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Be Wary of Health-Related Infomercials

Stephen Barrett, M.D.

Every day, dozens of health-related products are hawked through television infomercials, many of which bear superficial resemblance to a TV interview show. Over the years, I have seen ads for weight-loss plans, "cellulite" removers, exercise devices, hair-loss remedies, memory-enhancement programs, reading improvement systems, skin creams, and a myriad of dietary supplement products. Except for a few of the exercise devices (which may work if the user does not become bored with them), the vast majority of these promotions include false and misleading claims. The dietary supplement products are usually promoted with the types of claims we discuss in our article on Twenty-Five Ways to Spot Quacks and Vitamin Pushers.

The Federal Trade Commission warns consumers to be aware that some television programs that look like talk shows are actually program-length commercials. One tipoff, says the FTC, is that the product promoted during "commercial breaks" is related to the program's content.

Don't make the mistake of thinking that anyone screens infomercials for accuracy before they are broadcast. Although the major networks maintain reasonable advertising standards, most cable broadcasters do not care at all whether their advertisers cheat their viewers. If they did, there would be few health-related infomercials.

Don't assume that products offering a money-back guarantee with honor them. If you must buy a product, do it with a credit card so that if you decide to seek a refund, you can ask the credit card to do a chargeback. Also be sure to record the name, address, and telephone number of the company so that if you are dissatisfied you will know where to complain. If a product you order does not arrive within 30 days after the charge appears on your credit card bill, you should assume that (a) the product will not come, or (b) the company is deliberately delaying so that by the time the product arrives, it will be too late to force a chargeback. If you want to return a product for a refund, keep your eye on the calendar. Most credit card companies limit the chargeback period to 60 days after the date on the bill. If you return a product for a refund, send a complaint to the credit company asking for a chargeback.

The best way to protect yourself from being misled by health-related infomercials is to ignore them. Since the percentage that are legitimate is close to zero, the likelihood of receiving valuable information is extremely small. Here are some recent examples that illustrate the deceptions. We have also posted an index of infomercials discussed on our sites or subjected to government regulatory action.

The most brazen health-related infomercials ever broadcast were aired in 2002 and 2003 to promote Coral Calcium Supreme and similar products. During the tapes, Kevin Trudeau interviews "King of Calcium" Robert E. Barefoot, who claims that calcium deficiency causes more than 200 degenerative diseases (including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer's disease); that 90% of the disease in America can be wiped out by taking the right nutrients; and that a thousand people have told him that coral calcium cured their cancer. He also states that the underlying cause of these diseases is acidosis caused by calcium deficiency and advises everyone to get at least two hours of sunlight on the face daily without using sunscreen, a practice that would obviously increase the risk of skin cancer. Quackwatch has posted detailed analyses of the infomercials, both of which can be accurately described as a pack of lies from one end to another. In 2003, the Federal Trade Commission charged Trudeau and Barefoot with false advertising and obtained a temporary restraining order to stop further broadcasting of the tape. Click here for the full story.

CortiSlim

CortiSlim is an alleged weight-loss product that contains vitamin C, calcium, chromium, "Cortiplex Blend" (magnolia bark extract, beta-sitosterol, theanine), "Leptiplex Blend" (green tea extract, bitter orange peel extract), and "Insutrol Blend" (banana leaf extract, vanadium). Its developer, Shawn Talbot, Ph.D, claimed that by adjusting cortisol levels, CortiSlim would remove a key physiological signal for weight gain and that the supplement also may help balance blood-sugar to reduce cravings and maximize metabolism to boost energy expenditure and fat-burning. During the program, a woman said she had been on CortiSlim for about three weeks and lost 14 pounds. It is not possible to do this unless most of the loss is due to water loss, which has no practical value because it reverses when the body is re-hydrated. In August 2004, the FDA warned the manufacturer that claims such as "eliminates cravings," "controls appetite," enhances metabolism through thermogenesis," and "controls cortisol levels" were not supported by reliable scientific evidence and must be stopped. A few months later, the FTC issued false advertising charges that were ultimately settled with a cease-and-desist order and penalties totaling more than $16 million.

