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A journey through internet garbage.
There is a gut doctor, and he begs Americans: “Throw out this vegetable now.” This news is accompanied by a different image nearly every time. This morning the plea appeared at the bottom of an article on Vox next to a photo of a hand chopping up what appears to be a pile of green apples. At other times, it has been paired with a picture of a petri dish with a worm in it. Other times, gut bacteria giving off electricity. The inside of a lotus root. An illustrated rendering of roundworms.
The gut doctor’s desperation pops up over and over, on websites like CNN and the Atlantic (and as I said, this one), in what are known colloquially as “chumboxes.” These are the boxes at the bottom of the page that have several pieces of click-baity “sponsored content” or “suggested reading.” They’re generated by a variety of companies, but the largest two are Taboola ($160 million in funding) and Outbrain ($194 million in funding), both founded in Israel in the mid-aughts.
What is the point of a chumbox and why would it be called that?
Chumbox is a sort of gross fishing reference, chum being the tiny fish that fishers use as bait to catch larger fish. Before the term came into the lexicon, Casey Newton explained the purpose of these boxes for The Verge in 2014:
Outbrain, Taboola, and their peers have a simple pitch for the sites they work with: add our modules to your site for free, with just a few lines of code, and start making money immediately from the traffic you deliver to paying partners. “Our whole pitch to publishers is a no-brainer,” LaCour says. Adam Singolda, co-founder and CEO of Taboola, says top journalistic outlets are making more than $10 million a year adding its modules to their sites — significant revenues in an industry still struggling to find its footing online.
The shift happened after publications realized that they weren’t making enough money from banner ads (which have dismal click-through rates around one-tenth of a percent) and before they started cutting deals directly with large tech platforms like Facebook and Google to serve their content to broader audiences and try to wring out some revenue.
In 2015, John Mahoney coined the term and wrote a widely cited “taxonomy” of chumbox content for the Awl. The content types he identified:
- Sexy Thing (e.g. hot singles in your area, “your area” determined using your IP address.)
- Localized Rule (e.g. some change in your city’s parking meter system, ditto.)
- Deeply Psychological Body Thing
- Celeb Thing
- Old Person’s Face
- Skin Thing
- Miracle Cure Thing
- Weird Tattoo
- Implied Vaginal or Other Bodily Opening
- Disgusting Invertebrates or Globular Masses
- Extreme Weight Loss Thing
- Money Thing
- Oozing Food
The gut doctor fits into several of these categories, depending on the image he’s paired with. He is always a Miracle Cure Thing and he is often also a Disgusting Invertebrates thing. He is sometimes a Deeply Psychological Body Thing, or Oozing Food.
By 2016, 41 of the top 50 news sites used these modules as a revenue source. Reply All co-host Alex Goldman visited Taboola’s New York offices in June 2018, where he met CEO and founder Adam Singolda. Singolda informed him that he had never heard the term “chumbox,” and that he did not like the word “ads,” but that Taboola serves about 20 billion “recommendations” per day.
Earlier this month, content strategist Ranjan Roy published a more technical analysis of these links. He identifies five types of chumbox links based on the strategy they use to generate money:
- Search links: These are ads with titles like “New research about early symptoms of Hepatitis C,” which don’t redirect to any particular website, but to a Yahoo search results page. Yahoo is paying Outbrain for clicks, Outbrain is paying the Washington Post for clicks, there is plenty of money flowing downwards from the advertisers who pay Yahoo to place them at the top of the search rankings.
- Affiliate marketing: These are ads that use your IP address to target location-specific ads and then redirect you to weird insurance quote aggregators or car resellers. (Roy points out that these sites are typically registered anonymously.)
- Slideshow links: These ads redirect to slideshows about celebrities that end up refreshing with each click. On one that he clicked, each slide had nine ads, and the slideshow was 32 pages long, which comes out to 288 ads.
- A real ad: Some ads are just for real, possibly junky objects. (Like “revolutionary” tiny hearing aids.)
