It is a seemingly never-ending battle to help prevent consumers from being scammed by MLM schemes. Today we look examine another one of them: Youngevity.
I had a reader ask me about Youngevity the other day. We'll call him Spike. He wrote:
"Have you done any research on the Youngevity products & Dr. Joel Wallach? I have been taking their Tangy Tangerine product as well as the EFA's & Osteo FX over the last 3 months. I read your article on Lifevantage and was very impressed by the depth of your study. Just wanted to see if you have uncovered anything with Youngevity."
I had never heard of Youngevity. However, having looked into other MLM scams, I know one of the first places to look at is the cost of the product. Why? Because MLMs often require their distributors buy product to participate in the opportunity. The artificially expensive product pays the company hefty margins, and distributors often pay the surcharge month after month as a fee for what they feel will make them money.
When I looked into the prices of Youngevity's products, it had all the tell-tale signs of an MLM scam.
The Value of Tangy Tangerine
The first product that Spike mentioned was Tangy Tangerine, a 32 ounce drink that is highly packed with vitamins and minerals. At a cost of around $40 for a 30 day supply it is upwards of $1.25 per serving. I did a quick search on Amazon and found Optimum Nutrition Opti-Men Multivitamins (180-pack) , which was similarly highly packed with vitamins and minerals. I didn't compare specifics of each nutrient, but it was close, more in some areas, less in others. The price on Amazon for Opti-Men is 10 cents a pill and 3 pills are in a serving, for a total of 30 cents a serving. So instead of paying $40 a month for Tangy Tangerine, you could be paying about $9-10 a month. Some of the reviews said Opti-Men was really powerful and there's really no need to take three capsules, so you might find that you can save even more money by taking just one or two. (Side Note: The Opti-Men was the first thing I saw, I bet there's an equivalent women's version that is similar.)
Price per serving: $0.30 vs $1.25 in favor of Opti-Men. That's a savings of a little more than 75%.
With Tangy Tangerine, another concern I have is with the marketing of this product. On the bottle it says "with 115 vegetables and fruits." There are no fruit and vegetables in 500mg of powder and certainly not 115. Anyone buying into this claim should take a bottle to their doctor or medical professional (who isn't affiliated with the MLM) and ask them if you can stop eating vegetables because you are getting 115 from Tangy Tangerine. I image they'll find that humorous.
The Value of EPA Plus
Next up is EPA Plus. This supplement is like fish oil, but it is a blend of healthy oils like flaxseed. On the web I found it available for around $30 for 90 capsules, which is equivalent to 90 servings. That's 30 cents a serving. So what's the Amazon near equivalent?
It's Omega 3-6-9 Gold. It has the mix of different sources of good fats as well. It is $13 for 180 capsules which turns out to be 7 cents a serving... and at 1200mg you are getting more product. Update: 12/30/2013: Looks like that product is currently unavailable from Amazon. However, I spent another 30 seconds coming up with a good alternative from Amazon:
NOW Foods Omega 3-6-9 1000mg. It is around $15 for 250 capsules... 6 cents per capsule. If you use Amazon's Subscribe and Save, you can knock that down another 20% for a price of around $12.50.
Price per serving: $0.06 vs $0.30 in favor of NOW Foods Omega 3-6-9. That's 1/5th the price or 80% off of the Youngevity price... and it gets even cheaper with Subscribe and Save.
The Value of Osteo Plus
At this point, I got a little tired of searching, so I literally took the first thing that I found on Amazon and it seemed close to the Osteo Plus blend. Specifically, I am referring to: Enzymatic Therapy OsteoPrime Plus. I had to look at another website to get the nutritional information on this product as it wasn't nicely available on Amazon. The nutritional information shows a more diverse blend than Youngevity's Osteo Plus, but with lower amounts of calcium and vitamin D. These are the big things you'd be looking for in a osteo complex, so it looks like a bad fit. However, keep in mind that the Opti-Men product above had additional calcium and vitamin D, plus there's the nutrients that you get from your regular diet. That should make up any difference. OsteoPrime Plus is priced at $17 for 120 capsules. However with 4 capsules per serving that is a 30-day supply on Amazon. The price for Youngevity's Osteo Plus online that I saw was $41 also for a 32-day supply.
