bite my words

Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


The science behind Herbalife


A while ago I received a request to blog about supplements, in particular Herbalife. I’ve procrastinated on it for a little while because I figure you’ve read about one weight loss supplement scam, you’ve read about them all. Plus, I wasn’t all that familiar with Herbalife and the products they sell and I knew it would take me a little time to look at all of them.

The product lines include: core products, weight management, targeted nutrition, energy and fitness, and outer nutrition. They include everything from soy nuts to protein shakes to canola oil capsule. Yep, canola oil in a capsule. Why anyone would ever want to pay for capsules when you can buy a lovely jug of canola oil at the grocery store for what I’m sure is a much more reasonable price (prices aren’t listed on the Herbalife site) and can actually use to cook with is beyond me. It takes all kinds I suppose.

Herbalife even has a little tab at the top of their website entitled “science“. Which would be awesome if it actually linked to science to support the use of the products their selling. Sadly, no, this is what you get:

“Herbalife products are made from beneficial ingredients and developed using world-class scientific technology and research. Our protein shakes and snacks, vitamins and dietary supplements, energy and fitness drinks, and skin and hair care products, combined with healthy eating and exercise, can help you enjoy a lifetime of good health.”

They then provide a link to a PDF where you can “learn more”. This is a one pager, with plenty of images, that says:

“Herbalife products are formulated by our team of scientists and Ph.D.s for consumer benefits. They also ensure that the science behind our products is substantiated through scientific literature and clinical trials. We share knowledge and best practices through our key partnerships with the most advanced and established ingredient suppliers in the world.”

They name their chairman of the board, David Heber MD, PhD. Naturally, I looked him up. At first glance he appears quite reputable (aside from his willingness to peddle questionable nutritional supplements). He’s a professor at the UCLA school of medicine, an endocrinologist, nutrition specialist… But wait, if you just add “quack” after his name in google you get some much more interesting results; such as, this blog post about his authorship of several questionable diet books, his promotional video for pistachio nuts, and his research (funded by POM Wonderful) you guessed it, extolling the wonders of pomegranate juice. One blog not enough for you? How about a listing on Quack Watch linking to the article Herbalife Cozies Up With UCLA? Which outlines the financial benefits Heber receives from Herbalife in exchange for his promotion of their products? Or this post on Science-Based Medicine detailing the tangled web of Heber’s nutritional genomics research, funding, and chairmanship of the Herbalife board?

This is their credible scientist. A man who is receiving substantial profit from the sale of Herbalife supplements as well as funding for his research. No conflict of interest there. Nope.

Making Herbalife an even more questionable business is the fact that it appears to be a pyramid scheme. You can become an Herbalife distributor and make money selling Herbalife products to others. Despite this sales technique, a judge dismissed a case accusing Herbalife of being a pyramid scheme in July of this year.

The Herbalife website entices you to “get your Herbalife Coach today”. This coach will help you with your goals, product selection, and provide you with solutions and support during your journey to health. Who are these wellness coaches? People who sign-up to be Herbalife distributors through people who signed-up to be Herbalife distributors through people who signed-up to be Herbalife distributors. You get the idea. Apparently there’s some online training that you can take. I’m sure that’s pretty much like being a dietitian. I was hoping to find a disgruntled former Herbalife coach online who would reveal what the coach “training” entailed, but all I turned-up was this article about a woman who lost a large sum of money as a Herbalife distributor. And this blog post by a woman who was angered by her experience with an Herbalife Health and Wellness Coach. Essentially, as a Herbalife coach you’re a glorified sales person.

So, to sum it all up: Herbalife is a company with a dubious sales model, selling questionable products (I’m being generous here) that’s run by a doctor with a clear lack of integrity. If you want soy nuts, go to the Bulk Barn. Don’t waste your money supporting a despicable company like Herbalife.


Is your food ruining your mood?


Image from pixabay

I fell down a scary nutrition rabbit hole the other day. You know when you’re reading an article and there’s links at the bottom for other news stories? And you know nothing good can come of them but you click them in spite (or maybe because) of that. I finished reading my perfecting innocuous story and then promptly clicked on the link to Food Ingredients that Might be Ruining Your Mood“. It was even worse (better?) than I had hoped and I just can’t resist tearing into it.

