Vox.com has a new series called The Goods whose first article has the kind of journalistic quality (or lack thereof) you would expect in a series that seems to be purely about product placement. The article, by Kaitlyn Tiffany, is about Pedialyte which happens to be a bit of a passion of mine because the simple technology upon which it is based has saved millions of lives and transformed the world more than perhaps any other medical treatment in history except antibiotics and vaccines. And unlike vaccines and antibiotics which everyone knows and understands, at least minimally, nobody knows about the miracle of oral rehydration therapy. Unfortunately, Kaitlyn Tiffany misses most of the miraculous story and gets several details completely wrong. First she says that “Pedialyte has been sold over the counter in pharmacies since the 1960s.” That can’t be true because Pedialyte didn’t even exist as a brand in 1960. The trademark for Pedialyte was filed in 1974 according to the US Patent and Trademark Office. Google shows that the word “Pedialyte” was never written in English publications until 1975. Then she says it is based on one of the oral rehydration therapies “invented by the World Health Organization in the 1940s”. That is also false because although there were numerous oral rehydration therapies used by all sorts of people for millennia, they were completely haphazard and most probably did more harm than good because the science was insufficient to actually know what worked (and how it worked) until around 1970. There are still therapies that market themselves for “oral rehydration” that don’t actually work like Gatorade which makes a ton of money on rehydration claims, so it is certainly true that there were therapies that claimed to work for oral rehydration in the 1940s (or 1640s), but they only accidentally worked sometimes when someone got lucky and happened to mix up a formula with the right ratios of electrolytes. It is hard to trust any of the rest of the article when it gets such basic facts wrong.
But the rest of the article is mostly about pop culture and Pedialyte marketing, so if it isn’t perfectly accurate, it probably isn’t very important. And it’s information about the recent Pedialyte fad for hangover cure is a fascinating case study. One fact that I would have been really interested in learning is why Pedialyte is so ridiculously expensive. The profit margin must be enormous. The ingredients are all really cheap. They are nearly the same as the ingredients in Gatorade which sells for a fraction of the price. The main difference between the two is that there are more salts and less sugar in Pedialyte. So why the huge difference in price?
Oral rehydration therapy is a super important topic, and I’m thrilled to see journalists working on it but for a more accurate and more informative article than Vox’s, check out my primer here on Medianism.org.