FiberWeigh

FiberWeigh contains glucomannan, a fiber that swells when it comes in contact with water. The infomercial claims that this swelling is sufficient that taking 2-3 pills before each will significantly reduce food intake. The company's Web site states that, "Because each person loses weight at a different rate, it is not possible for us to speculate on actual weight loss." However, the infomercial states that people using the pills will "easily" lose 2-3 pounds a week with no change in exercise or eating habits, and some people testify to losses as high ass 16 pounds in 3 weeks. The program offers a free 30-day supply by calling a toll-free number. However, callers must pay a $2.99 handling charge and agree to be billed monthly for automatic shipments unless they cancer after receiving the pills. A fast-talking operator also tries to sell vitamins said to help dieters maintain their vitamin levels. "Bulk producers" are generally regarded as ineffective for weight loss because they don't remain long in the stomach and many people continue to eat even though they feel full. The company's Web site quotes from 11 studies of glucomannan. However, the studies don't substantiate the claims of easy or substantial weight loss made in the infomercial. Most of the studies have no relevance to weight loss. One excerpt states that glucomannan is frequently used to treat childhood obesity, but the article is about a controlled study that found no significant difference between the glucomannan and the placebo groups.

Firmalift™ Non-Surgical Face-Life Kit

Leigh Valentine's Firmalift™ "kit is promoted by a 30-minute infomercial in which Valentine is interviewed by Kevin Trudeau. The system, which they refer to as an "age-erasing miracle," includes: Non-Surgical Face Lift Powder; Blue Peel Non-Surgical Face Lift Activator; Firming Facial and Eye Serum; Skin Renewal Booster; and an application brush. The infomercial suggests that the system is the equivalent of a surgical face-lift, can "rejuvenate" the skin, and can "reduce and eliminate wrinkles." Valentine also claims that "clinical research" has shown "up to" 40 to 67% increase in skin density, elasticity, and firmness." Moisturizers can make fine lines and wrinkles less apparent by holding water in the outermost layer of the skin, but the effect is temporary and does not alter cell structure or rejuvenate in any way.

ParaCease System

The $69.95 ParaCease System is promoted by Valerie Saxion, a naturopath who has written Every Body Has Parasites and several other books. Her half-hour infomercial, "Today's Health," hosted by Gavin McLeod, claims that "parasites are the primary causes of most digestive disorders, and may affect up to 100% of the American population." She also claims that the product can "help cleanse the body of unwanted parasites" and thereby alleviate abdominal pain, kidney pain, acid reflux, diabetes, and many other problems. The ingredients are buassia bark, black walnut hull, wormwood, clove, grapefruit extract, olive extract, garlic, pumpkin seed, pau d' arco, mineral blend, methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) thyme leaf, bismuth salicylate, cascara sagrada, rosemary leaf, sodium caprylate, and long pepper (fruit). There is no logical reason to believe that parasites are a serious problem in the United States or that the system is actually effective against parasites.

7-Day Miracle Cleanse

The 7-Day Miracle Diet is promoted by "The Health Man" who does not identify himself but spouts one false statement after another. The infomercial claims that (a) most Americans accumulate large amounts of "mucus plaque" that healthy blocks the colon and predisposes them to cancer and many other diseases; (b) every American has colon disease or colon degeneration; (c) millions of Americans harbor harmful parasites; (d) users of the product can lose 10 to 25 pounds in a 7-day period; and (e) use of the product can extend life by 10, 20, 30 or more years. These claims are preposterous. The cost of a 1-week starter kit is $89.

Supreme Greens with MSM™

A show called "Today's Health" features the fast-talking "Dr. Alex Guerrero" (an acupuncturist, not a medical doctor) who asserts that "all disease is in the blood and over-acidification of the blood and tissues is the primary contributor to disease and sickness." According to Guerrero: (a) soil depletion has caused our diets to be nutrient deficient, which creates a huge nutritional deficiency in our diet; (b) yeasts, fungus, molds, bacteria, and viruses need an acidic environment to thrive and grow. Modern daily diets and lifestyles are conducive to such proliferation and growth; (c) Supreme Greens with MSM™ is a powerful formulation of organically grown grasses and vegetables, sprouted grains, blood purifying and immune enhancing herbs, and antioxidants; (d) fatigue, foggy thinking, acne, diabetes, and many other diseases are signs that the body is too acidic; and (e) the nourishment given to the body needs to have a minimum resonating frequency of 70 Megahertz. Typical American diets rarely resonate above 50 Megahertz, most supplements have a standard frequency of only 5-10 Megahertz, but Supreme Greens "resonates at an astonishing 250 Megahertz." Guerrero also claims to have conducted a five-year study which found that 192 out of 200 people with cancer and various other diseases, all of whom were diagnosed as terminal, survived because they took his product. After a "caller" to the program states that Supreme Greens caused her to shed 81 pounds in 8 months, Guerrero explains that weight loss occurs because the body no longer needs to have a layer of fat to protect itself against the effects of acidic body fluid. Web sites promoting the product also claim that a serving is equivalent to approximately two pounds of fresh vegetables, which is certainly not true. It contains some if the nutrients, but the pills do not contain the dietary fiber that accounts for much of the benefit obtained by eating vegetables. Like Barefoot, Guerrero recommends frequent testing of one's saliva to see whether the body is too acidic. However, saliva testing has no practical value in evaluating general health status.

