By Joanne P. Ikeda, M.A., R.D.
opened the newspaper and there it was:
another full-page ad for yet another miracle weight-loss product.
The three-inch headline screamed out, "Blast All Your Excess Body
Fat Off You Whether Your Stubborn Metabolism Likes It or Not." The
subhead read, "No Discipline! No Soul-Searching Willpower! No
Starvation or Back-Breaking Exercise! Eat Your Favorite Foods!"
According to the ad, extensive research at leading
U.S. medical schools had led to a triple medical breakthrough that was
rocking the entire weight-loss industry: "This epoch Superformula
will cause a fat-burning extravaganza unlike anything you have ever
witnessed before. Your friends and family will be awestruck as they
watch pounds of fat melt off your body like ice cubes melt on a
sweltering hot August afternoon!"
Once again U.S. consumers were being swindled. And I
was tired of witnessing it. I have been professionally active as a
registered dietitian for more than thirty years. I have seen these ads
year after year, and I have called officials at the Food and Drug
Administration about them numerous times. "Not much we can do about
it," they would say. "These con artists set up a post office
box, collect the checks, cash them, close down, and move on. By the time
we get an injunction, they’re gone, probably living high, cruising in
But this "fat-burning extravaganza" ad was
so outrageous that I decided to try again. I called an old friend at the
FDA and asked, "Did you see that ad for Superformula in the Oakland
Tribune this morning?" She hadn’t, but when I told her about
it, she suggested that I write to the Federal Trade Commission.
"They have started to pursue consumer fraud cases in a fairly
aggressive manner," she said, "so it might be worth your time
to send them the ad along with a letter of complaint."
I wrote my letter and sent it off, never expecting to
hear from the FTC.
he same afternoon, a communications
specialist from the Office of Media Relations at the University of
California called me with a question. As the Cooperative Extension
nutrition education specialist in the Department of Nutritional Sciences
at the Universitiy of California, Berkeley, one of my jobs is to
communicate new research findings to the public. "I want to know
all about this new weight-loss product," the media relations person
said. She was referring to the very product that had enraged me.
"It’s a scam," I said.
"Oh no, it couldn’t be!" my colleague
protested. "The Oakland Tribune is a very reputable
newspaper, and the ad says that research on this product was done at
leading medical schools. Have you checked with researchers over at the
University of California, San Francisco? Maybe they were involved."
"It’s a scam," I repeated.
"I just don’t see how it could be. Please don’t
say that if any of the reporters call you. The university might be
sued," she pleaded.
"Scam artists don’t sue," I replied.
"I don’t think you should call them scam
artists either," she said.
"Thanks for the advice," I said. I hung up,
absolutely determined to expose these scam, scam, scam artists!
I looked over the ad again and noted that the
"doctor" testifying about the effectiveness of this product
was supposedly president of the American College of Nutrition, a
reputable professional organization. I couldn’t believe that they
would be associated with this product, so I called their offices. The
executive director asked me to fax him a copy of the ad. Three days
later, I received a phone call from the real president of the
American College of Nutrition.
"Our office faxed me a copy of the ad while I was
in Florida on vacation," he told me. "The address for this
company was about thirty miles from where we were staying, so my
brother-in-law and I drove over there. All we found was an empty office.
And, by the way, not only has this doctor never been president of our
organization, he hasn’t ever been a member."
"Maybe he doesn’t exist," I replied.
"No, he exists. I checked with the American
Medical Association, and they have him listed at a post office box in
Colorado. No telephone or fax. Just the post office box. And he isn’t
in practice anymore. He doesn’t have a current medical license."
"Are we surprised?" I asked.
"No, we aren’t. But he may be when he
gets a letter from our attorney telling him to stop stating that he is
affiliated with our organization."
embers of the media often call on me to discuss current
topics in nutrition, and around this same time I was interviewed on a
local TV news program about chromium picolinate, one of the
"active" ingredients in Superformula as well as in a number of
other useless weight-loss products. Again I said, "It’s a
The next day, I got a phone call from someone who had
seen the show. "I wonder," she said, "if you are
interested in helping county district attorneys prosecute some of these
companies for consumer fraud. We need an expert who can challenge the
claims they make for their weight-loss products."
"You’ve come to the right person," I said.
And so I began my career as an expert on fraudulent
claims for weight-loss products. A county district attorney would send a
letter to a company quoting the claims the company was making for its
product and asking them to provide evidence substantiating those claims.
Then the attorney would ask me to evaluate the company’s evidence. I
would conduct an extensive scientific literature search to identify any
research on the "active" ingredients. I could pretty much
count on finding one or two studies done on rats showing that the active
ingredient caused the little beasties to lose weight, to have more fat
in their feces, or to lose their appetite for rat chow. Occasionally, I
would find a human study, but it usually had nothing to do with weight
loss. The ingredient might have changed the microflora of the gut when
given to humans for two weeks. Or maybe it improved wound healing when
applied topically. Every so often, I would find a study with humans
using one of the compounds for weight loss. Invariably, these studies
had major flaws: there was no control group; or there were only eight
subjects; or the study was only four weeks in length; or there was no
attempt to track calorie intake or physical activity of subjects; or
subjects did not follow the instructions they had been given. Sometimes
the diet companies shared the results of studies they had supposedly
performed. Invariably, they were unable to give us the names and
addresses of persons who had participated in their studies.
