If I say I just watched a Netflix mini-series about alternative health approaches hosted by a major celebrity, you may think I’m referring to Gwyneth Paltrow’s The goop lab, but no. I’m speaking of its recently released “dude bro” counterpart: Down to Earth with Zac Efron. This eight-episode series stars Hollywood actor and former teen heartthrob Zac Efron and his health guru Darin Olien as they travel the world, visiting communes, learning about sustainability, and hunting for tropical fruits. And if this sounds like an educational good time, it’s because the problem with Down to Earth is insidious.
The show’s surface-level agenda is to address the United States’ environmental problems by showcasing ingenious solutions from around the world. Camerawork reminiscent of an MTV reality show brings us into an Icelandic geothermal plant and a Paris water treatment facility. We see the solar panels that may help Puerto Rico climb out of its current situation and a seed vault in Peru that protects plant biodiversity in the event of a major cataclysm. But trotting along with wide-eyed Zac Efron, who is looking for something more fulfilling than being featured in teen magazines and reciting scripts, is his new, seemingly omniscient pal: Darin Olien.
You may think Darin Olien is just a California surfer dude who started reading Deepak Chopra to ease a midlife crisis. It turns out he’s from Minnesota and he’s one of those alternative health gurus on whom doctors and scientists have to comment periodically because of the potential damage they can cause. The mini-series serves as a soft advertisement for his brand, the opening credits briefly showcasing his book called Superlife. Judging from the generous sample offered by Amazon, I can confidently say it deserves a spot in the monstrous trashcan lined with the hastily scribbled regurgitations of naturopaths, self-styled nutritionists, and holistic gurus. Olien’s philosophy is spelled out in the introduction: “I read lots of scholarly papers, but I didn’t wait around for experts to tell me what to do. I jumped in and figured it out on my own.” It’s clear from his book that his “figuring outs” fall short of adequate comprehension. He trots out that old chestnut of medicine only treating the underlying symptoms of a disease (it does not), jumps on the epigenetics bandwagon, and scares the reader on the topic of pesticides and genetically engineered food. His attitude on television may be of a chill beach body but his book reveals the unfounded fear he capitalizes on: “Organic blackberries cost double the normal kind? How does that compare to the price of chemotherapy? How does burning out your insides with toxic chemicals and destroying your immune system and puking out your guts and losing all your hair stack up against spending three dollars more on that organic produce?” Basically, shell out for organic food or die of cancer, your choice.
But even Olien’s misinformation falls shockingly short of consistency. Olien, who is also an executive producer on Netflix’s Down to Earth, sits down with Efron and actress Anna Kendrick at the beginning of the “France” episode with a self-appointed water sommelier, who convinces them that water with a very high amount of dissolved solids (TDS) is what we should be drinking because the minerals inside positively impact the body. He serves them a Slovene water with a TDS of 7,400 and tells them, “It’s pretty much medication now, this is like functional water.” Complete nonsense but a look at page 50 of Olien’s book reveals he believes the exact opposite. He writes that water with too many solids in suspension can’t go through our cells. “What does that leave us? Distilled water. That, in my view, is the safe way to go--the only truly clean water.” Which is it? Meanwhile, Olien delights in awarding the title of “superfood” to everything he encounters on the show (Icelandic chocolate, apples, even potatoes). When this loose glorification is brought to his attention, he admits that a superfood is anything with more micro-nutrients per bite than a doughnut. So it’s a gimmick.
The exclusive Slovene water Efron and Olien are served on the show is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the program’s exoticization of health. This romantic outlook on foreign traditions, themselves elevated to the level of medicines, is particularly apparent on the many occasions the hosts visit Latin America. In Costa Rica, they are told to drink the caffeine-containing yerba mate instead of coffee to prevent adrenal fatigue, a made-up diagnosis beloved by alternative health gurus. In Peru, the vitamin C virtues of the camu camu fruit are extolled, even though we can get plenty of vitamin C in local produce (and mega-doses of the chemical aren’t cure-alls). And in a different part of Peru, Efron tells us in voiceover that Chinese maca is a GMO grown with pesticides; it’s the original Peruvian maca you should buy because it has all of the listed nutritional properties appearing on screen. “Increases energy”? Any food that can be used as fuel will do that. “Boosts immunity”? That’s a persistent myth. “Amino acids”? They’re the building blocks of proteins, found in tofu, bread, meat, eggs. No need to reach for a plant native to the Andes.
The professed water sommelier who claims “Alka-Seltzer in a bottle” is healing water is unfortunately not the only questionable authority platformed by the show. A farming student in Puerto Rico tells Efron to drink raw goat milk fresh from the teat because “[sic] the goat’s one of the animals that the milk come pasteurized.” Don’t believe the myths about raw milk: do not drink it. Then there’s Ella Mills in London. She’s a successful food celebrity in the UK who tells Efron her story: diagnosed with a rare condition, apparently failed by the healthcare establishment, but saved by a vegan diet. What the show does not reveal is that she studied “naturopathic nutrition” and that she used to promote the unscientific and damaging concept of “clean eating” before attempting to scrub her past content of this branding. Meanwhile, a beekeeper on the show claims that one of the biggest problems for modern bees is genetically engineered crops, because the plant has a “systemic poison” that the bee brings back to the hive. We are meant to imagine the worst. Dr. Adam Oliver Brown, who studies insects and is an assistant professor in both biology and education at the University of Ottawa, tells me this is not true. The beekeeper is probably referring to corn that carries a toxin issued from a bacterium (“Bt corn”), but this toxin is specific to--depending on the strain of bacterium it is issued from--beetles, flies or butterflies and moths. “It is therefore not true,” he tells me, “that bees will experience the toxic effects of genetically modified insecticides because they are harmless to them, as they are to us.”
Over the course of five-plus long hours, the show consistently uses genuine ecological concerns to make us accept claims that do not hold water. The majesty of an untouched Icelandic waterfall and the country’s highly selective development of hydroelectric dams are employed to squeeze in unsubstantiated bunk about the power of negative ions from moving water (for a good appraisal of this claim, check out Veritasium’s video). This is just one example of the unholy alliance between environmental awareness and pseudoscience, seen elsewhere but prominent on this show. Climate change is indeed real, as both Efron and Olein mention more than once, but this position should not give us weak knees when confronted with egregious claims made by naturopaths and health pundits.
Media coverage of Zac Efron’s fans “thirsting” over the actor’s muscular dad body on Netflix provides cover for the show’s Trojan horse. With co-host Efron’s 42.6 million Instagram followers, Darin Olien’s belief in letting food be thy medicine (especially if it comes from Peru) will reach a massive audience. And what is the actor’s stance in all of this? The kind of wishy-washy, open-minded, “there are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” attitude I expected. Efron’s travel to France ends with his monologue. “There is the thought, of course, that all of this is simply a placebo effect. But if a miracle is defined as the impossible inexplicably becoming possible, then real or not doesn’t matter, does it?” Those of us who understand French will be privy to a hidden layer of irony. The French song underscoring his narration says, “All of these lies which we disguise will one day leave us defenceless.”
What do you think? A music editor sending out an SOS or mere coincidence? Efron would probably rhetorically ask, “Does it matter?”
- Netflix has released a travelogue mini-series starring actor Zac Efron and his health guru Darin Olien as they travel the world in search of renewable energies and sustainability
- The show makes questionable and scientifically inaccurate claims in part through the platforming of dubious “experts”
- Darin Olien’s book, which is featured at the beginning of every episode, is filled with unscientific claims about nutrition, including his false claim that eating organic food will protect you from cancer