Herbalife: The Evidence Is Weak With This One


From the blog DESTROYED BY SCIENCE


 

Herbalife. This is a brand that really seems to be everywhere, doesn’t it? We probably all have at least one friend who uses it or sells it. A quick Google search of the word Herbalife revealed that the first two pages of search results are pretty much all just official Herbalife links, stores selling Herbalife and consultants for Herbalife. I do get the feeling that adding the words “bad”, “scam”, or perhaps “pseudoscience” probably would yield search results insinuating that it isn’t all it is cracked up to be by the Herbalife PR team. But I would have to admit that seeking such articles would be a pretty bad example of confirmation bias, so instead I have done my best to track down any research available. I wont be discussing all of the MLM pyramid scheme concerns since that isn’t directly related to whether the products actually live up to the claims. I had a look at the American website (1) and I can tell you…finding any science there is like getting blood from a stone or an electron from helium. What science? That there really isn’t any to speak of is painfully obvious after browsing the site. In fact, I couldn’t find anything there at all that had a single link to a published paper. Before I investigate any other possible sources of information; let us have a little look at what they do have on the site.

We will just go ahead and ignore the endorsement by various celebrity athletes since clearly Herbalife sponsorship does not equate to scientific evidence. It actually seems like they spend much more time and effort describing their “Nutrition Advisory Board” (2) members than they do describing any of their research or making a list of their published studies available from the website. An illustrious list of experts is given; doctors, Professors and PhD’s, to ensure you that Herbalife products are nice and science-y. What we have here is an appeal to authority (3).

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(Original image by hwango on DeviantArt; adapted by me)

Each “expert” is given a lovely biography telling you all about why they are so qualified to be on the Herbalife NAB. Well, this is all well and good; but not exactly peer reviewed literature showing that any of their products are scientifically proven to work. Herbalife knows that a huge number of people will think the fact that an M.D. is endorsing the product is evidence that the products work. This is not science or evidence. It’s PR, pure and simple. Endless clicking and redirection around the website eventually leads me to another page where a fancy sounding lab is mentioned. “Mark Hughes Cellular and Molecular Nutrition Laboratory Herbalife”. Located at UCLA. With the handy disclaimer: “The University of California, Los Angeles does not endorse specific products or services as a matter of policy”. More heavy PR at work here – a laboratory, with the words “cellular” and “molecular” thrown in to give it extra legitimacy. A search on the science-y science lab turned up this article on the movement of money between the experts and Herbalife (5). There are some large sums of money involved here. Just saying.

Herbalife shill

Honestly, I would like to look at their evidence, not just cry “shills for Big Herbalife!”. But to do that, I have to actually find some science!

Next, I checked out their “Nutrition Based on Science” section (4). I thought maybe I was finally getting somewhere, the word science was mentioned after all. Library of research papers maybe? Get ready to be bitterly disappointed; or alternatively, incredibly amused at what is contained in the “Nutrition Based on Science” section. Spoiler: It isn’t a list of research papers. The section consists of a grand total of 6 short videos. No, these videos do not cover actual research. Half of them are lab tours, you will be pleased to hear that they have a Nuclear Magnetic Resonance spectrometer. Hold the line folks, that means that Herbalife products do everything the company says they will. I wasted several minutes of my life watching these videos only to hear the word “quality” mentioned more times than a swirling solution in test tube was shown (that happened a lot) and to learn that “Herbalife” is in fact pronounced “‘Erbalife”. I also learnt that the many visitors who tour the manufacturing facilities are impressed. Oh, and they make sure to put their products through rigorous blind testing – taste and texture testing that is. I was left with a sense of satisfaction; that, despite the words “science based nutrition” being repeated at every possible opportunity, the videos are just another attempt to win people over with how science-y their products are. Interestingly; the website asked me to read an agreement before viewing the videos, that included the following statement:

“Similarly, testimonials of large and/or rapid weight losses are not representative of the amount of weight any individual person may lose or the rate at which any individual can expect to lose weight. An individual’s weight loss will depend on that individual’s own unique metabolism, eating habits and diet, starting weight, and exercise regimen. Consumers who use Formula 1 twice per day as part of a healthy lifestyle can generally expect to lose around 0.5 to 1 pound per week. Participants in a 12-week single-blind study used Formula 1 twice per day (once as a meal and once as a snack) with a reduced calorie diet and a goal of 30 minutes of exercise per day. Participants followed either a high protein diet or a standard protein diet. Participants in both groups lost about 8.5 pounds. For information regarding weight-loss claims within the Region in which you conduct your business, please consult your Career Book or MyHerbalife.com.

Everyone should consult his or her own physician before beginning any weight loss program. Herbalife® products can support weight loss and weight control only as part of a controlled diet. Although certain Herbalife® products may be suitable to replace part of a daily diet, they should not be used as a replacement for a person’s entire diet and should be supplemented by at least one adequate meal on a daily basis.”

So, I take this to mean; participants in this study, lost weight whilst participating in a program that includes a reduced calorie diet and 30 minutes of exercise per day. Well. You don’t say!

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The fact that there is no link to an extensive list of peer reviewed research is honestly enough for me to say this is smelling like a scam to me. But I wanted to make sure I covered every avenue so I kept digging for their studies, although I do think it says a lot about the company that the science that the products are supposedly based on isn’t readily available on their website. It is worth noting here that when I originally looked at the Herbalife website a little while ago; they did have a section referring to their clinical trials/studies. This article by Julia Belluz at Vox (6) goes into detail about the studies that were there; but appear to have been either removed or the link set to reroute to another part of the website. What else is out there? I found this paper (7); which I believe is the third study referred to in the Vox article. Apparently it was published in the International Journal of Clinical Practice; although I was surprised it was published at all. The reason for my surprise is because it has multiple problems. Firstly, the study was not impartial by any means; it was fully funded by Herbalife. Industry funding of nutrition-related scientific research may introduce bias in favour of sponsors’ products as discussed in this paperexamining the relationship between funding source and conclusion (8).

