Junkfood Science: Easy money and cheap advice

March 15, 2008

Easy money and cheap advice

“Not sure what is hype and what is real?”

So asks a new website, which says it was created in response to “growing public confusion, hype and controversy surrounding nutrition and dietary supplements.” According to the site, its team of “scientists, physiologists, nutritionists and other health professionals dedicated to educating people about the pros and cons of dietary supplementation... reviews thousands of scientific papers, research abstracts and medical journals in order to provide the most comprehensive and up-to-date information concerning dietary supplements.”

The organization behind this new online service says its science-based reviews and ratings of supplement products and diets are unbiased and that its team of professionals provide this free service because they want to “expose supplements with misleading claims and dangerous ingredients” and help consumers and healthcare professionals know which supplements have clear benefits and come from reputable companies. Best of all, it says: “We do not accept funding or advertising from supplement manufacturers.”

Would you trust its information? Should you?

As regular JFS readers know, we cannot know the truth of any health and science information based on its source. Believing information out-of-hand because a source looks to be credible and its information to come from doctors and professors at prestigious institutions, and because it is not “industry-funded” — just like disregarding other sources out-of-hand because of the reverse — can leave us for suckers. It is the factualness and credibility of the science that matters, not the source.

But when a source can convince us that its mission is solely educational or to protect us, and that they’re the good guys, it can be easy to let our guard down and turn off our critical thinking. Marketers know that, too, and are increasingly packaging sales to look like medical and professional journals or bona fide advocacy organizations.

Before revealing the rest of the story about this new website and the identity behind it, let’s look at the history of one of the biggest diet supplement scams in the history of the country and what it has taught us.

The money’s too good

Imagine getting caught selling a quack diet pill by the federal government and having to personally pay $1.12 million (in cash and vacation homes), with your co-defendants having to fork over the rest of the $4.5 million settlement, be prohibited from ever making a claim again that a dietary supplement is beneficial or works unless the claim is true and substantiated, and face class action suits against you.

And none of that is a deterrent. You’re making piles of money from people willing to plunk down $30 a bottle for pills promising to help them lose weight and prevent dreaded chronic diseases of aging from cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes to heart disease.

A simple name change and quick repackage and you’re back in business.

That’s a common scenario among dietary supplement companies after being cited by the Federal Drug Administration or Federal Trade Commission for fraud. In fact, some don’t even go that far, and simply continue to market their products without skipping a beat, since the fines and settlements are a tiny portion of the profits they’re making.

It was just over a year ago that the FTC announced it had cracked down on four over-the-counter diet pill companies for making false advertising claims, fining them $25 million. One of the companies the FTC found making claims unsupported by competent and reliable scientific evidence was CortiSlim.

Everyone remembers those nonstop infomercials and radio spots that began in 2003 and looked like a talk show called “Breakthroughs.” The host, Gregory Cynaumon, was actually one of the company owners and the “guest” was the product’s formulator, Shawn Talbott. They were part of a joint venture to make and market CortiSlim and CortiStress. It was through these shows, as well as print and website advertising, that most consumers learned of “the scientific breakthrough about stress and cortisol” and their supposed effects on weight gain. Not only that, but CortiSlim’s promoters said that elevated cortisol levels are the underlying cause of “every modern lifestyle disease that is associated with this fast-paced 21st century lifestyle.” CortiSlim was claimed to lower and control cortisol levels and cause weight loss. The public was told that the effectiveness of its ingredients — vitamin C, calcium, chromium, magnolia bark, beta-sitosterol, suntheanine, green tea and bitter orange extract, banaba leave extract and vanadyl sulfate — had been proven in over 15 years of scientific research.

It was all false. There was no science, as the FTC charged in 2004.

The FDA also issued a warning letter to CortiSlim on August 19, 2004, citing it for making false and deceptive claims about cortisol, weight loss, and that their product “eliminates cravings, controls appetite, burn[s] calories more efficiently and naturally through thermogenesis, and diminish[es] hunger and stress eating.”

