- Zac Efron's new Netflix show "Down to Earth with Zac Efron" is a hit for those who are already fans of the star.
- But among the brilliant cinematography and enjoyment exuded by Efron and his cohost Darin Olien is a lot of unproved and potentially dangerous pseudoscience.
- Olien acts as Efron's sidekick and health guru, but much of the supposed science he parrots throughout the series is unverified or disproven.
- For example, he shares a widely discredited claim that goats milk comes out of the teat pasteurized, promotes the idea of "superfoods," and makes claims about negative ions that are iffy at best.
- Here are the main pseudoscientific claims made in the series, and why you shouldn't take them as fact.
- Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.
Zac Efron's new Netflix food and travel show "Down to Earth with Zac Efron" is great weekend watching. It's full of amazing footage of some of the world's most beautiful places and doesn't require you to think very much.
Although, that might be the problem.
Among the captivating cinematography and enjoyment exuded by Efron are the pseudoscientific ideas from supposed experts and Efron's cohost and health guru Darin Olien. I let it slide when the show first mentioned Olien's enthusiasm for "superfoods," because there's nothing really wrong with a fad if it promotes people eating healthily. But I knew something more problematic was happening when I heard the disproven and iffy ideas Olien was parroting about genetic modification, negative ions, and unpasteurized goats milk.
When the chemical formula for water came on the screen (H2O) and Efron described it as "hydrogen," I realized neither the show's star nor the producers really had much scientific expertise, and I started taking note of all the pseudoscientific claims made in the eight-episode series.
1. Goat's milk comes out pasteurized
In the Puerto Rico episode, a farming student tells Efron and Olien that they should drink goat's milk fresh from the teat because it comes out pasteurized. This isn't true, and drinking raw milk from any animal can be harmful because it contains bacteria like Campylobacter, E. coli, and Salmonella.
Goat's milk does come out naturally homogenized, which means it doesn't separate and form a cream layer, so it does not have to be mechanically mixed like cow's milk. But that doesn't mean it's safe to drink untreated.
Dietitian Nichola Ludlam-Raine told Insider unpasteurized milk also goes off quicker, "so it's crucial that it's kept chilled until you plan on drinking it."
"Children, pregnant ladies, as well as older adults or those with underlying illnesses should never drink unpasteurised milks or eat cheeses that are made from unpasteurised milk, as they are more prone to food poisoning," she said.
Dietitian Keri Gans added that drinking untreated milk can cause someone to get so ill, they could even die.
While visiting Iquitos in Peru, a local woman prepares bataua milk which is made from palm fruits. Olien mentions to Efron that the human digestive system doesn't "give weight" to cow's milk because "the ratios are off." This sounds just about vague enough to be true, but isn't for the most part.
Some people in the world are lactose intolerant because they don't have the ability to produce lactase, the necessary enzyme needed to break down the components of dairy. It is most common in people of East Asian decent, for example, affecting about 70-100% of adults in some of these communities. For everyone else, there isn't much evidence you should avoid milk to be healthy, and you can digest it just fine.
In Northern European populations, where they have a long history of depending on milk products as an important food source, only about 5% of people are lactose intolerant.
2. Genetically engineered crops are poisonous to bees
A beekeeper in New York tells Efron that the biggest dangers to bees are pesticides and genetically engineered crops, which is half true. He says that GM crops are a "systemic poison" that bees bring back to the hive, but there's actually no evidence for this. It seems to build on the myth that GM crops are full scary things like harmful chemicals.
In reality, some insect-resistant GM crops have actually reduced the need for pesticides — which are harmful to pollinating insects — in crops, which is a good thing for bees.
A study from 2008, published in the journal Bee Pollination in Agricultural Ecosystems, found that proteins found in pesticide-resistant crops will not harm bees, and are "not likely to pose direct toxicity."
"Reduced pesticide use associated with insect resistant GM crops, and reduced tillage that is possible with herbicide tolerant crops, could be beneficial to bee populations compared to conventional agriculture," the paper concludes.