Price per serving: $0.57 vs. $1.28 in favor of Enzymatic Therapy OsteoPrime Plus. This time the savings are closer to 55%.
I should mention that these don't seem to be random products that Spike picked out. They all seem to be part of what is calls the Youngevity Healthy Start package. This $112 product has the 30-day supply of all three Youngevity products. The price of this is combination on this site and this site is $112 (as of 4/27/2012). The later makes it seem like it a value as it normally costs $159.00. At $112, that's $3.73 a day. The price of the three items that I listed above: 94 cents a day. That's a savings of between 67-75%... or between $689.85 and $1018.35 a year.
The typical case for MLM is that the quality of the MLM product is better than any you compare it to. Clearly if both products were identical Honda Accords you wouldn't pay more. This puts the pressure on the MLM to prove that its product is significantly better. This is where they hire a couple of medical professionals as scientific experts, but the reality is that they are paid spokesmen. What you really need to know when it comes to vitamins is that there's a non-profit organization that you can trust: the United States Pharmacopeia. You'll find these products have USP Verified Dietary Supplement Mark on them. I've talked to a lot of pharmacists and they all say that this is the place to start and end your search for supplement quality... however many admitted to me that standards are generally so good they don't look for it themselves and just buy the cheapest generic brand.
Absorption of Youngevity and other Vitamins
Some commenters have tried to ignore this point about the USP. When they do, they often say that cheap vitamins aren't absorbed well or that liquid absorbs better. It's worth noting that there are no studies on Youngevity's products absorption. If Youngevity's products do absorb better than its competitors and this is indeed an important factor, why is there zero analysis on it? Another thing to keep in mind is that when researchers and scientists are researching vitamins, they often don't choose liquid sources or even state the brand of vitamins at all. Why would scientists/researchers time and again choose to go through all the trouble of conducting studies with products that are known to be poor? The answer is that they aren't using poor products.
"Q. My wife pays a premium for liquid vitamin and mineral supplements, which are supposedly better absorbed by the body. Are they worth the cost? —D.P., Sacramento, Calif.
A. Probably not, unless your wife has trouble swallowing solid supplements. In theory, liquid supplements should be better absorbed by the stomach since they’re already dissolved. But there has been little research to substantiate that idea. And at least some evidence has shown no meaningful difference."
I'd add that even if she has trouble swallowing solid supplements, there's amazing technology called pill crushing that has existed for years which solves this.
When it comes to Youngevity it is worth keeping in mind the "Can I Pay Less for Something of Similar Value?" game.
It simply doesn't make any sense to spend more money on something that doesn't seem to work in the first place.
Update (12/16/2013): The well-respected medical journal Annals of Internal Medicine says, "Enough is Enough: Stop Wasting Money on Vitamin and Mineral Supplements".
“The (vitamin and supplement) industry is based on anecdote, people saying ‘I take this, and it makes me feel better,’ said Dr. Edgar Miller, professor of medicine and epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and co-author of the editorial.’ It’s perpetuated. But when you put it to the test, there’s no evidence of benefit in the long term. It can’t prevent mortality, stroke or heart attack’.”
Many of the smartest people in the world have done the research on hundreds and thousands of people and haven't anything that helps, and even found that it could be dangerous.
"Doctor" Joel Wallach
It's worth noting that Youngevity is associated with "Doctor" Joel Wallach. Who is he? According to Skepdic he is a veterinarian and a naturopath.
The American Cancer Society sums up what you need to know about Naturopathy: "Available scientific evidence does not support claims that naturopathic medicine can cure cancer or any other disease, since virtually no studies on naturopathy as a whole have been published."
[Update: When I wrote the article it seemed like a safe bet that most people would consider one of the largest non-profits/charity with the goal of rid the world of cancer reputable, but I've received a few comments from people, probably Youngevity distributors, that are to the effect of "This guy believes the American Cancer Society, now I know I can't trust him."
