Is MonaVie a Scam?
The short answer is yes. The longer answer? It is perhaps the most incredible example of deceptive marketing in the history of mankind.
What I’ve found is tons of irrefutable evidence supported by reputable third parties that MonaVie is a grossly overpriced product, with little nutritional value, wrapped in a poor business opportunity that appears to be illegal pyramid scheme, supported by nonsensical “scientific” studies and illegal medical claims.
That’s a lot to digest. I’m going to give you a minute to re-read that.
Typically when people are interested in MonaVie, they are focused on two things: 1) The nutritional value of the product and 2) the business opportunity. After all, the promise of MonaVie marketing is health and wealth for you and all your friends.
MonaVie’s Nutritional Value
Many of MonaVie’s claims come on something called a ORAC value. It’s a lab test that measures anti-oxidants in food. On the face of it higher ORAC seems better, but there’s a lot more to it than that. I’m not a doctor, so I’m not going to try to explain ORAC to you. However, Dr. Jonny Bowden explains that MonaVie doesn’t cure cancer and gives great detail about ORAC in the process.
There are a couple more issues with regard to MonaVie an ORAC values. High on the list is that MonaVie lies about the ORAC score of MonaVie. They published two widely different scores.
Many distributors make the claim that drinking 4 ounces of MonaVie is like eating 13 fruits and thus is a way to save money. This is a huge lie. MonaVie put out marketing material that said it “Delivers the antioxidant capacity of approximately 13 servings of fruits and vegetables in just four ounces.” MonaVie set up a the classic telephone game where the initial message conveyed changes as it passes through the downline and the words, “antioxidant capacity” get left out. In this statement, the antioxidant capacity is measured ORAC value, and the equivalent fruits and vegetables are not even mentioned. A MonaVie product specialist cleared this up when called, but MonaVie didn’t issue a clarification or change its website for years… see more at Drinking MonaVie is Not Equal to Eating 13 Fruits.
To follow up on the above, a single apple has the antioxidant capacity of 9.5 ounces of MonaVie. If a person was relying on four ounces of MonaVie to give them the equivalent of 13 fruits, they are making a huge nutritional error as 13 apples has the equivalent ORAC value as 123 ounces of MonaVie. MonaVie Original retails for around $1.48 an ounce, so that’s around $182 of juice for the equivalent antioxidant capacity of 13 apples.
A consortium of U.S. government agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), USDA, and the FDA to put out guidelines on fruit and veggies and serving size. The result is that 4 ounces of MonaVie is a Serving of fruit which looks like 1 snack container of applesauce (4oz) or about 6 baby carrots. At MonaVie’s retail price of around $6.00 for four ounces that’s like buying a baby carrot for $1.00!
If you need a little more evidence on the nutritional value of MonaVie, Men’s Journal put several fruit juices to the test using criteria set up by a director or clinical nutrition. The result was horrendous, “MonaVie tested extremely low in anthocyanins and phenolics. Even apple juice (which also tested poorly) has more phenolics…” and “Plus, MonaVie’s vitamin C level was five times lower than that of Welch’s Grape Juice. That’s not many nutrients, especially at $1.20 a serving.” Website changes have divided the article into many pieces, but the you can read it in two parts: part 1 and part 2 with the MonaVie-specific comments.
What do national doctors have to say? Dr. Andrew Weil gives a thumbs down on MonaVie, Dr. Dean Edell calls MonaVie worthless, and Dr. Joe Schwarcz warns against acai health claims. These are all unbiased, nationally-recognized doctors.
I could continue to give facts about the lack of nutrition in MonaVie, but perhaps the creator of MonaVie itself is one of the best sources. The Salt Lake Tribune reported this interesting information that came out from a lawsuit with Amway:
The suit also uncovered an internal MonaVie memo by Ralph Carson, the company’s chief science officer, who created the original juice. The memo was in response to raised eyebrows about claims being made about the juice. Carson cautioned that the drink was “expensive flavored water. Any claims made are purely hypothetical, unsubstantiated and, quite frankly, bogus.”