A Purdue University article explains that some GM crops have been developed to be naturally resistant to some insects by producing a toxin.
"This protein is so specifically targeted towards certain pests that it doesn't affect other insects, animals or humans that eat it," it reads. "In fact, it is so specific that it doesn't even impact 'good' bugs, like bees or butterflies."
This isn't to say the use of GM crops is completely harmless, though. The GM crops currently grown in the US are corn, soybeans, cotton, and canola, which make up the significant majority of crops in the country. While the GM crops that naturally resist insects are not harmful to bees, many others have been altered for different reasons and still require pesticides.
A weed-killer called Glyphosate, for example, is the most commonly used agricultural chemical, and has been found to be harmful to bees, stunt their growth, and impair cognitive function in various studies. There are also other downsides such as the growth of superweeds, that can require even more harmful chemicals, and the possible spread of transgenes to non-GM crops.
3. Putting your bare feet on the floor resets your biological clock
After arriving on French soil in episode two, Olien tells Efron that he should place his bare feet on the grass to reset his circadian rhythm and counteract jetlag. Your circadian rhythm is your internal body clock, and regulating it is incredibly important for our overall health. But there is no evidence that placing your feet on the ground aligns your inner clock with the Earth's electromagnetic field, as Olien claims.
"There is no evidence at all that a magnetic field can entrain our 24-hour clocks," chronobiologist Professor Russell Foster, the head of the Nuffield Laboratory of Ophthalmology and the Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute, told Insider.
"Now it is true, however, that birds can use the Earth's magnetic field to navigate," he added. "So it's like many weird and fanciful stories — in the animal world there's evidence this can be used as a relevant stimulus, but in us, absolutely not."
Dr Andrew McHill from the Oregon Institute of Occupational Health Sciences told Insider this was once a widely discussed theory among "fathers of the field" Colin Pittendrigh and Jurgen Aschoff, but it is now well-established not to be the case.
External or environmental cues that help the body keep in sync are called zeitgebers, and the most important one cited in the majority of sleep science research is light.
Studies have shown a "beautiful correlation" in the light-dark cycle, Foster said, in that the more evening vs morning light you get, the later you get up. Conversely, getting more morning light means you'll wake up earlier the next day.
Proven methods for helping your body adjust to a new time zone include eating at the appropriate local breakfast, lunch, and dinner times, even if it feels odd.
Foster discusses some of the ways to improve your sleep and avoid jetlag in a paper published in the journal Interface Focus. He said if you fly west, you should seek out morning light because that will allow you to adapt quicker. But if you travel east, you will want to delay your clock, so you should avoid morning light by wearing dark glasses, then seek out evening light.
"The general advice is if you want a robust sleep-wake cycle, you get exposed to light, dawn and dusk, and you eat at the same time every day," Foster said.
4. A vegan diet can cure ailments
Olien and Efron met up with Ella Mills, also known as Deliciously Ella, while in London. She told him the story of how she suffered from a rare disease called postural tachycardia syndrome in 2011 that meant she couldn't regulate her heart rate and digestion. The only thing that worked for her to cure it, she said, was going vegan.
There is plenty to celebrate about a plant-based diet — vegetables and grains are very good for our health and there is some scientific evidence it can reduce the risk of colon cancer, and help improve chronic conditions like type 2 diabetes and heart disease. However, the studies finding these results are small, and the full picture is more complicated than simply turning to veganism.
For example, people in these studies may well have seen improvements in their overall health by following the diet that has been shown time and time again in research to be the best for your brain and body — the Mediterranian diet — which consists of plenty veggies, protein, and healthy fats.
Registered nutritionist and science communicator Pixie Turner told Insider it's dangerous for a Netflix show to spread the message that veganism is a substitute for life-saving medication without challenging it at all.
"Food cannot possibly match up to medicine, because that is not what it's supposed to do," she said. "Food operates within very specific biochemical peramiters, and the whole point of medicine is to purify and distill and condense something that is far more powerful that goes beyond these biochemical perameters. That is literally what makes it medicine."