There are numerous other reputable sources that make the point that naturopathy is quackery, not supported by the proven scientific method. There's a list of six accredited Naturopathic schools (at the time of this update) and not one of them is associated with any university you have likely heard of. If you are one of the few odd people who are against the American Cancer Society, the point about naturopathy being quackery is well established by other reputalbe institutions.]
I love animals and my aunt is a veterinarian, but I'm not taking advice for my own health from a veterinarian and person who bases their treatments on things that haven't been scientifically proven. There are hundreds medical doctors in a few square miles from where I live that are hundreds of times more qualified that Wallach. I'd put nutritionists as more qualified when it comes to supplementation as well.
I put "Doctor" in quote when referring to Wallach, because he's a doctor in the sense that my wife, who has a doctorate in pharmacy (she's a pharmacist) is a doctor. It's a fair title for her education, but she doesn't use the doctor title, nor does anyone else.
That skepdic article on Wallach is very illuminating as it goes into various antics that he's done over the years. It is clear that he's misrepresenting himself and making up lies (woman in China who lived to be 250?")
Does Youngevity Work?
Sorry, but Youngevity joins the long list of MLM products with distributors claiming there are miracle health cures. Why do people make such claims? If you read nothing else today, read this: No, Your MLM Health Product Does Not "Work"
About Clemson's Institute of Nutraceutical Research (INR) (Update: 3/01/2013)
A few commenters (mostly distributors) have asked about where I stand on the "Clemson study" on Youngevity products.
Reading the Clemson press release on the relationship with Youngevity is interesting. Here's a key sentence: "[Clemson's Institute of Nutraceutical Research] goals are to develop greater confidence in product quality, effectiveness and enhance consumer demand for quality nutraceutical products." (emphasis on "enhance consumer demand" is my own)
You know what another word for "enhancing consumer demand" is? Marketing. In other words Clemson's goal is to market nutraceutical products, and Youngevity pays them money for that. Ever hear of the rich person whose kid isn't all that bright, but he got into the top college anyway? The school just happened to get a nice library donated by rich family. The parallels here are obvious.
On February 5th, 2013, I noted that the website for Clemson's Institute of Nutraceutical Research is not functional. Some may argue that I have the wrong URL there, but if I do, Google does too from this screenshot. As of this update, March 1, 2013, the website is still not functional.
In addition to the website being down for nearly a month a Google search for Clemson Institute of Nutraceutical Research gives almost all results for Youngevity. I couldn't find any other research it has done aside from Youngevity, which is an obvious red flag.
With the website being down for months, lack of information about other studies, and Clemson's own failure to recognize it, is that it is hard to take the institute, and hence this research, seriously.
With that said, I feel it is important to address the Clemson "research" itself. With that in mind, let's take a look at the press release from AL International. One of the first things that pops of the page is that they classify the work as clinical research. However, it is quite clear from the study that this is laboratory research done on test tubes and not clinical research done on humans.
When you mix something up that basic, it's hard to have any trust in the rest of the "study."
Much of the press release focused on product safety. While we should all be concerned about safety, vitamins are generally considered safe, so such research is not necessary. If you were to read a review of a $200,000 car saying that it got people from point A to point B without exploding, you would probably be suspicious why they are focusing on something that even cheap cars should be able to do. You don't buy a Ferrari because it doesn't spontaneously explode, you buy it because it supposed to deliver an advantage over other cars.
The other part of the article focused on kill cancer cells in a test tube (i.e. cell cultures). On the surface, this seems like compelling information. However, seven years ago we found acai killed cancer cells in a test tube. Not only acai, but according to this USDA article a number of foods kill cancer in test tubes. Heck, even pot slows cancer in tubes.
The important thing to take away here is that lots of things, including vitamins kill cancer in test tubes. Clemson could have saved a lot of time if they weren't in the business of marketing Youngevity by looking at the existing research. This US News article:
Recent clinical trials, for example, suggest that supplements of single nutrients like vitamins B, C, and E and the mineral selenium do not, as once thought, prevent chronic or age-related diseases including prostate and other kinds of cancer. Some substances, like green tea and ginger, seem to have potential in preventing or helping to treat cancer, but they may also actually interfere with treatment or have other serious side effects. Meantime, countless substances that kill or slow the growth of cancer cells in a test tube have not shown that same success in human beings.