Those claims that he’s referring to are the illegal health claims that we’ll get to in a bit.
Juice in general is not healthy
Another aspect to consider is that juice itself is shown not to be healthy. For years we thought it was healthy, but that thinking has changed and many view soda and juice as being the same. The HBO documentary Weight of a Nation clearly spells this out.
Here are some key quotes from that video: “Soda and other sugary drinks… is the only individual food that is directly related to obesity”, “There is nothing in a soft drink that is good for you. A Twinkie or a potato chip or a candy bar has at least a little nutrition. These sugared beverages have none at all”, and “Juice is just like soda… there is no difference. When you take fruit and you squeeze it, you throw the fiber in the garbage. That was the good part of the fruit. The juice is nature’s way of getting you to eat your fiber.”
When we take the statements above together, juice the same as soda, soda having less nutrition than a potato chip, it is clear that MonaVie can’t be nutritious. The processing has stripped out the fiber… the good part of the fruit. Some may argue that MonaVie is only four ounces a day and it’s not going to contribute to obesity. Well that 120 calories a day does add up… in a year it is 12.5 pounds (43,800 yearly calories divided by 3,500 calories in a pound).
(To prevent MonaVie distributors claiming that HBO doesn’t know anything about health, Weight of a Nation was done with “the Institute of Medicine (IOM), in association with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).”)
As you can tell from the label above, MonaVie doesn’t have much of the fiber that comes from fruit naturally. Recently MonaVie started to add “fake” fiber (Fibersol-2 / Maltodextrin), so consumers looking at the nutritional label could be easily tricked into thinking that they are getting the good part of the fruit.
Need another source? Here is the New York Times article by three professors of pediatrics who explain “Juice is Not Healthy”.
MonaVie’s Specialized Health Drinks
MonaVie adds a special ingredient or two to its basic juice to create a juice for a specific purpose. The above illustrated the minimal value of the juice alone. Let’s look at a few versions:
MonaVie Active – This MonaVie juice’s star ingredients is glucosamine. In four ounces of MonaVie Active there are 1500mg of glucosamine. On Amazon.com, I found that you can get 375 tablets of Kirkland Glucosamine HCI for a price of $22.55 (as of 6/8/2012). It takes two tablets to equal the 1500mg of glucosamine in MonaVie Active, which comes out to 12 cents a day.
For a year, the Kirkland glucosamine will cost you $43.80. For a year of MonaVie Active (4 ounces * 365 days = 1460 ounces is about 58 and half bottles (25 ounces per bottle). At the retail price of $45 a bottle, 58 bottles costs $2,610 a year. You can save some money by buying MonaVie Active in bulk, but you’ll never get the price under $1000, especially with shipping. You’ll save at least a thousand dollars, perhaps two thousand by going with the equivalent cheap solution from Amazon or your local drug store.
MonaVie Pulse – This MonaVie juice’s star ingredients are plant sterols and resveratrol added. In four ounces of MonaVie Pulse there are 0.8g of plant sterols. I couldn’t find the amount of resveratrol. On Amazon, I found CholestOff, which actually has 0.9g of plant sterols. The 240 tablets, 120 servings, costs $22.22, which is 18.5 cents a day or $67.59 a year.
MonaVie Pulse is typically the same price as MonaVie Active above (around $2610, but cheaper if bought in bulk) and it too will cost you thousands more than the much obvious cheaper solution.
What about the resveratrol? Without knowing how much is in MonaVie Pulse, we can’t really make a fair price comparison. There is this resveratrol, which will cost you $76.19 a year. The combination of CholestOff and this resveratrol is still a bargain at around $140 compared to spending a couple of thousand dollars and not knowing how much resveratrol you’ll get.
