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An Erewhon grocery store in Santa Monica, California, on Mar. 19, 2018.LUCY NICHOLSON/Reuters

If you are ever in Los Angeles, forget about Disneyland, Venice Beach and the Getty art museum. The place you really must visit is Erewhon. Erewhon is essentially nowhere spelled backward – and nowhere says more about where our culture is heading than this place.

At first glance, Erewhon is just an upscale supermarket offering supposedly healthful foods at outrageous prices. (Hailey Bieber’s favourite smoothie goes for US$17).

In fact, it is a kind of temple. The religion practised there is the Cult of Wellness, the idea that by consuming the right things, we can cure our bodies and change the world.

The cult has spread from California to every corner of North America and, indeed, the globe in recent years, enlisting millions of eager adherents. Instead of putting cash on the collection plate, they demonstrate their faith by tapping their credit cards at the cashier for concoctions like Ms. Bieber’s beloved Strawberry Glaze smoothie (Ingredients: Almond milk, banana, strawberry, avocado, maple, dates, vanilla stevia, vanilla collagen, sea moss, coconut cream, strawberry glaze.)

Erewhon had its beginnings in Boston, where natural-foods pioneers Michio and Aveline Kushi ran a tiny stall in the 1960s. As the company website puts it: “The Kushis built Erewhon upon a core idea that still animates everything that we do today: If we fill our bodies with the very best that Earth has to offer, we can become our best selves.”

In 2011, Tony and Josephine Antoci bought the only Erewhon store, by then in Los Angeles, and set about expanding and modernizing the business. Erewhon now has eight L.A. locations, with at least two more to come.

The chain has become a must-go destination for foodies, tourists, fitness freaks, showbiz folk and influencers. Model Bella Hadid visited the Santa Monica location in January to mix up a signature drink of her own. “Hi guys, we’re here at Erewhon,” she said on TikTok. “We’re making our new creamsicle Bella Kin Smoothie!”

To see what all the fuss was about, my family and I went to the Silver Lake branch during a California vacation last month. The United States already has two big, high-end health-food supermarkets: Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. Erewhon makes them look like a Romanian grocery store in 1979.

We passed aisle upon aisle of nourishing treats: Desert Farms camel milk (“The closest thing to human breast milk”) at US$21.99 for a half litre; Erewhon’s own Pure Luna sea-moss gel at US$32.99; a “seed-bearing,” organic, champagne-roses lollipop (“Eat your lollipop, plant your stick, grow Rosetta Cosmo”); bars of an “adaptogen, nootropic-infused, organic, plant-based, non-GMO, direct trade” chocolate called Big Orgasm. The store even had “100-per-cent human grade” cat food, stewed in bone broth of course.

It would be easy to laugh off the Erewhon phenomenon as just another example of good old California goofiness. We certainly had fun on our little tour of this woo-woo wonderland. The store was beautifully designed, the products artfully displayed, the staff friendly and helpful. And the Bieber smoothie: delicious.

But the rise of the Wellness Cult is no joke. It gives followers the false idea that they can transform their bodies and stave off the perfectly natural process of aging by consuming this vitamin cocktail or that antioxidant. It promotes the equally false idea that they can save the planet through individual choices like purchasing free-range eggs or gluten-free pasta. It helps undermine faith in science and medicine by encouraging consumers to turn instead to the dodgy realm of natural cures and homeopathic remedies.

The COVID-19 pandemic showed how dangerous this can be. Millions of people declined to be vaccinated, and a great many died, because they believed that vaccination was somehow unnatural. Tennis champion Novak Djokovic, a famous health nut who starts his mornings with silver drops and blue-green algae, has still refused to get his shots, despite the setback to his career and the awful message it sent to the vaccine hesitant. He would love Erewhon.

The Cult of Wellness has become entwined with a second global problem: the Plague of Misinformation. Both are fuelled by social media, an accelerant for all kinds of nonsense about human health.

Now that we can do our own research simply by touching a glass screen, many of us have stopped listening to the advice of doctors, health agencies and others who might actually know something about whether vanilla collagen actually does us any good. “I hear that’s good for you” usually means we learned about it at the University of Facebook.

So, by all means, visit Erewhon if you happen to be in L.A. It’s a hoot. Just don’t drink the prebiotic, plant-based Kool-Aid.

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