Looking at the methodology: 75 participants were divided into two groups, and each group restricted to a diet of 1500 calories per day which included meal replacement shakes . The difference between the two groups was that one group was also given a high protein powder whilst the other group received a malt dextrin powder. Compliance to these diets was measured by weighing the remaining meal replacement shakes and assuming that any absent powder had been consumed by the participants instead of just thrown in the toilet. Greater than 70% consumption of the assigned meal replacement shakes was considered as high compliance. The results? All the participants in the study lost weight. There was no significant statistical difference in weight loss between the two groups. The researchers observed a difference when they split the groups further into those with high compliance and those with low compliance. The adjusted sample sizes do not seem to be recorded anywhere in the paper. Limitations listed by the authors included: Firstly, the fact that exercise was discussed with the participants in each of seven clinic visits and three times over the phone – so if any subjects followed through with this advice, results could have been influenced. Secondly, the short duration of the study. Third, all subjects were Koreans and presumably consumed a traditional Korean diet, limiting the generalisation of the results to other ethnic groups. I would add to this the limitation that the two groups both used Herbalife products. The study didn’t have a group who used another brand of weight loss shakes; or a group who simply restricted their calorie intake without using Herbalife products. Does this study support the idea that Herbalife products are backed by rigorous science? Not to me it doesn’t.

As I already said, surely if there really was an extensive amount of evidence to support Herbalife products – they would simply provide links to all of their published works. But in an effort to leave no stone unturned, I did a search on PubMed which revealed another study (9); this time on the effects of an L-arginine and antioxidant supplement on exercise performance in elderly male cyclists (This is likely study number 4 from the Vox article). Clearly, any results obtained couldn’t be automatically assumed to apply to the entire population and additionally, the sample sizes used here were ridiculously small. The two groups consisted of 8 subjects each. From the discussion:

“This study was performed in trained athletes who were without any cardiovascular problems. The role of L-arginine supplementation in cardiac patients remains controversial. Furthermore, it is also unclear if arginine supplementation in the sedentary population can have the same results. Further research will be needed to assess the interaction of these factors and to determine the effects of prolonged administration of arginine and antioxidants on exercise performance.”

Again, using this study to support a description of Herbalife products as based on rigorous science is inappropriate. Of the other 39 papers that were listed on PubMed for the search term “Herbalife”; the majority of them were case reports of liver toxicity from various hepatology and toxicology journals and responses from Herbalife denying the truth of the reports. The subject of potential toxicity from products such as these is certainly an issue for consideration; but delving into that branch of “Herbalife Science” is a whole other topic and best left for a separate article. More importantly; it is very apparent that the number of high quality studies on Herbalife products is sorely, sorely lacking.

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The TL;DR here is that Herbalife is clearly not backed by the quality research that it claims to be. I’m sure, with the amount of people on the planet, that there will no doubt be people out there ready to insist anecdotally that it worked for them. And that is great. But it still just isn’t peer reviewed research, no matter how hard you look at it.

REFERENCES

(1) Herbalife.com,. (2015). Herbalife – United States – Official Site. Retrieved 2 October 2015, from http://www.herbalife.com/

(2) Company.herbalife.com,. (2015). Herbalife – United States – Nutrition Advisory Board. Retrieved 2 October 2015, from      http://company.herbalife.com/nab

(3) Logicalfallacies.info,. (2015). Logical Fallacies» Appeal to Authority. Retrieved 2 October 2015, from http://www.logicalfallacies.info/relevance/appeals/appeal-to-authority/

(4) Video.herbalife.com,. (2015). Faisal Solichin: inspiring Results. Retrieved 2 October 2015, from https://video.herbalife.com/#category/videos/science

(5) Hiltzik, M. (2013). Herbalife cozies up with UCLA. LA Times. Retrieved from http://articles.latimes.com/2013/feb/22/business/la-fi-hiltzik-20130224

(6) Belluz, J. (2014). Herbalife may not be a Ponzi scheme. But its science is definitely garbage. Vox. Retrieved 2 October 2015, from http://www.vox.com/2014/7/23/5929209/herbalife-may-not-be-a-ponzi-scheme-but-its-pseudoscience

(7) Lee, K., Lee, J., Bae, W., Choi, J., Kim, H., & Cho, B. (2009). Efficacy of low-calorie, partial meal replacement diet plans on weight and abdominal fat in obese subjects with metabolic syndrome: a double-blind, randomised controlled trial of two diet plans – one high in protein and one nutritionally balanced. International Journal Of Clinical Practice, 63(2), 195-201. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1742-1241.2008.01965.x

(8) Lesser, L., Ebbeling, C., Goozner, M., Wypij, D., & Ludwig, D. (2007). Relationship between Funding Source and Conclusion among Nutrition-Related Scientific Articles. Plos Med, 4(1), e5. http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0040005

(9) Chen, S., Kim, W., Henning, S., Carpenter, C., & Li, Z. (2010). Arginine and antioxidant supplement on performance in elderly male cyclists: a randomized controlled trial. J Int Soc Sports Nutr, 7(1), 13. http://dx.doi.org/10.1186/1550-2783-7-13

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