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Local firm launches herbal supplements tailored to the ills of high-tech workers

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

FOLLOWING MY INTERVIEW at Amino Food Technologies out in Milpitas, I ask if I can take home a sample bottle of one of the startup company's three products: the Intellex Mind Sharpener capsules. The box label promises that Mind Sharpener "invigorates and refreshes your intellect by stimulating blood circulation to the brain. It may also improve cognitive abilities and help reduce absentmindedness, naturally enhancing productivity and comfort in the computer age."

Marketing director Jim Fung hands over the bottle a little reluctantly. "You're not really going to be able to notice that it's making you smarter," he says.

Aside from Mind Sharpener and Visianna Eye Refresher, the 2-year-old Amino will soon be introducing a third line, Capolla CHS Reliever, designed to relieve the symptoms of "Computer Hand Strain (CHS), wrist soreness and numbness."

It's a classic story of American entrepreneurship. Silicon Valley, which has given America a wealth of new and wonderful products, spawns a new industry to relieve the pain and injury caused by our continued use of all of those new and wonderful products. Down the road, one can see a third tier of industry springing up to combat the side effects caused by all of the pills being taken to relieve the pain and injury caused by ... well, it's pretty easy to see where this is going.

But according to Amino Food Technologies founder and president James Chen, the philosophy behind the seven-employee R&D is not new at all. He says that the "cocktail combination" of multivitamins, herbs and minerals contained in Amino products based upon ancient Chinese herbal healing formulas. Ingredients include the familiar Eastern plant products ginkgo and ginseng as well as the less familiar gochee berry, bilberry and danshen root.

"Western medicine focuses on the symptoms of a disease," says Chen, a computer engineer with an MBA who migrated to Silicon Valley from his native Beijing, China, 15 years ago. He says he has no background in medicine himself, relying instead upon panels of experts in the field. "Western medicine looks to a quick solution, a chemical solution rather than a natural one. You have a headache that could be caused by stress. So you take a Tylenol, which stops the pain for a while, but doesn't deal with the stress." He says that Chinese medicine, by contrast, looks at long-term prevention.

Chen cites the company's new Capolla CHS Reliever, which marketing director Fung concedes "could be our most controversial product" because it goes after a physical symptom whose cure is not generally associated with herbs and vitamins. Its real target is almost certainly carpal tunnel syndrome, the painful and debilitating wrist nerve-damage injury that affects thousands of computer users, but the spokesman for Amino can't say that. "We're part of the dietary supplement industry," he explains, "so [Food and Drug Administration] regulations say we cannot claim a cure for any disease on our labeling. We can't even mention the disease's name." Not even in an interview.

What he can claim is that his product causes good stuff to happen. "Capolla targets the immune system," Chen says. "It strengthens the nerves so that the body can heal itself."

Having once seen a co-worker at an Oakland office carried out on a stretcher because of severe nerve pain from carpal tunnel, I remain skeptical. But Chen is used to that.

"Ten years ago, the American herbal medicine industry was taken as a joke," he says. "Now it's a multibillion-dollar-a-year industry, and the media is looking at it seriously." He looks at me, and I nod.

He cites a recent Time magazine cover story on the "Herbal Medicine Boom" and last fall's five-part series in the Los Angeles Times ("Alternative Medicine, the 18 Billion Dollar Experiment") as examples. "It's an evolution. We're using education ... scientific studies. It's a cultural change." He then cites the fact that Amino products are now being sold in established retail outlets like Safeway and through computer catalogs. And he says that the ultimate proof of the value of Chinese healing methods is the faith of the Chinese people themselves. "If it didn't work, it wouldn't have been around for 5,000 years," he says.

I point out that humans have been doing a lot of things over the years that raise doubts about our good sense. Saying that we've been doing something for a long time is not necessarily the best advertisement.

Chen concedes that switching over to a new way of looking at disease cures is really a matter of faith. "I grew up in China," he says. "That's how people were healed. I know it works."

Anyhow, the marketing director was right when he said that Intellex would not make me feel smarter right away. After a weekend of Mind Sharpener capsules, I'm still having trouble figuring out a take on this product. But I'm willing to keep at it for a while--the capsules, that is. I figure I don't have much to lose.

And that's what Amino Food Technologies is counting on.

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From the January 28-February 3, 1999 issue of Metro.

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