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Elixirs of Life or
Modern Day Snake Oils?

MLM products sneak
past federal regulations

By Laura Stuchinsky
and Ami Chen Mills

Although multilevel marketing companies tout their products as unique in all the world--often with miraculous and life-saving benefits--MLMs have two advantages over other companies: no advertising, and sales teams composed of "independent" distributors. Thus, MLMs are able to duck false-advertising rules and pass the buck to distributors when accused of false exaggeration.

MLMs sell almost everything today, from toothpaste to airline tickets to shark cartilage to soy-based food products. Most products are hype-intensive and are promoted as health aids or energy boosters to aging baby boomers, products so remarkable they are victims of conspiracies by the FDA or Western medicine which competes in the health market. One currently popular MLM product, Super Blue Green Algae, is marketed by Cell Tech out of Klamath Falls, Oregon.

To duck federal laws which prohibit unsubstantiated health claims, the 14-year-old company relies on testimonials--many by chiropractors who distribute the product--to get the word out.

Super Blue Green Algae--which is, as the name implies, algae harvested from the surface of Upper Klamath Lake--is touted as an "immune-enhancing" food, rich in protein, amino acids, minerals, beta carotene and chlorophyll. It purportedly boosts energy levels, reduces stress and depression, improves digestion, reduces allergy symptoms, and enhances memory and mental activity. According to Cell Tech literature, SBGA helps "generate new states of faith in the future, feelings of happiness and well-being ..." Users contacted by Metro report all kinds of healings using SBGA, including freedom from depression and increased energy. But scientists say there's no evidence to support these claims.

"It's so much nonsense," snorts Dr. John Renner, president of the Consumer Health Information Research Institute and former chair of the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. As far as Renner is concerned, SBGA is "an example of modern day snake oil." Renner dismisses the company's glowing testimonials: "That's not evidence," he says, "that's a sales pitch."

Some professionals are more open to algae's possible benefits. "Algae does have a high protein content," says Jo Ann Hattner, a registered nurse and nutritionist at Stanford University Medical Center. "But the question is whether you want to spend money on algae or an egg. You're gonna spend a lot less money for an egg." Hattner makes the same point about SBGA's advertised amino acids, which are available in a variety of more common foods, including beans, tofu, dairy, eggs, fish and poultry. Algae expert Lynda Goff, a molecular marine biologist at UC Santa Cruz, is more skeptical. Yes, algae contains essential amino acids. But, she explains, the acids are not in a form humans can use because the algae cell wall is impenetrable. "Our enzymes can't break it down. Without any data supporting their claims and [given] my knowledge of this organism ... I can't conceive that [Super Blue Green] algae would do any good," Goff says. "I can't conceive it would do anything--except lighten [user's] billfolds considerably."

Still, users--many of them Cell Tech distributors--swear by SBGA. An article in Vegetarian Times highly critical of the so-called super food has even been used to Cell Tech's advantage. As one distributor told Metro while hawking the product and business opportunity: "We've even been written up in Vegetarian Times!"

This kind of hyperbole is common in the MLM industry. In 1994, Equinox reps created a mock-up of a Consumer Reports' water-filter test-results graphic and pasted Equinox filter names in all the number-one spots. "We didn't test any Equinox filters," the magazine wrote in response. Equinox headquarters denied wrongdoing, blaming the incident on over-eager distributors, who are "independent" of the company.

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