[This article was originally a placeholder. A commenter named Paul significantly hijacked the conversion on my article exposing ViSalus as a scam. I’ve done my best to move most of those comments and conversation to this article. Thus there’s a little discussion about ViSalus which may be confusing, but I hope it is minimal.
Finally, a year and a half after those conversations took place, I’ve been able to find the time to write an article covering Xocai in some detail. As with all of my MLM articles, I strive for accuracy and am happy to correct any information that seems incorrect. Simply leave a message in the comments with your concerns and I’ll read and respond to them.]
Xocai’s “Study” in the American Journal of Bariatric Medicine
I first heard about about Xocai when someone commented on my articles that it was covered in the American Journal of Bariatric Medicine. That sounded really official, so I went to read more about it in detail. I noticed that the Xocai Store seems to have a copy to read. Unfortunately, clicking the link doesn’t bring you to the study, but instead brings you to Xocai’s self promotional press release about the study. Nonetheless, there’s a PDF copy of the article available here:
Before I get into the article in detail, I want to comment on the source and the authors.
The authors are Machiel N. Kennedy, M.D. and Steven E. Warren, M.D.
Machiel Kennedy (who goes by “Mike Kennedy” – perhaps his parents had a typo in his name?) has done a Q & A with Xocai. That’s not to say he’s completely biased, but since the study is pitched as generic “cocoa meal replacement”, it is a little surprising to see.
Warren is revealed to be a Xocai Medical Advisor here. As a doctor with that position, it is likely highly illegal for him to do a Q&A saying that chocolate with all the questions that are asked… including suggesting that it helps Crohn’s disease. Those who are familiar with supplements are likely also familiar with the disclaimer, “This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.” So when Warren is caught stating that Xocai chocolate will “help a lot” with Crohn’s disease, we have a problem.
It’s pretty hard to take Warren seriously given his bias and what appears to be flaunting of the FDA’s regulations on supplements.
Perhaps more importantly than the authors themselves, the American Journal of Baratric Medicine doesn’t appear to be one of the tens of thousands of journals indexed by PubMed.Gov, which is a sign that it is not considered very important.
It would be comical if it wasn’t so tragic, but many of the results on the first page of Google for “American Journal of Bariatric Medicine” are related to this two-page “study” from 2011. (We’ll find out why I included the quotes when I get to the study itself). There’s no Wikipedia page for the journal and best I can tell it has no Impact Factor rating at all. The top result in Google points to the American Society of Bariatric Physicians and the site doesn’t seem to make mention of the American Journal of Bariatric Medicine at all. To make sure I’m not missing something, I did a Google search just of the ASBP.org to see if the website mentions the journal at all. The only result is the home page of ASBP.org, which again doesn’t seem to mention the journal.
I did a Google image search of “American Journal of Bariatric Medicine” to see if I could find any covers other than the issue with the Xocai “study” in it. I couldn’t find any.
I don’t mean to beat a dead horse here, but it is almost like this is a ghost journal.
After much searching, I’ve finally found something helpful: “The American Journal of Bariatric Medicine, The Bariatrician is a color scientific publication distributed twice a year to ASBP members and subscribers.” No wonder why it is so hard it is to find, it’s rarely distributed to a select very few people.
Having solved that mystery, it’s time to analyze the study itself. I’m going to assume that you’ve read the PDF copy of the study available here.
When I was in the 5th grade I learned about controlled, dependent, and independent variables. The article designed for children’s science fair projects even covers it:
“These changing quantities are called variables. A variable is any factor, trait, or condition that can exist in differing amounts or types. An experiment usually has three kinds of variables: independent, dependent, and controlled.
The independent variable is the one that is changed by the scientist. To insure a fair test, a good experiment has only one independent variable. As the scientist changes the independent variable, he or she observes what happens.
The scientist focuses his or her observations on the dependent variable to see how it responds to the change made to the independent variable. The new value of the dependent variable is caused by and depends on the value of the independent variable.