So Youngevity, and it's various ingredients are added to the list of "countless substances that kill or slow growth of cancer cells in a test tube", but "have not shown the same success in human beings.
Here's a thought from a pharmacist that I know and trust: "Bleach kills cancer cells in a test tube... I'm not going to drink it any time soon." She might have been joking with the last part, but the point is clear: We are not test tubes. Few test tubes read this article... and they aren't concerned about cancer. Many more humans read this article and I presume they are more interested in the fact that the research does not show success for them.
Even Youngevity's own brochure on the study comes with a disclaimer: “Clemson University only supports the statistical data and analysis provided here. Clemson University does not support, endorse, or sponsor Youngevity or any of its products. Clemson University and its researchers are not affiliated in any way
with Youngevity Essential Life Sciences.”
As commenter Vogel put it: "There you have it. According to Youngevity, Clemson’s only contribution to this misleading research was the statistical analysis of the data. They did not generate the data itself."
However, I'd take it a step further and suggest that the brochure itself is a violation of the FDA rules for marketing supplements. The FDA has sent this this warning letter to Nature's Pearl. It specifically states:
"When scientific publications are used commercially by the seller of a product to promote the product to consumers, such publications may become evidence of the product's intended use. For example, under 21 CFR 101.93(g)(2)(iv)(C), a citation of a publication or reference in the labeling of a product is considered a claim about disease treatment or prevention if the citation refers to a disease use, and if, in the context of the labeling as a whole, the citation implies treatment or prevention of a disease."
This brochure with "anti-cancer" prominently in the title and throughout the brochure appears to be evidence of the product's intended use. The small box at the end of the brochure reading "These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease" should tell you everything you need to know about Youngevity and cancer in clear and in no uncertain terms.
Finally, the New York Times cautions against reading anything into these studies. It is a highly important article for all consumers of any health products to read and understand.
Bottom Line: Clemson duplicated research that was already well known to be irrelevant in an attempt to provide marketing for Youngevity. They didn't do any clinical trials (tests in humans) of the product, presumably because they knew in advance it wouldn't have given the positive result that Youngevity paid for.
When Youngevity puts out a press release saying, "The INR is a national leader in nutritional research and one of the most highly regarded organizations in the field of phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals" it is clear that it is complete bovine excrement.
Youngevity and Depleted Soil
It seems that Youngevity is coaching its distributors to say that today's soil is depleted of vitamins and minerals in order to create demand for their product. It sounds plausible until you look at little deeper.
Behind the deception there is a nugget of truth, which is what they use to sell you down this erroneous line of thinking. There is some credible information that some soil is deficient of vitamins according to this Scientific American article that cites a few sources. It is far from conclusive. That's problem #1 with the argument, but for sake of argument we'll pretend it is conclusive. There are a lot more problems.
A Youngevity distributor pitching this has made the bad inference that because we might be getting less than before we aren't getting enough. If McDonalds cut the calories of its Double Quarter Pounder you probably wouldn't be looking to add more to make up for "a deficiency." It's quite possible we were getting more than we needed in the past and still get enough (which I will cover in a minute). That's problem #2.
Next, there's sufficient research that supplements are a waste of money. That's analysis of dozens of different studies on hundreds of thousands of people. Conspiracy theorists will say that article is biased or created by a "sickness industry", but these people have no answer for why the same doctors and scientists put their loved through chemotherapy if vitamins and minerals actually worked. Getting back to the article, the conclusion was:
"The large body of accumulated evidence has important public health and clinical implications. Evidence is sufficient to advise against routine supplementation, and we should translate null and negative findings into action. The message is simple: Most supplements do not prevent chronic disease or death, their use is not justified, and they should be avoided. This message is especially true for the general population with no clear evidence of micronutrient deficiencies, who represent most supplement users in the United States and in other countries.... we believe that the case is closed— supplementing the diet of well-nourished adults with (most) mineral or vitamin supplements has no clear benefit and might even be harmful."
