Date: December 10th, 2019
Author: Maddie Stone
More than any other major grocery store, Whole Foods has made healthy living central to its brand. Based on the Amazon-owned supermarket’s tremendous popularity, it’s a strategy that has worked.
If you look past the colorful organic produce displays and sustainably-sourced seafood counter, however, you’ll start to notice incongruities. There’s nothing particularly healthful, for instance, about the homeopathy aisle — a section of Whole Foods’ Whole Body Department that sells 19th century pseudoscience masquerading as cold and flu remedies — or the shelves filled with supplements and probiotics making claims that often don’t hold up to scientific scrutiny.
But all of this pales in comparison to the disinformation Whole Foods is selling in its check-out aisle: magazines with articles promoting vaccine skepticism.
Insider recently found several magazines that have run articles raising unfounded concerns about the safety or efficacy of vaccines. These messages are not only out of line with the mainstream medical consensus, they are actively dangerous, according to public health experts.
Scattered amongst the breezy magazines devoted to healthy cooking and pet care are titles like Well Being Journal, a bi-monthly publication sold at Whole Foods stores in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia, among other locations. It has published articles that tout medically unsupported homeopathic therapies as “non-toxic” alternatives to vaccination. Others promote the debunked link between the MMR vaccine and autism. One particularly egregious article in a 2017 issue, adapted from a defunct anti-vaccine website, is literally titled “MMR Vaccine Causes Autism.”
The magazine has a circulation of around 70,000 U.S. readers, according to its website. It’s also sold at Sprouts, Natural Grocers, and Barnes & Noble. But Whole Foods has more locations and cultural capital than the first two companies. And unlike Barnes & Noble, it bills itself as a one-stop shop for smart, healthy living. (It’s also owned by one of the most powerful companies on the planet.)
One article, published late last year, is titled “Study Shows Gardasil Not Guarding.” It quotes an unnamed “former Merck representative” saying the HPV vaccine can cause “Guillain-Barré syndrome, paralysis of the lower limbs, vaccine-induced MS, and vaccine-induced encephalitis.” (The Centers for Disease Control attributes no serious side effects to the vaccine, and notes that it’s very effective.)
The same issue carried an excerpt from a book called “How to End the Autism Epidemic” by JB Handley, founder of the nonprofit Generation Rescue, which advocates the scientifically unsupported idea that vaccines cause autism.
Well Being Journal has published similar content going back more than a decade.
Another issue from 2018 features an excerpt from vaccine skeptic and family physician Richard Moskowitz’s book “Vaccines: A Reappraisal.” It includes a lengthy compilation of “clinical perspectives” on vaccines that hit many of the anti-vaccination movement’s favorite talking points. In the excerpt, prominent anti-vaccine doctor Sherri Tenpenny asserts that vaccines weren’t responsible for eradicating polio (they were), while homeopathic doctor Toni Bark compares mandatory vaccination policies to forced medical procedures performed in Nazi Germany.
The magazine commonly features articles written by alternative medicine gurus — naturopaths, acupuncturists, energy healers, intuitives, and some medical doctors — on topics like meditation, chronic illness, and toxins in consumer products. But these pieces promoting vaccine skepticism aren’t anomalies.
A keyword search for “vaccine” in Well Being Journal’s online archives revealed over two dozen articles going back more than a decade that cast doubt on the safety and efficacy of vaccines.
Several articles suggest that getting vaccinated for the flu may increase your risk of contracting the virus or infecting others with it, neither of which is true.
It isn’t the only title promoting vaccine skepticism, though experts Insider spoke with called its vaccine messaging unusually toxic.
Natural Solutions Magazine, which describes itself as a “top-selling health title in health food stores nationwide, including Whole Foods Market” and reported a distribution of 225,000 in 2019, contains on its website a number of articles expressing skepticism about the safety of vaccines or discussing the debunked link between vaccines and autism.
Natural Awakenings, a franchise of independently published magazines that claims to reach over 3 million readers a month, ran an article last fall suggesting Vitamin D supplements might be a “more effective and less costly” alternative to the flu shot. Another article from January 2018 warns about the impacts of thimerseral, a mercury-based preservative in vaccines that the CDC says is safe. It, too, lists Whole Foods as one of its distribution partners.
