Today I’m going to take a quick look at a company called Herbalife. In the height of the World Cup, I saw this video about the various top football teams who are supported by the company:
Sound familiar? Herbalife seem very keen to advertise who is using their product more than the evidence it works. There’s a big banner on their website about the fact that they sponsor Barcelona (surely they pay for the privilege so its nothing more than glorified advertising?), and a testimonial from Lionel Messi. The fact that Herbalife sponsors some sports teams doesn’t prove its effectiveness any more than Carlsberg sponsoring Liverpool FC made it a better beer. In fact they seem to think the fact that people use the product is in itself evidence that it works. I’ve spoken to a few people who have used it and some of them used similar arguments, saying the company operates in over 70 countries and it wouldn’t if it didn’t work. Of course the irony is that this argument increases the amount of people using it and so presumably that means the product works better than it did before, because there are more people using it. Who knows?
People across the world believe in astrology, they touch wood and cross their fingers for good luck, they use homeopathy, so the fact that lots of people think it works doesn’t mean it actually does. Bloodletting was a very common medical practice until they actually tested it and discovered that it increased mortality, and the reason it was practiced for so long is because people don’t have an internal placebo control and they can’t blind themselves to bias. That’s why a range of properly constructed randomised controlled trials (RCT) is the best way to determine if a treatment works or not.
Now don’t get me wrong, I understand why companies don’t use RCT’s to show people that it works. It requires explaining something to them which most people find pretty boring, and often requires complicated numbers. It’s much easier (and from a marketing perspective much more effective) to use crap arguments like testimonials and popularity arguments, just like Powerbalance do. Somewhat paradoxically though, many companies like to use the veneer of science in their advertising. How many times have we seen beauty product adverts claim “7/10 women would recommend to a friend”? Or they’ll use a number like “increases core body strength by 500%!” They’re putting across like they’ve done research because that’s convincing, but it’s not the right kind of research, if they’ve done it at all. However, even if they’re not used for advertising, good quality trials should still be happening, otherwise how does the company itself know that its product works? And they should know that annoying bastards like me (and presumably some potential customers) are going to want to see some good evidence that it works rather than just the flim-flam they use in marketing, so they should be made available.
I visited their website to see if they had any of these studies tucked away somewhere there. There was a section called Our Science, so I went there. There’s actually no science there. What there is is a whole lot of argument from authority. They are very keen on putting letters after people’s names, and they talk about the two scientific centres they have, but there’s no mention of the actual trials or research they do. It all reeks of ‘look who’s doing the research, it must be good’. There are no papers cited on the website as far as I can see.
One of the things some of the people I spoke to about it mentioned was that it’s kind of pricey. They mentioned in particular an appetite suppressant that was recommended and cost £1 per pill, on top of the shakes and things, which is quite a lot. Now this brings me onto another thing, if Herbalife products are indeed effective are they more effective, and more cost-effective, than a balanced diet? I’ll look at that later, but I was interested in how much this stuff costs. I went to their product page and clicked on the first one in the list – Formula 1, and tried to go through the first few stages of the ordering process to check out the prices. Instead it wanted me to fill out a form with my name, telephone number and email (all compulsory fields), and said a Herbalife distributor would be in touch. Now maybe the distributors set their own prices, but you’d think they’d at least have an RRP.
Worryingly, the form also asked me what I’d be interested in discussing with the distributor, but it was phrased “In addition to the Herbalife Business Opportunity, I would also be interested in discussing…” I wasn’t interested in becoming a distributor, and I was kind of confused, thinking the website had sent me to their recruitment page, but no. It seems the website wasn’t targetted towards potential customers, but towards potential distributors, which makes more sense considering most of their testimonials are about people who became distributors and made a bit of money, and they mention the advertising that they do in quite a frank manner.
Still confused, I went to their wiki page. It mentions some conflicts of interest on the part of the the scientists but there isn’t enough information to know if its true, and links to this 2004 article from Forbes, which focuses more on their business practices than their products. It seems distributors are encouraged to shell out for promotional DVD’s, branding products, and buy the products at half price, then selling them on to make a profit. On top of that, if they convince others to become distributors, they earn a commission on the sales that they make. That sounds suspiciously like a pyramid scheme, particularly when you factor in that the website is geared more towards getting new recruits than it is about selling the product. Apparently this is a controversial but legal business practice called Multi-Level Marketing, but it sounds dodgy to me. The Forbes article above claims that the average yearly income among the bottom 87% of the distributors is just $522. The company’s revenue in 2009 was $3.8bn.
But finally through wiki I found some papers, which according to a claim marked ‘dubious’ on wiki, supports claims made by Herbalife advocates. Let’s take a look at them.
The first one – Treyzon et al, 2008 – was funded by Herbalife and sets out to determine the effect of high protein diets on dieting in obese men and women. It found that weight loss between a standard protein diet and a high protein diet was similar, but that fat loss was higher in the high protein diet group. The second one – Belong Cho et al, 2008 – was very similar and had similar results. I’m no expert on reading scientific papers and can’t really comment if they have adequate controls etc (the sample sizes seem ok, but there’s only single blinding in the first one, which also mentions a placebo control in the abstract, only to neglect to mention it in the main body), but even if they are well-constructed, they don’t really support any claims of efficacy, unless your definition of efficacy is higher fat loss and similar weight loss. It also only deals with obese people, which I’m guessing isn’t the typical consumer of Herbalife. More than that though, it only compares a high protein diet with a standard protein diet, and doesn’t compare different sources of protein, so to me the result isn’t all that surprising. 12 weeks is also a fairly short time, we don’t see what happens when the patients come off these diets – perhaps the high protein group puts weight back on faster.
The diets they were put on consisted of two meal replacements (I’m guessing one of Herbalife’s shakes), with a calorie-controlled lunch. This is also how the programme was described to me by people who have used it. So you’re basically eating very little anyway, so you’re going to lose weight. What’s left for the shakes? Well it’s quite well-known among skeptics (not so well-known amongst the general public, judging by Holland and Barrett’s success) that vitamin supplements don’t really work unless you have a deficiency. The diet plan seems to create a deficiency and then give you supplements to try and treat it, which doesn’t seem to me to be a particularly efficient or sustainable way of doing it. I daresay you could get similar results if you ate 3 small meals consisting of various types of vegetables and legumes, and that would mean you wouldn’t spend the whole day starving, it’d be considerably cheaper (especially since the supplements seem to come in programmes together with other ones) and it’d also be more sustainable so you’re not just crash-dieting.