For example, if you open a faucet (the independent variable), the quantity of water flowing (dependent variable) changes in response–you observe that the water flow increases. The number of dependent variables in an experiment varies, but there is often more than one.
Experiments also have controlled variables. Controlled variables are quantities that a scientist wants to remain constant, and he must observe them as carefully as the dependent variables. For example, if we want to measure how much water flow increases when we open a faucet, it is important to make sure that the water pressure (the controlled variable) is held constant. That’s because both the water pressure and the opening of a faucet have an impact on how much water flows. If we change both of them at the same time, we can’t be sure how much of the change in water flow is because of the faucet opening and how much because of the water pressure. In other words, it would not be a fair test. Most experiments have more than one controlled variable. Some people refer to controlled variables as ‘constant variables.'”
If you’ve read the Xocai study by now, you’ll realize that there are many variables and that they aren’t properly controlled. The most obvious failure is “monetary rewards were given to the winners of the group.” In short, they are going to give money to motivate people to lose weight. Why introduce this variable? Like the change in the water flow above, this experiment is flawed because we don’t know if weight loss is caused by the meal replacement or by the financial rewards. We know that paying people lose weight works… I wrote about it back in 2010, when there was an article about it in Time Magazine.
The question is whether the high antioxidant meal replacement did anything. We can’t know because it isn’t a fair test of the meal replacement. Maybe the people would have gained weight on the meal replacement if they weren’t financially motivated.
Furthermore, there’s no evidence that high antioxidant content in the meal replacements lead to weight loss. Perhaps people would have lost weight eating Twinkies. Don’t laugh, a nutrition professor lost 27 pounds on a Twinkie diet.
Let’s not forget that people were encouraged to exercise which obviously plays a role in weight loss. They also had weekly support calls, which is yet another variable that has been known to contribute to weight loss.
In the end, they combined several variables well-known to help people lose weight (calorie control, exercise, monetary rewards, regular support check-ins) with one variable that isn’t shown to help people lose weight – the amount of antioxidants in a meal replacement. The results of the study are unsurprising… people lost weight.
It should come as no surprise that Xocai took credit for the weight loss:
“A recent study has found that overweight or obese individuals who consumed an antioxidant-rich, raw-cocoa based meal-replacement shake over a twelve-week span were able to lose significant weight. The study is the first of its kind to comprehensively show that a high-antioxidant diet, particularly one featuring unprocessed cocoa, can effectively help promote healthy weight loss.”
Worse were the comments from Machiel Kennedy in that press release:
“Few studies have specifically investigated the association of high-antioxidant foods such as raw cocoa with safe and effective weight control. Our study is the first to truly examine this relationship, and its findings were very pronounced… The powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects of high-antioxidant meal-replacement shake clearly played a significant role in the weight loss benefits seen by the study participants. The results were very impressive, and perhaps enhance our understanding of the wide ranging health benefits of cocoa.”
The problem is that this study didn’t investigate the association of high-antioxidant foods in helping to control weight. Kennedy is exactly wrong. There was no indication at all that a high-antioxidant shake played any role at all in the weight loss benefits seen by the study participants.
In the end, you have:
- A study that a 5th grader could tell you was so poorly designed that no reliable conclusions could be made
- At least one author (Warren) who appears to have a clear Xocai bias which he doesn’t seem to have disclosed
- A journal that has zero impact on the medical and scientific community
It should be clear why they couldn’t get the study published in any of the tens of thousands of journals that are peer-reviewed and have a shred of significance in the scientific community.
If Xocai were a reputable company it seems they’d want to distance themselves from this “study”, not promote it.
Xocai’s “Healthy Chocolate” Patent
The other item in Xocai’s store is the second one: “Xoçai secures patent for ‘Healthy Chocolate’.”
I was curious how Xocai got a patent on a phrase. I’ve always known that to be a trademark. And, of course, when I click through to the press release they acknowledge that is a trademark. I consider this just another example showing that the people running the company don’t a clue what they are writing about.