MonaVie M(mun) – This MonaVie juice’s star ingredient is Wellmune, a patented derivative of baker’s yeast from the pharmaceutical company, Biothera. Four ounces of MonaVie M(mun) has 250mg of Wellmune in it. Once again, I went to Amazon and found Immune Health Basics, which has 500mg of Wellmune. It costs $37.49 for 60 capsules or about 62.5 cents for 500mg. Since this is double the amount in MonaVie, the true cost per serving would be a little more than 31 cents. It costs $114 for a year’s supply of the same amount of Immune Health Basics as you’d get in MonaVie M(mun).
The pricing of M(mun) follows that of MonaVie Active and MonaVie Pulse above, meaning that you’d save thousands by buying the capsules of Immune Health Basics.
When you do a little more research you’ll find that Wellmune is also similar to beta glucans, a pill that you also might be able to find cheaply. When I last looked into Wellmune, around the time that MonaVie announced M(mun), research as to whether it was helpful was conflicting. One study of people found that they missed no more sick days than the placebo group when taking the product.
MonaVie MX – This MonaVie juice has the star ingredients of Active (glucosamine) and M(mun) Wellmune. Also, in addition to the basic 19 fruit juices in the juice it has 11 vegetables. Below, we’ll cover in more detail why this isn’t necessarily a good thing. As for pricing, this product like all of MonaVie juices is around $40, but in this case a few extra dollars due to having the glucosamine and the Wellmune in it.
MonaVie Essential and MonaVie Kosher – MonaVie essential seems to be a rework of “MonaVie Original” which is the basic juice with no star ingredients. MonaVie Kosher is a basic juice with no star ingredients that has been certified Kosher.
Bottom Line on MonaVie Nutrition: Any way you slice it (pun intended), MonaVie is not a good source of nutrition when compared to time-tested advice of just eating fruits and vegetables. If you are thinking about MonaVie as a dietary supplement, it represents the worst value for you dollar… and it isn’t even close. The examples I gave of a single person spending thousands more than equivalent product is multiplied when you consider a family of four. That family could save an average of over $6000+ a year by replacing MonaVie’s juices with products found in your drug store or on the Internet. Depending on your tax bracket, this simple decision could be the equivalent of getting a $10,000 raise tomorrow or winning a lottery that pays you $10,000 for life.
Does MonaVie Work?
While the talk of many, many testimonials may seem convincing, such testimonials are typical with any MLM product, especially health ones. The fact that you can many testimonials for dozens of other MLM products shows that these testimonials are not unique to MonaVie products… or any ingredients in those products. Instead, there’s a wide variety of psychological phenomena with MLM health products that give people the perception that the products work. For more details see:
No Your MLM Health Product Does Not “Work.”
The MonaVie Business Opportunity
MonaVie is sold via multi-level marketing also known as MLM. I’ve written about The Business of MLM (or What Gives Freddy Krueger Nightmares) before and is terrible. Here’s a quick recap… click on the links to read more in detail:
- Around 99.54% of People Lose Money in MonaVie – This analysis was done using MonaVie’s Income Disclosure Statement (IDS) the last time they included the number of distributors to make such calculations possible.
- No Barriers to Entry – Since anyone can be a distributor for usually very little money, anyone can be your direct competitor.
- MLM Distributors Lack Control of the Business – MonaVie can take your business away whenever it feels like it for whatever reason they want. I think MJ DeMarco might have said it best in his book Millionaire Fast Lane, “I was involved in four MLM companies. Not once do I remember dictating product decisions, research and marketing, marketing restriction, rules, cost analysis or any other activity fundamental to owning a business. As a network marketer, you don’t own a business – you own a job managing and creating a sales organization… MLM distributors are commissioned employees disguised as entrepreneurs.”
Below we’ll get to the point about MonaVie and pyramid schemes. We’ll cover how “creating a sales organization in MLM” can be considered as participating in illegal pyramid scheme.
- MLM and the Reality of Saturation – Recruiting people into MonaVie is where the Diamonds make their money. The problem is that the market is already saturated. You simply can’t go to the top of the pyramid anymore because those positions have been taken for years. In order to get there you have to build thousands of people under you and if those people wanted to be juice salesmen they would have been long before now.
