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Skiing and Snowboarding : Science

The Supplement Scams Aren't Going Anywhere

For a company its size—$4.5 billion in market cap compared, to, say, Pfizer with about $183 billion—Herbalife, the California-based marketer of weight-loss potions, cosmetic lotions, and dietary supplements, has been a frequent subject in the financial press, most recently on July 28 after releasing its latest quarterly report when the company announced that its earnings were below analyst expectations. The stock plummeted, losing over 13 percent of its value on July 29.

The money media wouldn’t spend quite so much time following Herbalife, if not for a boys-in-the-sandbox slap match between high-powered financiers William Ackman, who runs Pershing Square Capital Management, and Carl Icahn, who runs an eponymous holding company. To make a very long and complex story short, Ackman has spent the last two years shorting Herbalife stock—betting it’ll go down—and has vowed to destroy the company, accusing it of being a pyramid scheme. If Ackman wins, he might bury it.

The reason why that matters, and why you’re reading about it on Outside’s website, is that by going after Herbalife, Ackman is exposing the multi-level marketing (MLM) business model, and the dietary supplement business, to light in which neither wants to bask. The results could be far-reaching, including for people who buy sports nutrition products.

I explored the world of MLM in this story about one that sold, um, water. But the basic outline is the same no matter what product is being hawked. You buy goods from the company and try to resell those goods to others whom you also try to recruit as sellers themselves to build what’s called a “down line.” You get money from the company based on orders placed by your down line, so, if you manage to recruit enough people into selling the products, you could make some serious money. Shown graphically, the model looks a lot like a pyramid with the company at the top, you somewhere down a few levels, and your down line spread out below you.

{%{"quote":“No matter how often supplements or MLMs are debunked, people still sign up."}%}

{%{"quote":"No matter how often supplements or MLMs are debunked, people still sign up."}%}

The problem is, very few people actually make any money. In a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) mandated disclosure statement, Herbalife reported that in 2013, 77.8 percent of all its “members”—people who signed up to qualify to buy its products directly from the company—had no down line and received no money from the company. Herbalife argues that these members benefit economically by receiving discounts on the products.

Of 525,251 members reported in 2013, 199 received payments of more than $250,000. They obviously had big down lines. Good for them. But the vast majority don’t. Again, most members got zero dollars, and the vast majority of those who did get some payment received less than $1,000 during the year. Those figures don’t count any expenses members may have incurred in running their business, like gas, promotion, and so on.

A 2004 lawsuit settlement between Herbalife and members identified economic losses of $19,731,186.11 incurred by 2,653 current and former supervisors—a relatively exalted level of membership—an average of $7,437 each.

Herbalife, founded in 1980, has always been controversial. In 1985, the Food and Drug Administration sued the company for marketing suspect weight loss and nutrition products. Herbalife wound up having to remove some of those products from its line up. In 1986, it agreed to pay the state of California $850,000 after being charged with running an illegal pyramid scheme and making false medical claims for its products. The company, which admitted no wrongdoing, was forced to lay off employees and scale back to survive.

Then, in Mach of this year, in the midst of the Ackman controversy, the company announced the FTC was investigating it as a potential illegal pyramid.

Not only is the company’s business model questionable, so are its products. In a search of the nation’s largest database of medical publications, I was able to find exactly one study in a peer reviewed journal that demonstrated some performance advantage after using an Herbalife product. Elderly male cyclists showed an increased anaerobic threshold (the point at which lactic acid begins to build up in muscle) after weeks of using a product with L-argenine, a common sports supplement, but no improvement in VO2max (the amount of oxygen you can use during strenuous exercise). What, if anything, that meant for actual performance was left unanswered. I was, however, able to find a number of studies and reports tracing liver toxicity to Herbalife products.

The lack of proof of effectiveness of dietary supplements is certainly not unique to Herbalife—it’s standard in the supplement industry. Very few products, from any company, have been shown to improve performance or health, assuming a proper diet, and, in fact, new research is showing that taking extra vitamins can actually hurt performance.

