Hope In A Bottle

In 1996/97 the president of a personal trainer certifying organization I was formerly with sent a letter to all his trainers. In it he strongly encouraged his trainers to “get in on the ground floor” of a new company selling soy-based supplements. The letter suggested to trainers that they would earn easy money if they sold the products to their clients who would, in turn, sell the products to their friends and family.

It was a multi-level marketing scheme and I was furious. The president of this organization attempted to exploit his trainers for the sake of quick profits. This was a violation of trust and I suggested as much in an email to him. It turns out a lot of people were angry and he sent an apology letter not long after. The certifying organization is still going; the multi-level marketing company faced lawsuits in 2009.

Health supplements are an unregulated billion-dollar industry. It’s an industry where the claims on the bottle do not have to be substantiated by independent research. This is why multi-level marketing companies, also called network marketing, or direct marketing as they prefer to be known, love supplements. There are over a hundred such companies including Amway, Shaklee, Mannatech, Herbalife and the latest member, Organo Gold.

In the case of Organo Gold, the company promises improved health, vitality and even weight loss by consuming its coffee beverages and supplements. The active ingredient is ganoderma lucidum, also known as the reishi mushroom. Reishi mushrooms are from China and have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence hyping the benefits of this herb. The scientific evidence is scant.  In vitro, animal and human studies have failed to substantiate these claims.

A friend of mine, curious about all the fuss over a mushroom, did a little research. She found the supplement at a local health food store. It was cheaper and more potent than the Organo version. She’s been using the supplement for a couple of weeks now.

“I don’t feel any different, so I don’t know what all the girls at Zumba are talking about,” she said.

That’s the thing with supplements. People taking these supplements think they’re working and so attribute their increased energy or weight loss to the product. It is a classic placebo effect. The products peddled by Visalis, Organo Gold, Shaklee and Mannatech are generally safe; it’s the false health claims and aggressive marketing that are most troubling. It really is a case of “buyer beware.” In an industry where the studies sound plausible and the anecdotal claims made by friends are even more convincing uncovering the facts is difficult.

With obesity at record levels, people are desperate to lose weight at any cost. The personal trainer or aerobics instructor pushing overpriced supplements is feeding on that desperation. The veiled message is “take this supplement and you’ll look like me.” At best the supplement will yield short term results.

There are many people in the fitness industry who are doing the right thing by educating their clients on how to create a healthy lifestyle. Pushy trainers selling useless supplements give the industry a bad reputation. They’re selling false hope at the expense of the desperate.

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