So this particular article has been a long time coming. This company has been a pet hate of mine from the very beginning of my lifting career; and for good reason. I’ve had it pushed upon me by seemingly rational people with an intensity that could only be described as cultish. I’ve been offered to buy it and I’ve been offered the “opportunity” to sell it - thankfully, despite my tender age at the time, I politely asked everyone involved to “fuck off”, my professionalism and moral compass thoroughly unscathed.
So who am I addressing here? There can be only one. In a completely unregulated and misinformation filled global supplement industry full of false advertising, cut throat marketing campaigns and a plethora of enhanced snake oil salesmen, only one company truly reigns supreme as the crowning turd in the industry’s water pipe: Herbalife.
Herbalife distribute ‘sports’ supplements via a system of ‘multi-level marketing’ which in all honesty is a fancy way of renaming the now infamous pyramid scheme made ever so popular by companies like Amway and Mary Kay cosmetics. All these companies have very similar operational structures: each person pays in a set amount in return for a collection of the company’s products and starts at the bottom of the chain having been recruited by the person who will become their immediate senior - and who will end up taking a percentage of their profits provided they are successful in peddling the products. It is then in the best interest of the newest members to go out and recruit new zealots as they too, will get a percentage of whatever profits their new recruits make and thus the company begins to expand into that ever so famous pyramid shape - with a huge pool of people at the very bottom struggling to make ends meet after being promised a better life by an over enthusiastic salesperson and a small percentage of people at the very top making huge sums of money from those underneath.
How much money you may ask? Quite a bit. Herbalife distributes product into 95 countries world wide and had a gross revenue of 4.4 billion USD in 2015. The company is listed on the NYSE, employs around 7,800 people worldwide, boasts around 3.2 million independent distributors, has a huge manufacturing facility in China and has its corporate headquarters in the tax friendly Cayman Islands. This is serious business. Fortunately, bad business practice on this scale doesn't go unnoticed. Here is list of legal action that has been taken against Herbalife in recent years:
- In 1985 the California estate general sued Herbalife for making inflated claims about the efficacy of their products. Herbalife agreed upon a settlement of $850,000.
- In 2004, 8700 former and then current Herbalife distributors sued the company for “ essentially running a pyramid scheme”. Herbalife ended up paying $6 million in damages without admitting to guilt.
- Two lawsuits one in July 2003 and the other in February 2005 resulted in Herbalife paying out a sum of $7 million dollars into a fund for class members of the filed suits for bad business practices including but not limited to “endless chain schemes, insufficient disclosure in assisted marketing, unfair and deceptive business practices, fraud and deceit as well as violation of the Telephone Consumers Protection Act.”
- In May 2008 an institution known as the Fraud Discovery Institute reported laboratory tests showing lead levels in excess of what was deemed acceptable by Californian law. Herbalife paid $300,000 for an out of court settlement.
- February 4, 2013: Based on information from a Freedom of Information Act request, the New York Post reported that Herbalife was subject to a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) review. The FTC then released a 792 page report detailing 192 complaints directed towards Herbalife over a seven year period. In March 2014, a full investigation was launched into Herbalife and their business operations that ended in the company paying a $200 million settlement to the FTC in July of 2016 for deceiving customers into believing that they could earn a substantial income from the retail of Herbalife products. They also stated that one of Herbalife’s key business practices - namely the system of incentivising distributors to buy products and then recruiting others to do the same in order to advance in the company’s marketing programme rather than in response to actual consumer demand - is an unfair practice and is thus in violation of the FTC act.
These are just the shut and sealed cases that I could find - there is plenty more about alleged lead-related kidney poisoning from consumption of Herbalife products in a vast array of countries including but not limited to Switzerland, Israel, Spain, Iceland, Argentina, Finland, France, Italy, Portugal and the USA although none of these instances ended up in settlements being paid out (publicly, anyway). Basically, wherever there is malpractice there seems to be Herbalife and if you still think at this point that joining and selling their products is a good idea then let me hit you with some raw facts regarding the reality of basing a successful business off of Herbalife sales:
- The majority of Herbalife distributors lose money and the chance of making the testimonial implied headline income is approximately one in five thousand.
- The company materially overstates the retail of its distributors and understates the percentage of the company’s income that is brought in simply by selling product to new distributors.
- Herbalife has cost the bottom of the Herbalife chain (new distributors, lower level distributors) an estimated $3.5 billion in net losses since 1980.
- The chance of making $100 thousand is less than 1% despite Herbalife naming it the “millionaire’s team”. This statement can even be supported by Stephan Gratziani, a member of Herbalife’s Chairman’s Club Sales Team, who was filmed saying the following in 2005 to an audience of high level distributors: “ We sell people on a dream business that they can make it, yet deep down inside we know that most of them aren't going to”.
These statistics were done by Bill Ackman and his company, Pershing Square Capital, who has seemingly made it his life’s mission to see Herbalife burn. Even to the point at which he ended up taking out a $1 billion short position against Herbalife’s stock in 2013, costing him and his company around $400-500 million but causing untold damage to Herbalife, ultimately starting the downward spiral that led to Herbalife stock price plummeting by nearly 50% in December 2014. Respect.
That about sums it up for my brief enquiry into Herbalife’s appalling business acumen. Now let’s get started on their even more appalling nutritional supplements. Before I go into an in depth look at some of their products themselves, I must make a few comments about the brand as a whole. They use the cheapest possible ingredients, what effective ingredients they do have are in nowhere near the effective dose, they sell tiny quantities of product for a huge price tag and they market the products as a holistic solution to dieting, often recommending multiple shakes daily - taking the emphasis off of whole food, causing you to buy more product and ultimately waste more money. They are sub-optimal at best and incredibly overpriced and those that peddle them are one of two things: either incredibly uneducated and ignorant with regards to all topics nutrition and training related or a straight up charlatan, who is more than happy to take advantage of their clientele. Nothing more, nothing less.