I've added emphasis to three important parts. Supplements are not advised... problem #3. There is no evidence of micronutrient deficiencies in the United States and in other countries. This supports the point I made above in problem #2... we get enough. In fact, the people who are looking into Youngevity are probably those who are health-conscious and thus more likely to have a healthy diet that is devoid of deficiencies.
The final point the article makes is that supplements might even be harmful. That's problem #4. You not only don't appear to be helping yourself, but you might even be hurting yourself.
I've heard people try to discount that article and the science. They do everything can (like the "sickness industry" I mentioned above). I can't understand how these people believe in some science and not others. They'll take the whole thing about depleted soil as a given even though there's far less analysis of that and throw out all the science about vitamins and minerals not being helpful. It's as if they want to believe in addition, but not multiplication. It simply doesn't make any sense to pick and choose arbitrarily.
Now let's get to problem #5. Back in the Scientific American article they presented a solution to the depleted soil problem. It wasn't supplements. "... foregoing pesticides and fertilizers in favor of organic growing methods is good for the soil, the produce and its consumers. Those who want to get the most nutritious fruits and vegetables should buy regularly from local organic farmers."
And then there is problem #6 to this argument. It doesn't give anyone a reason to buy Youngevity's overpriced supplements (using the above analysis).
Vogel brings up another 7 more problems with depleted soil in this comment. Specifically:
- the main study cited, "did not look at any measurements of nutrient levels in soil"
- "the authors did not conclude that that the apparent decline in nutrient levels was attributable to soil depletion... that a difference in the strains being cultivated, not soil depletion, was the probable cause of the apparent decline in nutrient levels"
- "Some of the nutrients that apparently declined were only marginally lower, which is not likely to be clinically relevant"
- an apple from the 1950s might have higher levels of alar and DDT and other banned pesticides
- improvements in transportation allow for better access to a variety of fruits than in the 1950s.
- the diet in the 1950s was not very good ("potatoes and iceberg lettuce" cited), there is much more nutritional awareness today.
- "... diseases due to dietary nutritional deficiencies (like scurvy, rickets, beri beri, pellagra, etc.) were not uncommon in the 50s but have now been virtually eradicated in the U.S. due to improvements in standard of living and diet."
About Youngevity's Parent Company
One thing that came out of the Clemson research that I initially overlooked (I felt it was more important to focus on the product), is that the company is owned by AL International, a publicly traded company that is a penny stock. On January 25th, when the Clemson "research" press release came out, the stock was trading at 16.5 cents a share (I didn't realize the stock market took ha'pennies). The total value of the company was 65 million dollars, less than some athletes sign for over 2-3 years. Stock prices vary and after the Clemson marketing, Youngevity got the desired result, a significant bump in stock price as penny stocks can do at times. (Note: they can drop just as quickly and are not very good investments.)
I tried to give a fair review to Youngevity based on its products in general, but as I've found in every MLM that I've looked at, the organization usually is centered around a few charlatans.
Update: I was pointed towards this great first person account with Youngevity. It is extremely long and detailed, but well worth your time if you are considering buying these products or getting into the business. The author actually became a nutritionist because Youngevity's Wallach was slandering doctors making them seem untrustworthy all why claiming that their "glacial milk" was the answer. Here are some great quotes:
"So rather than just believing the bunch of facts and figures that were thrown at me by my lecturers, I approached the claims that Wallach had made by asking 'where is the evidence?' What I discovered was that Wallach's claims were not only inaccurate but they were nothing more than very clever lies, designed to lull vulnerable people into a false sense of security in order to relieve them of their money."
"I had also come across a handful of people from the church who had been approached by AL distributors claiming to cure them of their health conditions, many of them who had received no benefit but were too shy or ashamed to let their story be heard. Funnily enough, it was only those who for whatever reason, believed that they had been cured, whose testimonials were given at meetings and printed on the plethora of AL's advertising material."
"... I should simply stand up and ask Wallach why he was misleading people and to question him in front of the audience (of several hundred people) and the cameras. I did of course, which resulted in my swift removal (including being physically dragged out and thrown down a flight of stairs)..."
The story is truly amazing and should make it very clear that it best to avoid Youngevity and its marketing tactics that aren't properly supported by any real evidence.
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