Ackman’s financial shenanigans may heap lots of negative publicity not only on Herbalife but MLMs in general, and especially MLMs that sell nutrition or health products, but I think it’s doubtful he’ll crush the company, and here’s why: Herbalife has managed to survive forty years through one scandal after another and Ackman’s short-selling, fueled by his own PR campaign, isn’t likely to bring it down now. Neither is the FTC investigation, because as sketchy as Herbalife’s business model may be, it may not meet the strict definition of an illegal pyramid, a complicated formula set into law that allows a lot of sketchy MLMs to skate by.

Health product MLMs like Herbalife appeal to two primal hopes—health and wealth. Like many other health-based MLMs, Herbalife promises we can lose weight, be pretty, live longer and better, run faster, and make money by selling its products. No matter how often supplements or MLMs are debunked, people still sign up. That water company I wrote about is still in business, and still touting the supposed health-giving effects of the water. Xocai, a chocolate MLM, has been debunked but is still in business and MLM giant USANA is still publicly traded despite repeated charges it’s a pyramid.

Second, Herbalife no longer makes its money in North America. It sponsors soccer great Cristiano Ronaldo and a number of other athletes around the world to promote its sports-related dietary supplements because most of its revenue now comes from Latin America, Asia and Europe, especially developing countries where both health and wealth—and often effective government regulations and a skeptical media -- are often in short supply.

One bit of fallout from the Ackman/Icahn Herbalife war that could change the landscape and help protect consumers is legislation. Some in Congress, like Senator Edward Markey, are beginning to ask questions. That’s why Herbalife recently tapped a former aid to vice-president Joseph Biden to represent it. But if you’re waiting on Congress to act, well… I don’t even have to finish that sentence, do I?

Brian Alexander is a writer and author based in California. A frequent contributor to NBCNews and Outside magazine, his work has appeared in The New York Times, The New York Times magazine, Wired, Esquire, The Los Angeles Times magazine, and many others. His most recent book is The Chemistry Between Us: Love, Sex, and the Science of Attraction, written with neuroscientist Larry Young. Follow him on Twitter at

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Poison Yourself—It's Good for You

By now, it’s become a given: your multivitamin is useless and the right amount of stress, even in our recovery obsessed world, is good. So what, if anything, do we gain by clinging to our antioxidant supplements?

Very little, according to an accumulating body of research. We don't need massive doses of antioxidants, we need stress to compel our own bodies to create antioxidants. 

“Everybody thinks oxidation is bad, and that antioxidants are good,” says Dr. Philip Hooper, an endocrinologist at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. “That’s bogus. A little bit of poison is good.”

That poison can actually come from plants, especially those that have survived harsh conditions. 

In this Nietzschean diet principle know as xenohormesis, foods that have survived harsh conditions make us stronger by stressing our bodies, not because they’re rich in antioxidants.

As the science quarterly Nautilus explains, plants have developed an arsenal of chemicals to help them ward off insects and grazers. These “antifeedants,” when ingested by humans, trigger the body to release proteins and activate genes that “produce antioxidants, enzymes to metabolize toxins, proteins to flush out heavy metals, and factors that enhance tumor suppression.

Plants prepare your body to handle toxins much as exercise prepares you to race—by stressing your body. And supplements, says Dr. Hooper, interrupt this pay-it-forward biological sequence.

“These antioxidant supplements are like a Trojan horse,” continues Dr. Hooper. They say, I’m a good guy. You guys go to sleep and while the defense is asleep the antioxidants get rid of any oxidation. It puts the defense-system’s army to sleep.” 

Just as wearing a testosterone patch lowers the body's production of the hormone, relying on supplements reduces the body's natural production of antioxidants.

