Tales from the “wellness industrial complex”

A New York Times column accuses supplements and the natural products industry of tearing down medicine to build up sales but conspiracy theories serve neither side well.

More than a few people in the natural products industry might be surprised to learn they are part of the “wellness industrial complex,” but an Aug. 1 column in The New York Times column,  “Worshipping the False Idols of Wellness”, uses that unlikely term to splash supplements and natural products companies with a wide and not-so-nuanced brush.

The granola and gingko cartel that California obstetrician Jen Gunter describes in the piece sounds as sprawling as it is sinister. Indeed, it takes a lot of stretching the lines to throw multivitamins in with cancer patients opting for vitamin IVs over chemotherapy. Such stretched lines are a necessity for coming up with a shadowy enemy like the wellness industrial complex and we have to wonder what circles she’s running in if she can say, “Every doctor I know has more than one story about a patient who died because they chose to try to alkalinize their blood or gambled on intravenous vitamins instead of getting cancer care.” If there are any companies advising such strategies, there are certainly not enough of them to comprise an “industrial complex.”

The advice that every trade association gives every time supplements hit the headlines is, “talk to your doctor,” but Turner charges that the industry seeks a “medical throwback, as if the halcyon days of health were 5,000 years ago.”

Indeed, supplements could be described as an antidote to modern life—the modern diet is widely accepted as a disaster—but that doesn’t mean the many millions of consumers who take supplements or the companies that sell those supplements responsibly are recommending anybody walk away from modern medicine.

Gunter seems equally undeterred and uninformed.

When she writes that “Modern medicine wants you to get your micronutrients from your diet,” she seems oblivious to how difficult that can be and ignores the fact that so few people manage to achieve that perfect diet. If “only a few vitamins have proven medical benefits” does that mean avoiding scurvy and pellagra is not a medical benefit? Vitamin deficiency is not something relegated to the Third World or history textbooks. It’s going on right now, thanks to a diet so far out of whack that, according to reporting also found in The New York Times, lifestyle diseases related to diet could cost the government trillions of dollars in coming years.

Wellness, whether it’s part of an industrial complex or not, is part of the answer to that. That means eating better, and, for many, fortifying the diet with supplements.

Turner goes on to accuse natural products and supplement companies of turning modern medicine into a boogeyman in order to sell more products. That a writer who uses a term like “wellness industrial complex” would make such a charge seems particularly ironic, but if the natural products industry is trying to turn people away from medicine, the conspirators are doing a poor job. Americans spend roughly 10 times more on medicines than supplements.

Of course, conspiracy theories that the medical establishment is out to squash the supplement industry and keep people sick to sell treatment instead of prevention make the rounds at industry events, too. And they’re just as helpful there as Gunter’s ideas are in the NYT piece. 

Whether “wellness industrial complex” is a pejorative or not, it is not good for either side to employ an either-or dynamic.

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