This article about how the anti-vaccine and food movements have merged was written by Aaron Charlton, Ph.D., a science and medical blogger who works for a travel vaccine clinic called Away Clinic in Arizona. Aaron spent eight years in academia doing research on consumer behavior and obtained his Ph.D. in 2019 from the University of Oregon. In addition to working for Away Clinic, he maintains OpenMKT.org, a website aimed at improving quality and transparency in scientific journals within the discipline of marketing. Aaron is sometimes quoted by the media on matters of scientific integrity.
Most people would agree that there are pros and cons to modern life. But one can reject less healthy aspects of modernity while accepting the things that make life better—one need not take an all-or-nothing approach. Yet, this is precisely what we often see in the natural food movement: reject modern food, reject vaccines. In this article, I look into why that is and what can be done about it.
It’s OK to question certain aspects of our modern food system
The natural food movement is sometimes criticized for rejecting things deemed safe by science, such as genetically modified foods, and for proposing solutions that may not scale up enough to feed our overpopulated world, such as eliminating feedlots and factory farms.
Rather than join in such criticisms, I would point out that even scientists sometimes push back against modernity, often with good reason. For example, Rachel Carson’s paradigm-shifting work, Silent Spring, helped stop the insane push to eradicate the world’s insect population with DDT. Carson was trained as a marine biologist and worked as a mainstream science writer when she published Silent Spring. It’s difficult to know what we are doing today that will be looked back on like DDT, so a bit of humility in this regard is probably warranted.
And while first-world countries are blessed with ample access to a vast variety of foods, something that has never really been true in our planet’s history, there are undoubtedly a few downsides. Consider skyrocketing obesity rates, for example.
It’s understandable and desirable that people question certain aspects of our modern food system. For example, it makes sense to ask:
- Are the livestock being treated humanely?
- Are lab-derived food products that don’t occur in nature safe for human consumption?
- Is our food system resistant to logistical or geo-political disruption?
- Is factory food equally as nutritious as what can be obtained from the local farmer’s market?
Even if we are forced into factory farming to feed an overpopulated world, asking the right questions will help ensure we do it the right way.
But don’t throw out the good stuff
A side effect of the natural food movement has been rejecting all things modern, including vaccines. This is very unfortunate because vaccines are, by all accounts, life-giving substances. Vaccines train the body to destroy specific harmful pathogens. The body’s immune system does all the work. Vaccines have been used to eradicate smallpox, a devastating disease that has lain waste to entire civilizations. Vaccines also nearly wiped out polio, but the crippling disease has since made a comeback.
Unfortunately, misinformation and conspiracy theories about vaccines are continually being spread through Facebook groups and other social media channels. The more you engage with natural food and holistic lifestyle content online, the more you’ll likely be exposed to vaccine misinformation. For example, Facebook groups and organizations based on Weston A. Price’s 100-year-old nutrition research have been staunchly anti-vaccine, often promoting the fraudulent claims of Andrew Wakefield. The odd thing is that Weston A. Price was not anti-vaccine, but his modern adherents tend to be for some reason. On Facebook, the various Weston A. Price Facebook groups are active, have a lot of visibility, and are focused on anti-vaccine paranoia.
Such anti-vaccine advocacy can cause actual harm to people looking to health gurus for advice and direction. And it doesn’t harm the people fooled by the rhetoric—it hurts their children who don’t receive their immunizations and are at a huge health disadvantage to their peers as they go through life.
Anti-vaccine and natural food claims quickly fall apart under scrutiny
It’s important to clarify that not all people who prefer natural foods are anti-vaccine.
However, many vocal proponents of natural food also push a lot of anti-vaccine rhetoric. Setting some of the more far-fetched conspiracy theories aside, here are the more rational justifications they give for their anti-vaccine stances:
- Mistrust of pharmaceutical companies and the government
- Preference for naturally obtained immunity
- Concerns about vaccine ingredients
- Fear of adverse reactions
I will address each concern one by one:
Trust in vaccine safety and effectiveness
In addition to pharmaceutical companies and government agencies around the world, there are also many independent scientists (academics) and healthcare providers helping to ensure vaccines are safe and effective. Studies are often run by independent scientists hoping to publish their results in scientific journals.
They have no horse in the race and no reason to mislead the public. All these various groups heavily scrutinize vaccines before entering circulation, and even after they are in use, testing continues in multiple forms. Journalists also investigate any problems. It was a journalist, for example, who discovered and outed the Andrew Wakefield MMR vaccine-autism fraud.