Other than the patent/trademark mix-up, my response to this piece of “news” is “Meh”. If I really cared to about marketing I might call myself “The Blogger King” and apply for that trademark. I would probably be able to get it if I showed I that used the term a ton before anyone else. It wouldn’t mean that I’m actually a king or a very good blogger at all.
That’s the big takeaway, trademarks are essentially for marketing. The patent and trademark office does not test products to see if it delivers what the company is marketing. In fact here are some ridiculous patents that Business Week found.
So again, Xocai is 2 for 2 on their store page with their marketing being misleading. In fairness, the journal article is much more misleading than a “healthy chocolate.” However, I’ve caught their sales-force using the “healthy chocolate” term as if it was reputable because it comes with the “backing” from US Patent Office. I like to call this a P.T. Barnum argument, “There’s a sucker born every minute”.
It’s a shame that they don’t have anything else for me on this store page to analyze. In the 18 months since I last looked into the company, I expected them to come up with something new.
The most important takeaway here is that if you see a Xocai distributor promoting the bariatric “study” and the “healthy chocolate” patent/trademark, you now know that he is full of bovine excrement (i.e. BS).
What do Health Experts Say?
Typically the doctors/scientists/researchers are not concerned in evaluating specific brand-name supplements that make grandiose claims. It’s easy to claim something, but it is much more difficult to prove a product works by getting it approved by the FDA for a medical condition. Many people erroneously believe that supplements can’t be approved by the FDA for diseases, but most people know that calcium and vitamin D are approved to make claims about osteoporosis.
However, Dr. Jonny Bowden published an article on the Huffington Post, specifically covering the phenomena of these MLM products “working.” Specifically, he writes:
“New Rules: No More Claiming Mona Vie Cures Cancer! Nor, for that matter, AIDS. Nor lupus, GERD, acne, age spots, arthritis, a balding scalp or sagging libido. Nope. Sorry. And lest you think I’m picking on poor MonaVie, the same is true of Xango, Mangosteen, Xocai, Tahitian Noni, and all the other ridiculously overpriced and oversold juices promoted by scientifically illiterate multi-level marketing ‘distributors’ who repeat these claims with the sincerity and earnestness of a Kucinich volunteer.”
As the good doctor points out, ORAC scores easily manipulated… and after a certain amount are not useful. I see it like someone saying that they’ll give me 35 gallons of gas for the price of 17. My car’s gas tank is only 15 gallons, so the rest is wasted. More is not necessarily better, though for marketers, more is always impressive. We are smarter than that aren’t we?
This article is from 2008 and more than 6 years later, I don’t see MXI Corp (parent company of Xocai) arguing his reputable analysis in any way.
Perhaps more importantly the USDA has removed its database of ORAC stating:
“Recently the USDA’s Nutrient Data Laboratory (NDL) removed the USDA ORAC Database for Selected Foods from the NDL website due to mounting evidence that the values indicating antioxidant capacity have no relevance to the effects of specific bioactive compounds, including polyphenols on human health…
ORAC values are routinely misused by food and dietary supplement manufacturing companies to promote their products and by consumers to guide their food and dietary supplement choices…
The data for antioxidant capacity of foods generated by in vitro (test-tube) methods cannot be extrapolated to in vivo (human) effects and the clinical trials to test benefits of dietary antioxidants have produced mixed results.”
Thus we can safely throw out the notion that ORAC scores are meaningful. To take it a step further, if a Xocai is touting ORAC scores, they would appear to be either poorly educated about how useless they are or misusing them to promote Xocai as the USDA found.
Does Xocai “Work?”
