The brightly lit floor of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre is lined with kiosks staffed by folks offering allegedly life-saving or -altering therapies, foods, supplements and gadgets.
It's the Whole Life Expo (November 24 to 26), where we're encouraged, among other things, to have our ears candled, spend some time in psychotherapy, get a psychic reading or have photos taken of our aura.
I don't know what it is with these latter folks, but they seem to show up just about anyplace someone will rent them a booth. If they could get one at a Hells Angels convention, they probably would.
I'm here because, as NOW's alt health columnist, I feel it's sort of my duty. But I'm not at my best in a crowd, and within 15 minutes I'm sweating in my coat and practically hyperventilating. Then I spy a sign advertising a chocolate that "lowers daily stress and tension."
The Doctor's Chocolate (list price $49.95 for 65 pieces) is apparently an all-natural dark chocolate and raspberry truffle that not only relieves anxiety but reduces PMS symptoms and heightens mental clarity, partly because it contains the amino acid L-theanine.
The literature refers to its "unique raspberry chocolate delivery system." I eat a sample piece but don't seem to feel any less agitated and wonder if the unique raspberry chocolate delivery system is working properly.
At another booth I see the StressBlocker ($342). This machine, I'm told, runs at a frequency of 9.216 MHz, encouraging the body to operate at an ideal internal frequency level of 12 to 25 Hertz. It also supposedly heals cuts and lesions "10 times faster than normal." I can't begin to imagine why every hospital trauma unit in North America isn't using a StressBlocker.
A little way on, I'm intrigued by the TurboSonic vibration therapy machine ($14,449), whose vibrations are claimed to restore sexual response, speed recovery from surgery trauma, increase bone density and reduce body fat and cellulite, among other fantastic things.
"But it just shakes you," I say to the man at the booth.
"Well," he says with a serious face, "it is a Class I medical device under the FDA." Far be it from me to be suspicious of a Class I medical device, but Class I simply means that a device represents minimal potential for harm to the user. It doesn't mean it actually works.
I'm told the same thing about the Wellness Belt ($124.99), a weighted belt that increases cardiovascular activity and "strengthens your bones, ridding them of osteoporosis once and for all." It's also apparently a weight-loss aid.
Weight loss is a popular theme here, but not as common as toxin cleansing and, of course, stress release. These are the magic words in the quest for the Holy Grail of wellness.
And because these alleged ills cannot be measured with any degree of certainty, anyone can claim anything. And nobody can prove them wrong.
PCA-Rx Heavy Metal and Toxin Removal ($144 for 30 ml) claims to remove heavy metals, toxic chemicals and parasitic micro-organisms with just a few sprays under the tongue "one or more times per day." Maybe it will. Maybe it won't.
I wholeheartedly embrace the quest for alternative wellness. I want to believe that chocolate and crystals can safeguard me from cancer and that if I just drink the right kind of water I will never be sick. Who doesn't? But how is one supposed to cut through the crap?
If all these people were right, they'd be billionaires and the world would be a very different place. Many of the consumers around me look hale and hearty, with healthy, flushed cheeks and an organic-greens spring to their step, but some are frail and infirm and obviously hoping to find the one thing that will ease their pain.
And I would be angry if it weren't for the fact that I think the hawkers honestly believe they can help. I'm acutely aware of how unwell many of the vendors themselves look. I see missing teeth and bloated faces, sagging jowls and sunken eyes, people to whom life has not been kind. Some of them are reps working on commission, like Avon ladies; the industry has always worked that way.
I stop at a table that advertises Indigold Energy monatomic gold ($59). The man at the kiosk tells me he creates the product from salt and that it is literally like "ingesting liquid light." He gives me an explanation I can't quite follow about the product being gold.
"So you've extracted gold from salt?" I ask. Again I don't understand the response. It's said to promote "feelings of well-being, calmness and detachment and clarity of thought." It is an "ancient" method, he tells me.
For some reason this is supposed to be a ringing endorsement. The ancient Egyptians were certainly quite advanced, but they did think crocodile, hippopotamus and cat fat could cure baldness. They also poisoned themselves with lead cosmetics. I am not impressed.
But I look at this man and I absolutely believe he believes what he's telling me. He wants to save me with saltwater that he believes is made of gold. And I want to let him.
But I don't have 59 bucks.