The articles are just one symbol of the growing anti-vaxxer movement.
Not long ago the anti-vaccination movement was at society’s fringes; in recent years, it has become well organized and has garnered powerful allies, including celebrities like Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Congressional legislators. The rise of social media has helped powerful groups spread vaccine skepticism around the world — by buying ads on Facebook, for instance — and has enabled new concerns about vaccines to take root quickly via grassroots groups and forums.
Promoting unfounded or debunked concerns about the safety of vaccines is demonstrably dangerous to public health. Measles was eliminated in the United States as recently as 2000. Today, it’s seeing a resurgence around the country as increasing numbers of parents choose to opt their child out of the MMR vaccine — a trend driven by misconceptions about vaccine safety.
Well Being Journal’s articles on vaccines “hit a lot of the high points of the anti-vaccine movement,” Tara Smith, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Kent State University, told Insider after we shared a selection of recent issues with her. The way these articles are packaged — bylined by individuals with letters after their name, loaded with dense scientific jargon — creates an illusion of legitimacy, she added.
Nathan Boonstra, a pediatrician at Blank Children’s Hospital in Des Moines, said that alternative medicine outlets will typically “at least try to present the appearance of balance” when it comes to vaccination. But many of these articles seemed blatantly against it.
“This crosses the line into the ability to actively harm somebody,” he said.
When Insider reached out to Scott Miners, founder and executive editor of the Well Being Journal, he said in an email that the magazine is not “against vaccines” but rather seeks to foster “an informed discussion” and “find the truth for the good of all.”
Miners defended the book excerpt by JB Handley, noting that it does not precisely assert that vaccines cause autism. While that’s technically true, the excerpt does state that there is “clear and compelling scientific evidence that supports the connection between vaccines and autism,” which is false.
Insider reached out to multiple representatives at Whole Foods and Amazon by phone and email, but did not receive a response.
We provided them with questions about their relationship with the magazine, including how it got started, whether it was aware that the journal publishes articles promoting vaccine skepticism, and whether there any Whole Foods-wide guidelines concerning the sale of magazines containing vaccine misinformation. Neither company responded.
Well Being Journal is one of a number of magazines delivered to the grocery store through a third-party vendor called OneSource Distribution, which stocks the title at 430 out of the 479 Whole Foods stores in the U.S., according to Gregg Mason, who handles vendor relations for the company.
Mason, who called the Well Being Journal one of OneSource’s “top titles” in an email, told Insider the company has been distributing the magazine to stores since at least 2012. Every time a new issue comes in, it goes out to every store with a standing order. He confirmed that this includes last year’s November/December 2018 issue containing the book excerpt by Handley, as did a customer service representative at a New Jersey store when reached by phone. On average, Mason said, OneSource puts 15 copies per issue into each Whole Foods and 70 percent of them sell, “which is very good.”
Whole Foods’ parent company has also sold products that promote anti-vaccine messaging.
“This is an awful situation,” Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College, told Insider in an email. Hotez, who in the past has publicly criticized Amazon for selling anti-vaccine books, said that in his view Whole Foods “has violated the norms of corporate social responsibility” by providing a platform for this kind of disinformation.
Amazon has repeatedly come under fire for allowing anti-vaccine content to flourish. And while the company has recently removed several high-profile anti-vaccination titles from its online catalogs, including the documentaries “Vaxxed” and “Shoot ‘Em Up: The Truth About Vaccines,” following public pressure, a keyword search for “vaccines” on both Amazon Books and Amazon Audible Books still yields a results page filled with titles peddling misinformation.
To Hotez, the fact that Whole Foods, like its parent company, has apparently turned a blind eye to vaccine skepticism on its shelves isn’t surprising. Anecdotally, he said, the affluent, educated, liberal-leaning consumer base Whole Foods targets appears to be particularly susceptible to anti-vaccination messaging.
Hotez added, “Overall, I think Whole Foods and Amazon have exploited the demographic that’s exempting or opting their kids out of getting vaccinated, and they’re making money out of it.”