One company the district attorney was interested in
prosecuting was SlimAmerica, the distributor of Super-formula. I wrote a
full report on the major ingredients in this product and submitted it to
him. About a month later, I received a phone call from—guess who? An
attorney for the Federal Trade Commission. It had been eight months
since I had sent my original letter of complaint to them, so the call
"Hello, this is David Speigel, attorney with the
FTC. We received your letter of complaint concerning SlimAmerica, and we
have decided to prosecute the company for consumer fraud."
"Really? That’s great news!"
"We are currently in the process of gathering
information on the ingredients in Superformula," he told me.
"Are you aware that I am already working with a
county istrict attorney who is also investigating SlimAmerica for
consumer fraud?" I asked.
Reader, I soon found myself employed as an expert
consultant to the FTC on the SlimAmerica case.
learned a lot working with FTC attorneys. I found out that the
federal government, with a few exceptions, does not pursue consumer
fraud cases unless there is potential injury or harm to consumers. If a
well-known, legitimate company is involved, and competitors complain,
then the FTC may be pressured to investigate. Or if there are really big
bucks involved, the FTC might act. In the case of Slim America,
consumers had been defrauded of somewhere between $5 and $17 million in
one year! The FTC couldn’t determine the exact amount, because most of
the money was hidden in overseas accounts they couldn’t identify. The
owner of SlimAmerica had been convicted of consumer fraud at least twice
previously, and had gone to Mexico to escape a jail term in California.
The FTC attorneys told me that consumer fraud artists rarely spend time
in jail because juries and judges tend to be lenient on white-collar
One reason that I felt comfortable working with
attorneys is that my husband of thirty years is an attorney. He has
always told me, "You can buy an expert witness who will say
anything that you want them to say." Well, that certainly turned
out to be the case with respect to SlimAmerica. At a hearing in Florida,
the defense attorneys put a doctor on the stand. He claimed to be the
leading bariatric physician in Southern Florida and supposedly had
treated hundreds of obese patients. The FTC attorneys asked him if he
used Superformula. He said he hadn’t, but that he had used the
ingredients and was certain that the product lived up to its advertising
Then they asked him how long ago he had learned about
Superformula. Three days was his reply. And how much was he paid to
evaluate the product? A piddling $2500 per hour, and another $10,000 to
appear as an expert witness in court. I sat there listening to this,
feeling more disgusted by the minute. I was getting paid a very small
fraction of that amount, and most of it had gone to pay the graduate
student who helped me with the scientific literature search. At least I
could look at myself in the mirror. (This doctor appeared to be having
trouble doing that: he hadn’t shaved in at least three days and looked
like he slept in his suit.)
SlimAmerica refused to settle with the FTC. They had
nothing to lose. They could pay their expensive defense attorneys from
the money they made scamming the public. There was a trial in 1997, but
the judge delayed handing down a decision. In fact, he is still thinking
about it! The company is in receivership, which means that it is no
longer in business and its assets cannot be tapped by the owner unless
authorized by the courts (he does have permission to use this money to
pay for his defense). And the owner is free. Free to think
up new ways to defraud the public and make more millions. Unfortunately,
he is not alone.
In my ongoing work with county district attorneys in
California, just about every week I hear about a new mail-order
weight-loss product that also promises to dissolve weight with yet
another "scientifically proven" potion. And you know what I
have to say about that: It’s a scam! ©
JOANNE P. IKEDA, M.A., R.D., is Cooperative
Extension nutrition education specialist at the University of
California, Berkeley, and the media representative for the California
Dietetic Association. You can contact her at the Department of
Nutritional Sciences, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720-3104;
phone: 510-642-2790; fax: 510-642-0535; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
At this printing: On
July 19, 1999, the Federal Trade Commission announced that a federal
district court found SlimAmerica, Inc. and its principals violated
federal consumer protection laws by making false claims about the
efficacy of their "Superformula" diet product. The court ruled
that the defendants should be permanently prohibited from such practices
and pay more than $8.3 million in redress to consumers who purchased
Fraud! What Can You Do?
Have you been sold a diet product or
plan that didn’t work the way the company claimed it would?
Complain to the Consumer Response Center at 202-326-2502.
Although this bureau of the Federal Trade Commission cannot
resolve individual consumer problems, the FTC will act against
a company if it sees a pattern of violations.
If you have an adverse reaction to a
weight-loss product, call the Food and Drug Administration’s
MedWatch hotline, or, even better, have your doctor call and
make a report. The number is 1-800-FDA-1088.
—Joanne P. Ikeda, R.N., M.A.
this is only a taste of what's inside the printed version of the