Guerrero's claims are about as far-fetched as any I have ever encountered. The body's pH is kept within a narrow pH range by powerful biochemical mechanisms. It is not influenced by diet and does not go out-of-whack when people get sick. Nor do nutrients and body cells "resonate" as Guerrero describes. There is no logical reason to believe that taking Supreme Greens will cure any disease or cause people lose weight. Nor do I believe his claim that 192 out of 200 his "terminally ill patients" with a wide variety of disease are alive today because they took Supreme Greens. Claims as blatant as these violate federal and state laws against false advertising as well as the marketing of unapproved and misbranded drugs. Both the FDA and the FTC have initiated regulatory action against the marketers.

The Greatest Vitamin in the World

According to Don Lapre's infomercial, "The Greatest Vitamin in the World" contains "all you need for optimal health" and also presents a great financial opportunity. The infomercial claims that the ingredients, purchased separately would cost from $184/month for low-quality ingredients to $379/month for highest quality ingredients. For $35, viewers can become "independent advertisers" who are promised $1,000 or "up to $200 a month for life" every time they get 20 people to try the vitamin. The information states that "nothing like this has ever been created until now!" and that making money is easy because all anyone has to do is direct people to their Web site, which is designed to persuade them to buy the product. The product contains eleven vitamins and eleven minerals, which, except for calcium, are in the doses found in ordinary multivitamin/multimineral products. The amount of calcium could be a useful addition to the diet of women who are not consuming enough in their diet, but products containing the same amounts of vitamins and minerals could be purchased at ordinary retail outlets for less than $5 per month. The enzymes, probiotics, and "whole food ingredients" are either found in adequate amounts in the average diet or are not likely to benefit most users. The company's Web site contains illegal claims that the product is effective against various health problems. Lapre has a long history of questionable business practices. The income-related numbers presented in the infomercial simply don't add up. Click here for additional information.

TriVita™ Sublingual B-12/B-6/Folic Acid Tablets

Trivita's sublingual B-12 supplement is promoted through infomercials hosted by Evangelist James Robison and his wife Betty. In one program, Alfred F. Libby, M.D., who patented a sublingual B-12/B-6/folic acid product in 1984, states that the product could help lower the risk of cardiovascular disease by lowering elevated blood levels of homocysteine, but he fails to recommend the best strategy for doing this. In the other program, Scott Conard, M.D., correctly discusses the functions of vitamin B-12 but incorrectly suggests that anyone who feels run-down or depressed would be wise to see whether the product works for them.

Libby is correct that TriVita's product can lower homocysteine levels, but that doesn't mean that taking it without a diagnosis makes sense. People with normal homocysteine levels are not likely to benefit. Second, rather than shooting "blind," it would make more sense to measure the person's homocysteine level to see whether a problem exists. If lowering is needed, it would also be important to check whether the selected dosage actually corrects it. Although some people will benefit from the TriVita formula, others will do better with different dosage of one or more of the ingredients. Moreover, the product costs about $25 per month (or a bit less if bought regularly), the ingredients can be obtained individually from other sources less than $2 per month.

Conard is correct that B-12 deficiency can cause serious problems and that feeling tired is a symptom of the anemia that will result from B-12 deficiency. But the percentage of people whose fatigue is caused by B-12 deficiency is very small, and there's no reason to believe that the average person who feels tired or depressed will benefit from B-vitamin supplementation. Nor, as Conard also suggests, can Alzheimer's disease be prevented or treated with B-vitamins.

Ultimate HGH

Ultimate HGH, which is marketed by Great American Products, was promoted with claims that it can "turn back the clock 20 to 30 years," build muscle, increase memory retention, increase "cardio output," cause people to reduce weight, increase energy, improve vision, enhance immune function, and lower cholesterol. Claims of this type have been stimulated by a study published in 1990 in the New England Journal of Medicine which showed certain changes in elderly men given injections of human growth hormone (HGH). However, the article has no real relevance because the product contains no hormone or any ingredient that can increase the body's HGH. Even if it could, taking the product would not be a good idea because HGH can produce serious adverse effects. The company's research director, who was interviewed during the infomercial, advised everyone after the age of 30 to use the product. My advice is that nobody should use it because the infomercial was a total fraud.

Additional Information

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This article was revised on March 7, 2007.