Right, let’s start with their number one selling product, the infamous Formula 1. First, I’ll start by looking at the overall macronutrient breakdown. The biggest tub of Formula one is a meagre 550g and provides 22, 25g servings for R347,00 (Price from PriceCheck.co.za as it’s seemingly impossible to find a price for Herbalife products without signing up to the website of one of the Independent Distributors, by the way). I find it contemptuous how they market the nutritional information of the product after it’s been mixed with 250ml of 2% milk and on the label they fail to tell you the actual nutritional value of a serving of powder. I’ve taken the liberty of subtracting the macro yield of the serving of 2% milk to find out what you're actually getting with a serving of powder:
17.6g protein - 7.75g = 9.85g
20.1 carb -10g = 10.1g
6g fat - 6 = negligible
Right so that’s a whopping 10g of carbs, 10g of protein and let’s assume 1g of fat for R15,77 a serving? Am I missing something? When compared to a 2kg tub of SSN Whey that retails on bidorbuy.co.za for R659,00 and yields approximately 60, 32g servings @ R10,98 a serving it’s fairly obvious to me without even considering the ingredients which offers me better bang for my buck with regards to it’s contribution towards a physique friendly macronutrient intake: the SSN Whey yields 22.5g of protein, 2.5g of carbs and 1.5g of fat per serving, without a serving of milk. I also didn’t have to sign up with an “independent distributor” to find out a price as SSN is a reputable LOCAL brand that produces products that are of a high enough quality to be retailed in major chain stores such as Dischem. Now, if anybody thinks that the basic multivitamin profile found in the Formula 1 shake is going to make any difference to the way your body functions (unless you are in a dangerous state of malnourishment in the first place) is quite frankly mistaken. All that should ever be required for the layman looking to get a meal replacement shake is a solid whey protein - whey is the highest biological value protein on earth (98BV), it’s cost effective, generally tasty, easily digested (unless you struggle with lactose in which case I’d recommend trying a pure whey isolate or even an egg based protein) and gives the user the luxury of controlling his or her own carbohydrate/fat intake by adding other ingredients to the solid protein base because let’s face it, the majority of people aren’t under eating carbs or fat, they are under eating protein.
The ingredient profile of Formula 1 is also preposterous: with the first two ingredients being soy protein and fructose. Soy is an incredibly low quality protein (74BV for isolate): it has dismal amounts of the essential amino acids, a low leucine content and is rumoured to contain oestrogenic bioflavones that can potentially affect the hormonal profile of the user when consumed in large amounts. Fructose also has no place outside of actual fruit: although it’s the lowest GI of all the natural sugars it’s also incredibly inefficient at restoring muscle glycogen, favouring the liver instead. Both these ingredients do have something in common however; they are both incredibly cheap. So it’s safe to assume, unless Herbalife are gathering their fructose from the Garden of Eden and their soy protein from the Dalai Lama’s personal vegetable garden, that they are making a pretty good mark up on the products they sell you (this statement can be supported by the discounts they give to high level distributors - up to 75% as I understand and let me assure you they're still making a profit). The product also features a list of flavourings and thickeners that presumably make up around 4g or just under 20% of a serving (actual weight - macro yield) to make you think you're getting something you're not.
Notable other products include:
- Instant Herbal Beverage: An again overpriced (a whopping R558,42 for 100g according to Ubuy) powdered and sweetened tea that seems to be a simple blend of teas with a little extra caffeine. The slight thermogenic effect of caffeine is presumably the basis for their fat loss and appetite suppressant claims. If you genuinely believe that the thermogenic effect of a little extra caffeine is going to be your make or break or if you need a little helping hand with appetite control, then drink green tea or quality coffee instead.
- Formula 1 Sport: Herbalife managed to break the bank here and fork out some milk protein concentrate (also incredibly cheap and low quality when compared to the contents of a solid whey blend) for their more active clientele. It has the exact same god awful macronutrient breakdown per serving, just with milk protein instead of soy. You can’t have everything however, they've also made it more expensive at R467,00 a tub.
- They sell an isotonic drink called H30 Pro (Hardy, fucking har-har) at R195,00 for 10 sachets. Again, completely overpriced for some sugar and electrolytes - buy Game instead.
- They sell 21 servings of powdered tomato soup for R331,00 and 473ml concentrated aloe vera juice for R347,00.
- Their feeble attempt at making sports supplements in the form of the 24 range is even more disgraceful than their lifestyle supplements with their Rebuild Strength offering 20 servings of milk protein concentrate, whey protein concentrate and fructose in an almost 1:1 carb:protein ratio for a whopping R779,00 and their prolong pre/intra workout drink offering you an award winning combination of 48g maltodextrin and fructose and a game changing 6.8g of whey isolate per R33 serving.
I’ve pretty much had my say and I genuinely hope this article makes you think twice before considering buying or selling Herbalife. They are a “pyramid shaped”, multi level marketing company that dupes the uneducated and desperate into believing their lies - their lies about the quality products and their lies about the efficacy of their business model. Stop looking for quick fixes, take the time to educate yourself and go forward into your fitness and wellness ambitions with a good head on your shoulders and in an intelligent, well thought out and researched manner. We live in a world of limitless information yet people are more gullible than ever. Form your opinions based on scientific fact, think for yourself, realise when you're being ripped off and remember to the utter the timeless chant of the free man whenever someone talks to you about Herbalife. Stand tall, chest out, unshackled from the chains of their bullshit, look them dead in the eye and say “fuck, off”.