- Understanding the Churn Rate in MLM – Somewhere between 60% and 90% of distributors in MLMs leave the business every year because of the first bullet point above. They didn’t make any money. MLMs replace these people with new hopefuls because their sales pitch is enticing. When MonaVie recruits someone they tell them that they too can have health and wealth for them and all their friends. Who wouldn’t want that? The scheme churns through people every year with enough people quitting and joining so that the pyramid scheme never explodes past the population of the earth.
MLM distributors like say that it is up to the person to do the work and not be “Lazy.” Well I’m an expert on Lazy and I can tell you that isn’t the truth. In MLM, losing is not a matter of effort, it’s a mathematical certainty. The circumstances surrounding the system set people up to fail.
MonaVie’s Illegal Health Claims
When I first wrote about MonaVie and wondered why people would spend $45 on juice, I had no idea how the product was marketed. I was shocked as distributors left comments connecting MonaVie to helping with cancer, autism, fibromyalgia, and just about any and every other medical condition under the sun. MonaVie has not been approved by the FDA to help with such conditions making these claims illegal.
It wasn’t until later that I learned that MonaVie CEO was the Vice President of Dynamic Essentials a company that madeRoyal Tondan Limu juice. The FDA warned the company about website claims to treat various diseases such as cancer, arthritis, and Attention Deficit Disorder caused their products to be in violation of the law. The company continued to sell the product and the FDA and Department of Justice fined the company millions and went as far as destroying the product. The action essentially put an end to Dynamic Essentials.
Dallin Larsen held “fireside chats” with hundreds of people. There is one “fireside” chat on Archive.org. He tells this convincing story how Dynamic Essentials is part of a publicly traded company with products in Wal-Mart and that they found this fascinating ingredient called Limu Moui. He goes on to essentially claim that limu that unique benefits to help with the system. At the 7:25 minute mark of the audio, Larsen tells of how he just came back from a tour talking to people who have used the product and tells of the stories he heard and how it has helping with asthma, arthritis, chronic fatique, fibromyalgia, lupis, migrane headaches, etc. He then goes to say that “We can’t make [the claim that you aren’t going to get cancer and heart disease]… I know that this product is having a benefitial impact on people’s health.
MonaVie, is an identical copy-cat of Royal Tongan Limu juice, but with acai instead of limu. The illegal health claims that I’ve seen in the comments on my article and elsewhere on the Internet come straight from the leadership.
Newsweek did a story on MonaVie in which Dallin Larsen acknowledged that while MonaVie has an 18-person compliance team which investigates distributors making false claims, “It’s next to impossible, like herding cats.” In short, MonaVie opened Pandora’s Box with their distribution system. The proper solution to fix this systemic problem is to distribute the product like Ocean Spray or Welch which doesn’t have these problems. MonaVie refuses this logical solution that would prevent consumers from be defrauded out of their hard-earned money and still allow them to get the product to those who were interested in it.
When I found MonaVie distributor Mitch Biggs claiming that MonaVie prevents swine flu, I decided to help out MonaVie’s compliance team and let them know. Mitch Biggs should know better. He was a MonaVie Emerald Executive, one of the top 166 distributors at the time, who make an average $155,000 a year. My goal was to find out how MonaVie would enforce the its policies and procedures which allow it to end a distributorship who is caught making illegal claims. Would MonaVie do what’s right and make an example to show distributors that they can’t be making these claims? Or would MonaVie cave, not wanting to create a rift amongst its distributors? The answer: Mitch Biggs Scams People and MonaVie Condones It.
A recent commenter suggested that MonaVie’s compliance was doing its job, so I showed him this story, which is about two years ago as of this pointing (June 2012). I decided to go an look and see if MonaVie is still letting Mitch Biggs be a distributor, which lead me to this video on a local news show. It seems like Mitch and Ashley Biggs are making erroneous and deceptive claims multiple times saying that MonaVie is an “easy, convenient and tasteful, way to get your fruit every day” and “just an easy, easy, way to get your fruit.” As we saw in a section above, MonaVie’s Nutritional Value, this is quite untrue. The spot even took the effort to bring a vase of 13 fruits to illustrate the deception.