The gut doctor falls into the fifth category, hidden content: These ads redirect someplace totally unexpected, a website unrelated in any obvious way to what you originally clicked, and lead you on a wild goose chase between loosely connected sites that are also littered with ads.
Or, as Mahoney wrote in 2015:
Clicking on a chumlink — even one on the site of a relatively high-class chummer, like nymag.com — is a guaranteed way to find more, weirder, grosser chum. The boxes are daisy-chained together in an increasingly cynical, gross funnel; quickly, the open ocean becomes a sewer of chum.
So here we are. Chumboxes are unsavory but not a mystery. What is a mystery is the gut doctor: Who is he? And what does he want? You know, more specifically than some unnamed vegetable to be canceled forever.
Who is the gut doctor and what vegetable is he begging Americans to throw out now?
I would not chase the answer to this question if it were not the fact that it has plagued so many for so long. “Please someone tell me b/c I can’t take it anymore: What’s the vegetable the top U.S. gut doctor is begging Americans to throw out?” Fox Sports Radio host Jason Smith asks on Twitter. “God help me but I often wonder which vegetable it is that this gut doctor begs Americans to throw out!” some man named Jonah admits boldly.
The gut doctor is, at this point, a meme. Last December, Saturday Night Live writer Paula Pell tweeted “Gut doctors warn: THROW THIS VEGETABLE OUT IMMEDIATELY,” above a photograph of President Trump. In January, an unidentifiable Twitter user pleaded on the vegetable’s behalf, making full use of his 280 characters: “Don’t throw it out! Don’t listen to his lies. It’s just a Vegetable, after all; what harm could it really do? Just a Vegetable — yes, really. And what does the Gut Doctor know? He’s just a bitter liar, spreading mistruths about poor, innocent Vegetable.”
My gut doctor says I’m in trouble for eating too much spaghetti but it’s my fav vegetable! pic.twitter.com/Ct51Pnvu2z
— Pazuzu (@ThatPazuzu) May 7, 2019
Earlier this week, Topic editor Reyhan Harmanci tweeted a screenshot of the gut doctor’s warning at the bottom of a journalist’s personal website, and asked if chumboxes were getting more aggressive. The image attached in this case “strongly resembled the worms from one of my favorite movies, Tremors,” she told Vox.
The gut doctor, to me, is elusive. I have refreshed every website he has been seen on dozens of times, and for me, he will not materialize. Yet, luckily, all of these screenshots contain a visible link to a website for a company called United Naturals. Here, I am greeted by the smiling face of Dr. Vincent Pedre, whose bio describes him as “a Certified Medical Doctor, a Functional Medicine Certified Practitioner, and Chief Wellness Officer at United Naturals.” He apparently went to Cornell, my alma mater, for his undergraduate degree. He then attended the University of Miami for medical school, before founding Pedre Integrative Health, “where he takes a largely holistic approach to medicine.”
United Naturals is dedicated to providing “lasting relief from bloat and other embarrassing digestive issues,” in the form of probiotic capsules called Synbiotic 365 ($45 per box or $229 for six boxes). United Naturals also sells a collagen powder dietary supplement called ActivMotion for $45 a pouch, and offers a testimonial from a customer who says it cured their depression. There is no information here about vegetables.
Luckily, though, this is not Dr. Pedre’s only website. Unluckily, the Pedre Integrative Health site has lots of information about weight loss and bowel movements, but no specifics about a death vegetable. Another domain, happygutlife.com, does not specifically engage with the question either, although it does sell a 28-Day Happy Gut Cleanse Kit for $399.00 (marked down from $499.00).
In January 2016, the New York Times “caught up with Dr. Pedre to talk about what makes a ‘happy gut,’ how you can avoid some common triggers of digestive problems, and why fermented foods like kombucha and kimchi should be part of your diet.” Throughout, Dr. Pedre stresses the value of vegetables, and of kimchi specifically, but he does not say that there is one vegetable that is literally poison and should be banished from the face of the Earth.
In July 2018, Dr. Pedre told Microsoft’s news platform’s lifestyle section four foods he would “never eat again” but we got no closer to an answer. The four foods were actually five foods, and none was a vegetable: cereal, milk, coffee, sandwiches, and pasta. Sandwiches! (They make him “super sleepy.”)
