Pass the popcorn — and a tinfoil hat.
So-called health documentaries promoting sketchy science, snake-oil remedies and dangerous conspiracies are finding a home on popular streaming services — and alarming public-health experts.
“The propagation of pseudoscience undermines valid science,” says Dr. David Katz, founding director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center and True Health Initiative, which supports evidence-based disease prevention. “The first casualty is the offerings of modern conventional medicine, which are quite potent, and when used well, can do extraordinary things.”
On Amazon Prime, “Science of Fasting” promotes starvation as a cancer cure, while “The Great Culling: Our Water” leads viewers to believe that the government is using fluoride as a means of population control.
“What the Health,” a 2017 film produced by Joaquin Phoenix on Netflix, cites misleading stats — namely that eating one egg a day is as bad as smoking five cigarettes — that have raised eyebrows in the medical community. (The stat comes from a 2012 study linking cholesterol and heart disease, which has since been walked back by experts.)
Katz calls it “dreadful, hyperbolic filmmaking” even though he agrees with the pro-plant thrust of the movie.
“I support their conclusion,” he says. “But the fact that you think that conclusion is valid doesn’t mean you get to use unsubstantiated nonsense to make your case.”
Another film, 2014’s “Cowspiracy” funded by Leonardo DiCaprio, asserts that the animal-protein industry is responsible for 51 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions, while the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates it at 14.5 percent.
(“All of the facts and statistics in our films are backed up by peer-reviewed studies,” said “What the Health” and “Cowspiracy” co-director Keegan Kuhn in an e-mailed statement. “Arguments made against our film ‘What the Health’ have tried to use industry-funded studies to discredit us.”)
‘The propagation of pseudoscience undermines valid science.’
This past February, Netflix inked a deal with Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness brand Goop. The original docuseries will explore alternative healing and is expected to be released in the fall.
In the past, Goop has been criticized for suggesting that underwire bras could cause breast cancer and that vaginal steaming might balance female hormones. Katz describes the brand as “pseudoscientific rubbish with a celebrity glow attached to it.”
And it’s unclear who will vet the series: Last year, Goop’s magazine deal with Condé Nast fell apart over the brand’s refusal to be fact-checked, a Condé Nast policy Paltrow called “old-school” in an interview with the New York Times magazine.
On some platforms, such as Hulu, flicks such as “A Conspiracy To Rule: The Illuminati” are clearly labeled as such.
But on Netflix, tags such as “cerebral,” “provocative” and “controversial” make it confusing for viewers to separate fact from fiction.
Meanwhile, the phrase “special interest” accompanies movies like the anti-vaxx mainstay feature “The Greater Good” on Amazon, which suggests a link between autism and vaccines based on bogus studies conducted by now-discredited British doctor Andrew Wakefield in the ’90s.
“These are non-health related organizations that are very powerful collectors and distributors of information,” says Dr. Stephen Barrett, a retired psychiatrist and founder of the National Council Against Health Fraud and the popular media-monitoring Web site Quackwatch.
“What should their responsibility be? The question is whether a private company should be treated as a public utility,” Barrett says.
Amazon, Hulu and Netflix did not respond to The Post’s requests for comment by press time.
Following a letter written in March by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), in which he cited a “direct threat to public health,” Amazon removed books including “Healing the Symptoms Known as Autism,” which suggested people affected by the disorder, for which there is no cure, drink a bleach-like substance.
But with DVDs like “Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe” and titles like “Curing Cancer With Carrots” available for purchase on Amazon, with free-shipping perks available through Prime membership, the policy is inconsistent at best.
Platforms can also shirk responsibility, or their own guidelines, by housing content by third-party services. For instance, Amazon Prime customers can enter crop-circle territory by subscribing to a Prime Video Channel such as Gaia (where viewers will find “cancer-alternative views” promoting the ketogenic diet and prayer as “cures”), and Food Matters TV (which contains anti-vaccination content, as well as a series hosted by flat-Earther David Wolfe, who believes that dietary supplements can cure cancer).
When deceptive movie content airs on legitimate platforms, it’s made to seem more credible, Katz argues. “[Netflix and Amazon] are lending their imprimatur to this content. ‘How can it be propaganda? It was on Amazon,’ ” he says.
Although he doesn’t see patients anymore, Katz says the rise of exposé-style movies and unaccredited experts give way to distrust between patients and doctors. “In the latter years of my career, everybody knew everything — and most of it was wrong,” he says of the growing spread of health misinformation.
Katz contends that ultimately, it’s on viewers to be on the lookout for cure-alls. “If there’s a guarantee of a result, it’s not legitimate. Whether it’s conventional medicine or alternative medicine, nobody can guarantee you an outcome,” he says, adding that potential red flags include “no indication of credentials, no reliable affiliation with a degree or a university, or if there are hyperbolic claims.”
In the short term, Barrett thinks “an expert panel” might be effective in making sure only legitimate movies make the cut, while Katz thinks in addition to “purging” suspect content, labeling might help.
His suggestion? “Parental Advisory: Watch only if you’re NOT a nitwit.’’
Debunking health myths in some of the controversial documentaries streaming now.
“Under Our Skin”
(Amazon Prime; as of June 6, on the platform via subscription-based Prime Video Channels)
Film says: Chronic Lyme disease is a persistent infection with an existence that has been suppressed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and academic institutions, but it can be treated with long-term antibiotics administered intravenously through a catheter.
Experts say: The term Chronic Lyme disease is not supported by the National Institutes of Health since it can be used to describe those who were never infected with the bacteria that causes Lyme. The CDC identified three instances of death from “prolonged courses of IV antibiotics” to treat Chronic Lyme disease in a 2017 report. The NIH does not recommend such a treatment for those with post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome.
“The Greater Good”
Film says: Thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative that was previously found in multidose vaccines, caused autism in one boy, Jordan King, while Stephanie Christner claims “chronic inflammation” caused by vaccines led to the death of her 5-month-old daughter.
Experts say: Although thimerosal was taken out of childhood vaccines in 2001, the CDC asserts “many studies show no evidence of harm caused by the low doses of thimerosal in vaccines.” Adds Yale’s David Katz: “Immunization is one of the greatest advances in public health in the history of the world today.”
“What the Health”
Film says: Eating processed meat is as bad as smoking, and eating an egg per day is the equivalent of sucking down five cigarettes.
Experts say: While processed meat has been classified as a carcinogen by the World Health Organization, the occasional burger is hardly on par with tobacco smoking, which causes 1 million cancer deaths per year. What’s more, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee declassified cholesterol — found in egg yolks and the subject of the study referenced in “What the Health” — as a “nutrient of concern” in 2015.