It may seem like I’m picking on one distributor, but this is a leading distributor who was made an example of once before and yet continues to break the law publicly. If this is the stuff that is going on in the open, imagine what is going on behind closed doors!
Some may suggest that this is an isolated case – one example of a bad seed that every industry has. That’s simply untrue. It is a systematic problem which is so prevalent that Dr. Johnny Bowden’s article that I mentioned at the very beginning of this article was titled, “No More Claiming MonaVie Cures Cancer!” These are the kinds of things that happens when you tell distributors that they can be millionaires if you recruit enough people to buy a juice that happens to be priced at 20 times more than other juices. The distributors have to come up with some way to market the obscenely overpriced product. They are naturally going to try to make a point that it is a value for consumers as a replacement for medicine or something seemingly expensive like buying a vase of 13 fruits.
MonaVie’s Deceptive Marketing
If I were to go into depth about MonaVie’s deceptive marketing, I would never finish writing this article. This article is already so long that I wonder if you’ll read it. There’s just too much to say. I also think I covered a lot of it above. So here I’ll just give a few more examples:
In the above section, MonaVie’s Nutritional Value, I went into detailed the 13-servings of fruit and ORAC score myth. That’s a typical example of the marketing to keep in mind. Here are a few others:
- 19 fruits in the juice – MonaVie adds all these juices because the public has a perception that more juices is better. That’s not necessarily true. Regular readers know that a mutual fund with more stocks does not necessarily out-perform those with fewer stocks. A pizza with a 7-cheese blend is not necessarily better than one with a 3-cheese blend. In fact, the more ingredients, the easier it is to dilute the ingredients that MonaVie touts like acai. When you have 18 other fruits in addition to acai, the amount of acai could be less than 6% and still be the first ingredient on the list. However, if MonaVie only had 2 fruits and acai was listed first, you’d know that you are getting at least 50% acai in every ounce.
- Freeze-dried acai – For years MonaVie touted the amount of freeze-dried acai because it had a huge ORAC score. The reason it got such a high score is the fact that water was taken out, which allowed them to pack more powder per ounce. However, it was shown that MonaVie is less than 2% freeze-dried acai, meaning that even with a high score, there wasn’t enough of it to make a significant difference.
MonaVie relies heavily on their Scientific Advisory Board, specifically Dr. Alexander Schauss. Schauss has a long list of reputation problems. One of them was that he faked his credentials and got a mail-order PhD degree from California Coast University. MonaVie pitched Schauss as an expert on acai, but they are the only ones who recognized him for anything like this. The reality is that Schauss was the supplier of his OptiAcai brand to MonaVie.
Schauss, through his AIBMR Life Sciences, pumped out a lot of “research” which could fool some people into thinking that there was actual science. In fact, MonaVie product specialist Erica Bryant wrote distributors to tell them that AIBMR is the only source of that they should use. Some of this research led to ridiculous papers such as this “Double-Blinded, Placebo-Controlled Study” on MonaVie by Schauss. It doesn’t take a scientist to see that it was made for the specific purpose of giving distributors fuel to recruit more people. Tellingly, the final conclusion of the study made mention of another study that showed that eating fruit had positive results as well.
MonaVie: An Illegal Pyramid Scheme?
I believe MonaVie is an illegal pyramid scheme. Here’s why:[survata] The FTC has a lot to say on the topic of multi-level marketing (MLM) and pyramid schemes. The best article is this one: The Bottom Line About Multi-Level Marketing Plans that warns:
“Not all multilevel marketing plans are legitimate. Some are pyramid schemes. It’s best not to get involved in plans where the money you make is based primarily on the number of distributors you recruit and your sales to them, rather than on your sales to people outside the plan who intend to use the products.”