The Facebook group for Happy Gut Cleanse enthusiasts, which I had to concoct a small lie in order to join (My gut feels fine typically; I’m blessed!) offers a more direct engagement with Dr. Pedre than was afforded when I contacted his publicist, who said he would not be available to answer any of my emailed questions.
In it, he conducts polls, asking his followers if they would buy one-page gut health advice sheets for $7 to $9 a page, and what advice they would like specifically. He also shares links about why children in the Mediterranean region have the “highest rates of severe childhood obesity” and about “The Bacteria You’ve Never Heard of That Promotes Weight Loss.” Group members typically post their questions using Facebook’s word art feature, overlaying large text on backgrounds with gradients or laugh-crying emoji. Last week, free of charge, Dr. Pedre responded to a woman who wanted a gut check (ha) on some of the items she enjoys putting in a salad. To make a long story short: she cannot eat cranberry raisins anymore. They breed yeast?
And yesterday — another freebie — he provided a list of “YES!” foods and “NO!” foods.
The “YES!” list included, as I’m sure you can guess, kimchi. It also included asparagus, broccoli, dark chocolate, garlic, Jerusalem artichokes, mangoes, onions, pickles, and sauerkraut. My dude loves cabbage! And pickling! The “NO!” list was much shorter and had no vegetables on it. Just whole grains that contain gluten, “soy products like miso, tempeh (GMO crop),” yogurt, and also all dairy.
Here, I think, is a hint. In parentheses. “GMO crop.” Speaking to his inner circle, Dr. Pedre does not explain what is the matter, in his opinion, with GMO crops, because they presumably already know. (Please see Vox’s explainer on GMOs. They are, medically speaking, not a problem.)
Anyway, one would hope that there are some answers to be found in Dr. Pedre’s book Happy Gut: The Cleansing Program to Help You Lose Weight, Gain Energy, and Eliminate Pain.
I absolutely refuse to buy it, but according to some Amazon reviews, it is just a version of a widely known diet plan recommended by Stanford doctors for patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, which you can download for free and which suggests avoiding certain fruits, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, wheat, and soy. All vegetables: fine!
According to some people on some random forums, which I can’t believe I didn’t get around to checking sooner, the gut doctor link does not always direct viewers to United Naturals. Sometimes it links to a 40-minute long infomercial starring Dr. Pedre, which does not allow users to rewind or skip ahead, but only to play or pause. In a thread on Data Lounge, one viewer gets through only a few minutes of the video and throws their hands up saying, “I hope it’s broccoli.” Others in the thread hope the vegetable is kale. One person hopes it is potatoes and is immediately shouted down by someone who says potato hatred is “overblown.”
A vegetable forum called 2 Peas Refugees also discussed the video at length. The original poster writes “A few times over the past year or so I have clicked on the link and it takes you to a video that teases the answer over and over again and I only last about three to five minutes before I get frustrated and close out.” According to a Reddit thread, the video is supposedly incredibly boring until very near the end, when the doctor gets around to explaining his hatred of glyphosate, an herbicide present in Round-Up, the ultra-popular weed killer invented by the agroindustrial giant Monsanto.
This hatred of big agriculture — in many ways founded! — extends, without foundation, to all genetically-modified foods. The most widely-grown GMO crop in the United States is: corn. Corn is also treated with glyphosate. Corn is a double whammy.
I think it’s corn
The mystery vegetable is corn? Dr. Pedre’s publicist stopped responding to my emails after I stated my specific question (“Is it corn?”). But eventually another person in the 2 Peas group buckled down to watch the entire video and informed everyone of the answer: corn.
“Okay so given this, do you still eat corn?” someone asks. “I like it in small quantities with Mexican food but I stopped eating corn about 20 years ago because of the carbs.” Sounds like they didn’t stop eating corn 20 years ago. But another user agrees that corn is awful, writing, “I hate the way corn gets stuck in my teeth.”
Anyway, seems like the vegetable is corn.
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