To all the Xocai distributors making claims that the chocolate cured [X] and aided with [Y] medical conditions, I refer back to Dr. Bowden analysis above. You see these claims with dozens of MLM health products, so unless the distribution system is a medical cure, it simply doesn’t make any logical sense. I wrote an article detailing why people think their MLM health product “works” and a group of doctors, scientists, and researchers found it so impressive, they’ve asked if they can republish it on their site which you can find here. I try not bill myself as an expert and let my arguments stand on their own strength, but when unbiased doctors publish those arguments… well you know they must be pretty good.
Xocai is a Dangerous Cult?
However, there appears to be much darker story with Xocai. The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry has a very enlightening article on Xocai. It covers most of the misleading marketing and such here, but goes further by noting an huge incident in Norway. A blogger wrote an article exposing Xocai as a scam (probably not too much different than this one) and a group of Xocai members threatened him and his family in an attempt to “stop the attacks on Xocai.”
This is similar to the times I have been threatened by MLMers when expose their scams.
I’d like to think that any level-headed person would understand that it is not okay to threaten people’s lives over small pieces of chocolate. You don’t see this criminal harassment over Hershey Kisses. Lest you think I’m short-changing Xocai’s “healthy” message by comparing it to Hershey Kisses, this kind of harassment doesn’t happen with blueberries either. It happens when people make logical arguments to show the world why MLM is a scam.
A reputable company would realize that they played a central role in creating this angry mob. If a reputable company had a reputable product that they could sell any other way they would make the right choice and do it. The fact that Xocai hasn’t taken action to sever ties with its MLM distribution system is further evidence to me it isn’t reputable.
Is Xocai a Scam?
I like to end these articles by noting that “scam” means different things to different people. In my context, I like to use Wikipedia’s definition of redirecting “scam” to its “confidence trick” entry.
I don’t know any way other than scam to describe Xocai’s press release that focused on the “high-antioxidants” being a factor in the “study.” They antioxidants seem to be nothing more than a bystander to the multitude of other weight-loss tactics used in the study. It’s not like Hostess put out a press release that Twinkies/sugar is considered a promising weight-loss tactic. As best I can tell, that’s what Xocai did, but worse, since they funded the study in various ways (the financial rewards, the product, the co-author, etc.)
There is a lot more that can be written about Xocai. I often do a cost analysis of an MLM product to show how ridiculously expensive it is. I also often show that very few people make the big money using the company’s own Income Disclosure Statement. For example, one I could find was from 2010 (PDF) and it clearly shows anyone making more than 10K is in the “<1%" range, which is a little like saying that less than 1% win the lottery or less than 1% of people have a billion dollars. While both statements would be true, they don't accurate portray exactly how rare such things are. Also one shouldn't miss the small print which says that these abysmal numbers are for those who have sponsored two people. The people who have been trying to recruit people for a year and only got one person or no one don't show up. Imagine how bad the numbers would look if they included all these people instead of the "successful" ones. And the numbers get worse still when you factor in the expenses necessary to run the business. However, at over 3000 words, I've already sufficiently beat a dead horse without going into that level of detail. Update: It looks like the Washington Post has a great article on MXI. It’s almost hard to not quote the whole thing. Here are a few of the highlights:
– A distributor has been in MLM for 3 decades with 16 MLM companies: “He lost a little bit of money every time, but he convinced himself that he just hadn’t put in the work. This time, he was committed.”
– His “commitment” to Xocai resulted in losing $100,000 in 5 years
– The article also states: “He and the other salespeople deluded one another into thinking they were all on the point of becoming fabulously wealthy, he said. ‘Eventually, you come to realize: There’s something really wrong here, and I just can’t keep lying to people. Everybody’s lying to each other.'”
– He started telling everyone he knew that MXI’s probiotic chocolate had cured his acid reflux. “There’s something that happens to you, where you start to believe your own” sales pitch, he said, using an obscenity. This is proof positive of the illegal medical claims that come from these companies: as I’ve written about here. Not only that, but it is cognitive dissonance at its finest.
In short, it covers some of the big problems with MLM in general. Once again, if the company or products could exist with a more legitimate business model that doesn’t victimize distributors, you would think it would immediately use it.