxic why do Italians have a longer life expectancy than Americans?) or haven’t had a slice of bread for two years, they spend money on organic tampons they don’t need, they ask for [unindicated] testing for adrenal fatigue (and often pay a lot via copayments or paying out-of-pocket), or they obsess that they have systemic Candida (they don’t). … I worry that you make people worry and that you are lowering the world’s medical I.Q.”
Paltrow encourages Goop readers to weigh the evidence for themselves, but she can also tip their scales: Celebrities influence public health in surprising ways. After Angelina Jolie wrote about her risk of breast cancer in the New York Times in 2013, there was an immediate, 64 percent increase in the number of American women who underwent testing for the breast-cancer gene mutation.
And stars’ influence is not necessarily positive. Several prominent celebrities are anti-vaccine, and 24 percent of parents surveyed by the University of Michigan in 2011 said they have “some trust” in celebrities regarding the safety of vaccines. As Steven Hoffman and Charlie Tan put it in a BMJ paper in 2013, “For people seeking to raise their social status, one strategy is to imitate the behaviors of celebrities.”
Paltrow acknowledged her influence on a recent episode of Sophia Amoruso’s Girlboss Radio podcast, in which she explained that Goop had expanded into e-commerce because its recommendations could move product. “If we wrote about something we liked … we would have an impact on the business,” she said
“Are there learnings you’ve had from the flak that you’ve gotten?” Amoruso asked.
Paltrow described “a lack of willingness to step into who I am … Going into a hole is exactly the opposite of the lesson.”
“The lesson,” she added, “is to energetically cultivate, ‘fuck you.'”