While Dr. Hooper acknowledges the benefits of vitamin E for muscle cramps and macular degeneration, he scoffs at the idea—as have many others lately—that it improves one’s physical performance.

“We’ve thrown so many millions of dollars at this,” he says. “It’s a misconception and it’s naïve.”And he suggests that athletes in intense contact sports such as soccer and football benefit from trauma. “Players have to be hit with pads on Tuesdays and Thursdays in order to compete on Sundays—they need that actual trauma,” he says.

“Everything in our society is geared toward, 'How can we reduce stress?'” adds Dr. Hooper. “When it should be just the opposite. We need stress. Stress is good.”

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When Ski Resorts Melt

It's a sad fact: winter is shrinking. The Rutgers University Global Snow Lab reports that the Northern Hemisphere has lost more than a million square miles of snow since 1970. That's why the hottest trend in the winter-sports industry is warm-weather activities. In April, the U.S. Forest Service implemented a new system that makes it significantly easier for resorts to get permits for things like canopy tours and ropes courses. Here are four of the best excuses to get back on the lift—this time in shorts and a T-shirt.

Walk the Razor's Edge

Fernie, British Columbia
Fernie has long been overshadowed by provincial brethren like Whistler and Revelstoke, which is fine by locals—the serious alpine terrain is largely empty. Try the ridge traverse across the breathtaking Lizards Range crest. Start at the top of the Timber chairlift and take a 20-minute stroll through open meadows past Lost Boys Pass and, if you want the added security, along a short fixed rope to 7,010-foot Polar Peak, where the views span from southern Alberta to Montana. From there the three-mile loop winds down through wildflower meadows to the Lost Boys Café, where you can down a well-earned Kokanee. $22 lift ticket.

Bikes and Bikram

Snowmass and Aspen, Colorado
The two signature resorts in Colorado's Roaring Fork Valley, Snowmass and Aspen, deliver summer's yin and yang. Snowmass has the adrenaline rush: it already boasts the only lift-served 4,000-foot mountain-bike descent in the U.S., starting above the treeline and ending in the high desert. And this year the resort is teaming up with the renowned trail builders at Gravity Logic to add a full-size beginner park and pump track. Upvalley at Aspen, it's a bit mellower. Take the Silver Queen gondola to the 11,212-foot Sundeck for thrice-weekly yoga sessions with views of the Maroon Bells and Pyramid Peak. Bonus: the Sundeck hosts bluegrass shows every Sunday throughout the summer.

Armor Up

Mammoth Mountain, California
Southern California's largest resort has a long affiliation with downhill mountain biking. Last year, Mammoth brought back the Kamikaze Bike Games, the precursor to the Mountain Bike World Championships, which included the sport's first lift-served downhill race in 1986. The revamped games now feature gravity, cross-country, and cyclocross races over four days in September. If you can't make it then, check out the updated bike park—where attendance has grown 22 percent in the past two years—and its new pump track, beginner loop, and skills park (think small drops, berms, and bridges). $49 day pass, $359 season pass.

Take to the Trees

Stowe, Vermont
This year, Stowe—already one of Vermont's busiest summer hubs—debuts two fresh options. The first is a zip line near the top of 4,395-foot Mount Mansfield that sends visitors whizzing down 2,150 vertical feet over roughly two miles. The second is a high ropes course on Spruce Peak that will feature six routes for kids and adults alike, with challenges suspended up to 30 feet above the ground. If you prefer to remain on terra firma, there's always the 150-year-old, unpaved Auto Toll Road, which leads to Mansfield's summit ridge, where a 1.3-mile hike puts you atop Vermont's highest peak.

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Maximize Your Vacation Happiness

You’ve likely got a vacation coming up soon. Whether you’re headed abroad for a week or simply to a cabin in the woods over Labor Day, start planning now. That's the number-one piece of advice from the folks over at Happify, who worked with scientists to determine the best tips and strategies for a happier vacation. 

Here’s what else you need to know:


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