The FDA filed the complaint against CortiSlim in U.S. District Court on September 30, 2004, having reason to believe the law was being violated, along with the interim agreement submitted by the CortiSlim defendants. Under this agreement, the defendants cannot make any of those claims about CortiSlim or CortiStress in their advertising and they agreed “to limit their future advertising to claims that are supported by competent and reliable scientific evidence and agree not to misrepresent that their products are supported by scientific studies.” The defendants also agreed not to “use any advertisement that misrepresents itself as something other than a paid advertisement, and they also agree to include appropriate ‘paid advertisement’ disclaimers in their advertising.”

On September 21, 2005, the FTC announced that three CortiSlim and CortiStress defendants had agreed to pay $4.5 million in cash and assets to the FTC for their roles in making false and unsubstantiated product claims and using deceptive advertising tactics. As part of the settlement, “California-based Pinnacle Marketing Concepts, Inc. and its president, Thomas F. Cheng, and Utah-based Shawn M. Talbott, cannot make benefit or efficacy claims for any dietary supplement, food, drug, cosmetic, or device unless the claims are truthful and substantiated.” Talbott was required to turn over $1.12 million with Pinnacle and Cheng required to give up $3.4 million.

The FTC also took applications for refunds from consumers who purchased these products through this past October, as part of the settlement. The FTC court papers with the final agreements and orders for permanent injunction and settlement claims were also made available on the FTC website here.

Was that the end of Talbott’s enterprises?

Where’s Talbott now?

Shawn Talbott, who says he holds a Ph.D. in nutritional biochemistry from Rutgers University and has an impressive list of credentials and affiliations, has been busy. According to his website and resume, he is “the recipient of a dozen competitive research awards and has published over 200 articles on nutrition, health and fitness.” He is now the Chief Scientific Officer for Metabolic Method, LLC “a research & development company dedicated to helping people harness their metabolism for enhanced mood, higher energy levels, weight loss, and optimal mental & physical performance,” and Research Director and Editor for Supplement Watch — that new online health education company mentioned at the opening of this article.

Get Up-Slim Down

Get Up-Slim Down is the name of his new “dietary supplement for controlling stress, cortisol, testosterone, and HSD (homoserine dehydrogenase) [that]... help[s] participants to lose more weight/fat and more inches from their waist.” As the website opening claims:

How do I know that the GET UP - SLIM DOWN Program will work for you? Because it has been studied, and it has been proven to work in groups of the toughest cases we could find. These tough cases were people who had tried every popular diet and exercise craze and yet still found themselves with extra weight to lose... Not until these people joined a study of GET UP - SLIM DOWN did they find the solution — and the success — they had been looking for.

The results were nothing short of dramatic. Not only did virtually every person in the program lose body weight, body fat, and inches around their midsection, but the majority of people also reported increased feelings of energy, reduced stress/anxiety, control of appetite and cravings, and no feelings of deprivation.

The website page, “How Get Up Slim Down works,” and its online videos, claim that Get Up-Slim Down has been studied on 1,000 people and that they lost 1/2 to 1 pound of fat each week, their cortisol levels dropped and testosterone levels rose, their blood sugars were stabilized, that their metabolism didn’t drop with other weight loss diets, and their mood and energy levels increased, while depression and tension levels decreased. The “most striking statistic from our studies,” Talbott states, “is the extremely high compliance rate... 91% is higher than any other [diet] program I have ever encountered.” No information is provided on how long the studies lasted.

Was this research published in a peer-reviewed journal? No. In fact, his complete Curriculum Vitae actually lists only nine articles published in peer-reviewed journals and none have anything to do dietary supplements. The Get Up-Slim Down data, says Talbott, was presented at “some of the top nutrition-science conferences in the world.” As seen in the provided photo, they were posters hung up alongside trade booths.

So, consumers are left to rely on the “Frequently Asked Questions” page on the website. It says that Get Up-Slim Down was developed by Dr. Shawn Talbott – “a renowned Nutritional Biochemist, author, and lifestyle expert” and is distributed by the Metabolic Method company in Utah. Consumers are referred to Talbott’s new book, The Metabolic Method, to learn more about the program, which includes diet and exercise along with the supplement. According to the book’s promos, Talbott originally thought “stress was the culprit behind unwanted weight gain,” but it turns out it was “only half the story.”