Preference for “naturally obtained immunity” shows a lack of historical knowledge
1550 Aztec drawing of smallpox victims – Public Domain
Many people in the natural food movement believe that vaccines aren’t necessary if they eat a certain way because their natural immune system will be able to overcome any pathogens encountered. What is this special diet? It’s an ancestral diet, an attempt to eat a pre-modern, pre-industrial diet composed of vegetables, fruit, meat, etc.—the less processed, the better.
But here’s the problem: the Aztecs ate a natural, ancestral diet, and look what happened to them. They were completely wiped out by diseases brought over by Europeans, along with many other indigenous peoples of the Americas. Why did their ancestral diet not protect them? Because smallpox doesn’t care if you’re vegan, gluten-free, keto, etc. It was an equal opportunity killer. A preference for *natural* immunity is a dance with death.
Concerns about vaccine ingredients
Over time, harmful ingredients have been left out or decreased in quantity to the point where they’re no longer an issue. People complaining of tiny amounts of formaldehyde in vaccines, for example, should know that apples have higher quantities of formaldehyde than vaccines.
Fear of adverse reactions undermines claims that ancestral diets confer super-powered immunity
Most commonly used vaccines have been around for decades and have been administered to millions of people. If there were a problem, someone would have spotted it. The U.S. government maintains a database of all adverse vaccine reactions reported. Injection site soreness, itchiness, or redness sometimes occurs but is not a big problem.
Since vaccines are designed to activate the immune system, some vaccines may trigger flu-like symptoms in some people. This is also normal, part of the immunity-building response, and nothing to worry about. Severe adverse reactions are incredibly rare.
Besides, if you’re eating this healthy, ancestral diet you believe is a cure-all for combatting any disease, why would you be so scared of a vaccine? Billions of people around the globe have been vaccinated with mainly only positive benefits. If someone eating a QT (gas station) diet could survive the vaccination process, why couldn’t you fare even better with your ancestral diet, which you believe gives you vastly superior immunity? Makes no sense.
Anti-vaxxers only risk their children’s health, not their own, and it hasn’t backfired because of herd immunity
Children are often most affected by disease outbreaks, especially when vaccinated adults choose not to afford their children the same protection from deadly diseases that they received. One unvaccinated child is often not a problem because of herd immunity.
The fact that the other children around them have been vaccinated prevents vaccine-preventable diseases from circulating. Unfortunately, anti-vaxxers tend to cluster together in religious groups, homeschool groups, rural/conservative towns, etc., so it feels like a matter of time before polio or measles strikes again in the U.S.
Countering anti-vaccine misinformation from the natural food movement
It is difficult to change peoples’ minds about vaccines and other issues that have become highly politicized. So far, these tools have been the most effective in increasing vaccine uptake:
- Mandatory vaccination. Vaccines offer a public benefit, so it often makes sense to enforce vaccine mandates in the context of travel, school attendance, etc. Following a measles outbreak in New York, the state revoked religious vaccination exemptions, requiring all school children to be vaccinated. Later when they had a polio outbreak in 2022, only one person was crippled by it—a young adult man who had not been subject to mandatory vaccination as a child. Without the vaccine mandate, the polio outbreak could have been much worse.
- Free vaccines. In the U.S., there is generally always a way to get free vaccinations for children, with or without insurance. In Arizona, for example, county clinics offer free childhood immunizations. Making them free has been an enormous boon for public health, but perhaps greater awareness would boost uptake.
- Persuasion. We need to get the message out there to combat anti-vaccine propaganda. Regrettably, it’s very difficult to change people’s opinion of what has become a very political issue. The most effective messengers would be celebrities, family, friends, and pillars of the natural food movement community. It would be great if, for example, famous farmer Joel Salatin would do something to promote vaccines. Unfortunately, he instead parrots the Weston A. Price Foundation’s anti-vaccine nonsense (no, I will not be linking to it). Natural Grocers would be another great promoter of vaccines since they are seen as an anchor of the natural food movement. When will we see them stand up for sanity?
Although changing peoples’ ideological views of vaccines is challenging, we must try because their children will be most harmed, not the anti-vaccine adults.
Modern vaccines are safe and effective
It’s important to note that the scientific consensus overwhelmingly supports the safety and effectiveness of vaccines in preventing serious diseases and protecting public health. The efficacy of modern vaccines is further proven by the eradication of smallpox and the vastly decreased incidence of many other diseases that used to run rampant. It’s indisputable that vaccines have played a crucial role in reducing the spread of infectious diseases and saving lives.
While the natural food movement’s desire for healthier living is admirable, the push against vaccines by many prominent influencers and organizations within the natural food movement is irresponsible. Most of the anti-vaccine influencers received all of their childhood immunizations and have nothing to fear themselves. The children of their followers are likely to suffer most when measles or polio starts circulating again. Responsible influencers in the natural food movement must stand up for sanity and encourage vaccination.