Research has shown that people who don't follow conventional treatments for cancer may be 2.5 times more likely to die in the next five years.
"That's a serious problem and that's something that someone should discuss individually with their doctor," Turner said. "That kind of thing needs to be very clear — if you want to make changes to your medication, talk to your doctor. That is literally what they are there for."
Mills, Efron, and Olien also got onto the topic of superfoods while dining at a restaurant. Olien has written a book on being a "superfood hunter," so Mills asked him how to spot them at a supermarket.
He admitted that it's pretty much any food, saying: "per bite, it's having more micronutrients than ... a doughnut."
Dietitian Ludlam-Raine told Insider superfoods are fruits and vegetables that are often expensive and have got "a really good marketing team behind them."
"In reality though, all fruits and vegetables are superfoods because they provide us with a whole host of nutrients such as vitamins and minerals," she said. "Even the humble potato could be classed as a superfood as it's packed with fiber (if the skin is eaten) and vitamin C."
Turner said that from a scientific and nutritional perspective, the term superfood is meaningless. Superfood hunter also isn't a legitimate qualification.
"He even ends up calling so many different things superfoods that it becomes meaningless throughout the show because he uses the word so often," she said. "It's just a complete gimmick. Food is great, sure. But 'superfood' is completely devoid of context and food always needs context."
6. Negative ions make you feel better
In episode one, Efron and Olien are standing by a waterfall and learning why most of them have been kept natural instead of being turned into hydroelectric dams to generate electricity.
Narrating, Efron then claims that the negative ions produced by water in motion are "known to relieve stress, relieve tension, fight depression, and increase energy."
There have been hundreds of studies conducted on examining the potential biological effects of negative ions over the last century, but no solid conclusions have been made. Sellers of salt lamps will tell you breathing in negative ions will increase serotonin levels and make you feel better, but there's actually no real evidence for this.
Derek Muller from the YouTube channel Veritasium looked into all the research on ions and mood in a video, and found that evidence is inconclusive. Some studies have shown positive impacts of pumping high concentrations of ions in the atmosphere such as better mood and awareness, but had flawed methodologies. Many studies showed no significant differences on mood at all when comparing high and low ion atmospheres.
A meta-analysis from 2013 of all the research so far found that "no consistent influence of positive or negative air ionization on anxiety, mood, relaxation, sleep, and personal comfort measures was observed."
An ion is an atom that has gained (a negative ion) or lost (a positive ion) an electron. There are much fewer ions found in cities and polluted areas, so the idea ions are good for us may have originated from the fact we feel better and are healthier when surrounded by nature.
"So, I think ultimately, if you are looking for a way to improve your mental and physical health that is backed by strong scientific evidence, then you should take a walk outside," Muller said.
7. Filtered water leaches your body of nutrients
There are lots of claims flying around about water in episode two, particularly after Efron and Olien take Anna Kendrick to visit Martin Riese, a "water sommelier." There's some good advice in the segment, such as how you should appreciate water and drink more of it to re-energize the body, but there's also some other weird claims that go unchallenged.
There's some talk about chlorine in tap water causing cancer, which has been disproven, and the apparent health benefits of imported Slovenian water containing high concentrations of solids (TDS levels). Riese tells the group that drinking water with very high TDS levels is like "medicine."
Turner told Insider that it's true that water tastes different around the world because of the varying mineral content, but calling it medicine for having high levels of suspended solids is innacurate. For starters, no water makes a significant contribution to our overall mineral intake.
"For some things like iodine it is significant, but things like calcium, if you compared the amount of calcium we get from water compared to the amount of calcium we get from milk, it's not exactly huge," she said. "Claims that this kind of water is medication, that is absolutely not the case."
The sommellier also claims that the World Health Organization has stated that drinking purified water — water that has been put through a filter to remove impurities — is bad for you. Riese said this is because the water is bereft of minerals and so goes looking for things like magnesium and calcium in your body and leaches them out.