One quickly discovers that the “other half of the story” appears to be diet and exercise, and that the website makes the very same claims for this supplement that had been made about CortiSlim:

Based on his own groundbreaking clinical research, Dr. Talbott’s new title, The Metabolic Method, describes the complex interplay between stress, cortisol (and other hormones/enzymes), diet and related body functions that ultimately lead to unhealthy weight gain. And fat gain isn’t the only thing at stake — Dr. Talbott has also found that these metabolic interactions can be a primary contritubor to low energy levels, depressed mood and other problems as well.... the keys not only to effective weight loss, but also to fighting depression, enhancing sleep, eliminating factors for cardiovascular disease, immune dysfunction, syndrome X and diabetes, and improving your sex life.

And instead of offering more ingredients than the original CortiSlim, this new supplement contains fewer than half! It has only 3 of the ingredients found in the original CortiSlim: orange peel extract, green tea extract and theanine (found in green tea) and a new one, eurycoma root. For those people who believe they are rats, one researcher in Malaysia has suggested eurycoma root might decrease rats’ sexual hesitation time or increase mounting frequency — perhaps, that’s the “get up” part of Get Up-Slim Down. :)

Talbott appears to have read that recent MIT study that’s been in the news, which found that the higher the price tag, the more people will believe sugar pills (placebos) work. This new supplement also costs more than the original CortiSlim, at $49.95 a bottle.

Supplement Watch

For many consumers, anything with “watch” in its name has come to mean an organization that’s looking out for the little guy. Hence, it’s become a popular marketing buzz word for those who aren’t.

As the quotes at the beginning of this article illustrate, Supplement Watch says all of the right things to appear credible and trustworthy. [Warning: Google has noted that visiting the website, Supplement Watch, may harm your computer, as it appears to be trying to download virus software onto certain computers.] As the website states:

The staff at Supplement Watch strives to not only expose those supplements with misleading claims and dangerous ingredients, but also to highlight and promote those supplements from reputable companies which demonstrate clear benefits... At all times, the SupplementWatch team remains unbiased in its reviews, ratings and recommendations by adhering to a strict policy that NO supplement can be featured on SupplementWatch.com until it has received a complete evaluation by the technical staff and assigned an overall rating.

The members of the staff are never identified. A closer look finds that the address for Supplement Watch is the same as the home address noted on Talbott’s resume. Supplement Watch recommends reference books for consumers and healthcare professionals with guidance on dietary supplements, a number are written by Talbott.

How objective and accurate are Supplement Watch’s evaluations of the scientific evidence for dietary supplements, under Talbott, its research director and editor? Let’s look at those listed for weight loss supplements. All information at Supplement Watch, by the way, is newly copyrighted 2008.

Surprise! Cortislim is given 5 stars — its top rating and is recommended as “Try it!” Supplement Watch gives CortiSlim highest scores for its claims, science, safety and value. In the review of Cortislim’s claims and science, we find the very same claims being made that had been cited as fraudulent by the FDA and FTC:

By modulating cortisol levels, CortiSlim™ reduces one of the primary physiological signals for increased appetite and weight gain. In addition to helping to control cortisol levels, CortiSlim also provides ingredients to help provide: less stress, more energy, better mental focus, appetite and craving control, and weight loss. CortiSlim is recommended for “anyone who leads a stressful lifestyle and wants to lose weight”...

There is very good scientific support for each of the ingredients in CortiSlim for aiding in stresss [sic] control, cortisol balance, and weight loss... CortiSlim “works with the body's metabolism” to control cortisol levels by modulating cortisol levels... By controlling cortisol levels, blood sugar levels, and overall metabolic rate (also known as “thermogenesis"), CortiSlim addresses 3 important metabolic control points that are responsible for weight gain... Overall, we feel that the multi-pronged approach to addressing weight loss – by controlling several metabolic factors in a simultaneous manner – is an effective approach to long-term weight management.

There is no disclaimer anywhere on Supplement Watch that it is advertising.

© 2008 Sandy Szwarc

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