The entire article from the FTC is well worth reading. Here’s another important letter from the FTC which has this quote:
“The Commission’s recent cases, however, demonstrate that the sale of goods and service; alone does not necessarily render a multi-level system legitimate. Modern pyramid schemes generally do not blatantly base commissions on the outright payment of fees, but instead try to disguise these payments to appear as if they are based on the sale of goods or services. The most common means employed to achieve this goal is to require a certain level of monthly purchases to qualify for commissions. While the sale of goods and services nominally generates all commissions in a system primarily funded by such purchases, in fact, those commissions are funded by purchases made to obtain the right to participate in the scheme. Each individual who profits, therefore, does so primarily from the payments of others who are themselves making payments in order to obtain their own profit. As discussed above, such a plan is little more than a transfer scheme, dooming the vast majority of participants to financial failure.”
This appears to be how MonaVie works. Distributors in the upline earn commissions based on the purchase of other distibutors below. The distributors below are required to be “active”, which means either:
(A) buying product themselves or
(B) selling twice the requirement to a preferred customer
When a distributor satisfies the requirement by (A) buying product for themselves and MonaVie pays a commission to the upline on that purchase that it can be considered a pyramid scheme using the FTC’s guidelines. This is the typical way that requirement is satisfied. The distributor application for MonaVie prominently includes the Auto-Ship Program (ASP) so that new distributors can satisfy the active by buying product requirement right away.
The option (B) to qualify as active by recruiting enough preferred customers, is a new option. Previously the only method was the above option A) which makes it quite clear that MonaVie could only be viewed as a pyramid scheme. With the new option (B) it becomes a little more complex. Since (A) is a sign of a pyramid scheme, we need data from MonaVie on the percentage of distributors that qualify through the (B) option. (MonaVie doesn’t disclose this information.) Anecdotal evidence tells me that the (B) option is quite rare. As explained in the above section, MonaVie’s Nutritional Value, MonaVie’s juices represent a poor product at an extremely expensive price (approximately 20 times the price, ounce for ounce, of other 100% fruit juices). In the rare case that a preferred customer is buying the product, it is mostly like that they were sold on the illegal medical claims or deceptive marketing, as described in the section above.
For more sources about MLMs and pyramid schemes from the FTC and others, I’ve put together a compilation here: MLMs Vs. Pyramid Schemes[/survata]
How you can help put an end to the scam
The best way to put an end to this scam is to go to the FTC Complaint Assistant and file a complaint. A recent article on CNBC had comments from the FTC saying that few people file complaints on these schemes and thus they rarely put in the resources to investigate them. There are two reasons why there are so few complaints:
- People are brainwashed from the beginning that the system “works”, and “the only variable is you.” Thus people feel as if it is their own failure rather than recognizing the system was mathematically set up to fail over 99% of people from the beginning.
- The FTC doesn’t do anything. You leave a complaint and that’s the end of it. The complainant gets no follow-up from the FTC and there’s never any evidence that the complaint is ever read. It’s fundamentally terrible system… but that’s what we have to work with.
With that said, if you’re as upset as I am about people being lied to and defrauded out of their money, please leave a complaint. If you do, please sent me a quick mail. This way, I’ll have an idea of the minimum number of complaints that MonaVie is getting.
Update: MonaVie has started marketing to college students and those who have recently graduated. These are probably the worst candidates for such overpriced MLM products. They have little income and often high student loans. I believe that MLMs have nowhere else to turn as the general population know that it’s a scam. I think they believe they will catch them early before they’ve gathered the wisdom to know to stay away.
I wrote a whole article about MonaVie Mynt.[Editor’s Note: This article itself is a constant work in progress. I didn’t have the space to get into explaining the scamming behind MonaVie’s MORE charity. Publication deadlines force me to publish this without proofreading. In the future, I hope to go into more of MonaVie’s products like its RVL line of weight loss, which is a copy of other other MLMs and also a terrible value compared to the equivalents in stores. However, at this point, it does more to help people to get this information in their hands quickly and that means saving some of the editing for another day.]