This WHO report does exist, but mostly references population studies that show the differences between drinking hard vs. soft water. There is a meaningful discussion to be had about the potential harm caused by drinking distilled water in countries where people don't have access to a clean water source, but that isn't what's happening.
The show doesn't make the distinction between distilled and filtered water, and suggests that if you use a water filter at home, this will somehow steal all the nutrients in your body.
Turner told Insider she does not recomment anyone drink a lot of distilled water because it can upset the balance of electrolytes in the gut and cause body shakes due to the lack of salt. But this would only happen if you consistently drank a large amount, and home filters don't purify water to that level anyway.
"For the vast majority of people, that is absolutely not ever going to be a problem," Turner said. "If you filter your water too much that can happen, but most water filters don't actually do that."
Even if filtered water could suck nutrients out of cells, it would have a hard time accessing your calcium. Absorbing calcium is a complicated process with several steps which is aided by Vitamins D2 and D3. For the water to steal the calcium from your body, it would have to touch your bones directly, which is pretty unlikely to happen in any case, and impossible to occur from just drinking it.
Overall, vilifying tap water as being full of harmful chemicals, when everything added to it is there for human health and wellbeing, only to promote the import of bottled spring water from all around the world, seems like an odd note to hit for a show that's supposedly all about the environment.
8. Too much coffee causes 'adrenal fatigue'
In the third episode, which is set in Costa Rica, one of the eco-villagers tells Efron and Olien about how too much coffee causes "adrenal fatigue." She described it as the adrenal glands firing off so much that it causes the feeling of "burning the candle at both ends."
It sounds like a solid theory, as unexplained tiredness is a reason many people visit the doctor. However, there is no scientific basis to the theory that fatigue is caused by an impairment of the adrenal gland, according to a recent review of 58 studies on the subject. In fact, "adrenal fatigue" is not recognized as a diagnosis by medical specialties, including the Endocrinology Society, because there is no evidence that it's a true medical condition.
As a Harvard Health Blog post explains, fatigue and lack of energy can be caused by countless problems, including "anemia, sleep apnea, autoimmune diseases, infections, other hormonal impairments, mental illnesses, heart and lung problems, and kidney and liver diseases."
So while too much coffee can certainly cause mental and physical problems, you shouldn't start diagnosing yourself with something that doesn't exist.
Despite all of this, the show's intentions are good
"Down to Earth" has a lot of good messages within it. Its heart is in the right place, promoting cleaner living by carpooling, being more thoughtful about your reusing and recycling habits, and the importance of pollinators and eating more locally sourced products. Unlike Gwyneth Paltrow's show about vaginal eggs, "Down to Earth" isn't trying to sell you anything except the idea that the world is worth looking after.
The episodes can feel a little unfocused, with Efron going down a slide one minute and taking selfies at a litter pick-up the next, but he's an endearing host. He's clearly enthusiastic about what he's learning, if his presenting style needs a little work — there's a fair bit of overly-scripted and random narration to cover the times he's not saying very much except "Wow" and "Dude" while actually filming. As Mashable's Alison Foreman said in a review: "You must love Zac to love 'Down to Earth.'"
But for a show that's all about raising awareness of things like geothermal energy and sustainable living, it's quite disappointing that the science is an afterthought. Having just one trustworthy scientific advisor on staff would have been able to get rid of, or at least challenge, many of the pseudoscientific claims made throughout the series.
The populous can already misunderstand and misinterpret scientific research, and the importance of reliable science communicators is an important part of rectifying that. It's just a shame that in a show about the environment and reducing climate change, ensuring scientific accuracy and reliability wasn't a bit more of a concern.
Netflix and Olien did not respond to Insider's request for comment.
Nutritionist Pixie Turner used to be so obsessed with 'clean eating' she ate a plate of vegetables alone on her birthday. Now she's an advocate for debunking the wellness myths she fell for on social media.
Read the original article on Insider