  1. White flour

“With no nutritional values attached to it, it stimulates blood to make high glucose content in our body whenever eaten. This causes your mood to swing considerably and makes you petulant with hunger.”

Um, basic lack of human physiology. Your blood doesn’t make glucose. Yes, foods with a high glycemic load can cause spikes in blood sugar. However, there are foods made predominantly from white flour (like pasta) that are actually have relatively low glycemic loads. While some people may experience mood swings resulting from low blood sugar which can occur after the initial spike in blood sugar following a high glycemic meal or snack white flour is not the only culprit and not everyone is affected in this manner. Also, there’s actually nutritional value attached to white flour such as energy, fibre, folate, iron, and selenium.

2.  Food Dye FD&C Red 40

“Studies have demonstrated that this ingredient can cause hypersensitivity in both children and adults.”

There is some limited research that indicates that this dye may cause hypersensitivity in humans. However, there is no reason to believe that it affects mood.

3. Hydrogenated Oils

“These highly processed oils create the unhealthiest form of fat known as trans fat. Our digestive system has to work twice as hard to simply digest these fats causing cholesterol levels in the blood to shoot up. Moreover, it has been proven that the consumption of hydrogenated oils leads to weight gain. Consuming these additives make you moody and create an illusion fog in the brain.”

I’d like to take a moment to point out that the photo used was of bottled oils, presumably canola, sunflower, or soy. This might lead to confusion for some as hydrogenation is a process that turns a liquid oil into a solid. A more fitting image would have been of partially-hydrogenated margarine or a solid shortening.

Your digestive system doesn’t have to work “twice as hard” to digest trans fats because it can’t digest them. The article is, however, correct in stating that consumption of man-made trans fats has a negative impact on your cholesterol. It can cause an increase in LDL while simultaneously decreasing HDL. Trans fat is certainly something we should avoid (aside from the naturally occurring trans fat in animal products such as dairy and meat) but there’s no reason to believe that it affects your mood or causes “brain fog”.

4. Aspartame

“It’s one of the toxic chemicals that have been associated with headaches, weight gain, and seizures which is why you should minimize or avoid its intake at all costs”

There’s actually no good scientific evidence to support the claims made in the article. I’m generally of the mind that a little of the “real thing” is a better choice but that doesn’t mean that aspartame is bad for you or affects your mood in anyway. Just that the “real thing” is likely to be more satisfying.

5. Food Dye FD&C Yellow 5

“It’s proven to cause severe health problems like asthma, nausea, and even mood disorders.”

This dye may cause health problems. However, as with pretty much everything else on this list there’s no indication that it affects mood.

6. Monosodium Glutamate

“Even a small amount of its consumption leads to dizziness, nausea, weakness, and anxiety.”

Many people believe that they’re sensitive to MSG. However, very few people actually are (exact numbers are uncertain as the existence of MSG intolerance is controversial). It’s even less likely that those affected experience any mood altering effects.

7. Sugar

“Consuming foods that include high-sugar content can lead to drastic health problems such as diabetes, thyroid dysfunction, depression, and not to forget the most common: obesity! If your sweet tooth really cannot resist sugary foods, then start off with consuming brown sugar as it’s a lot better than white sugar.”

Consuming too much of anything is bad for you. The same holds true for sugar as for flour (although it’s not as strong on the nutrient front). What I really want to point out here is that brown sugar is not a “lot better” for you than white sugar. It’s pretty much exactly the same thing. Brown sugar is just white sugar with molasses.

The only thing about these foods that will ruin your mood is if you’re a dietitian and read idiotic articles like this.

1 Comment

Can a chef trick you into preferring inferior food?


Image of seafood saffron risotto taken by Gail on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons Licence.

Did anybody else see this article about a chef tricking restaurant patrons into indicating that they preferred an inferior version of saffron risotto over one using higher quality ingredients?

Diners were led to believe that they were helping the chef choose between two versions of a dish for a new menu item. The first used a “rich homemade chicken stock” and was introduced by means of a plain card listing the ingredients. The second version used “bouillon powder diluted with plain old tap water”. However, it was introduced by the “chef” (actually the restaurant owner pretending to be the chef) with a story about its origins from a childhood memory as well as a description of the provenance of each of the ingredients.

Seventy-seven percent of the diners rated the “inferior” risotto as preferable over the higher quality version. They also consistently rated this version more highly in “terms of perceived quality, overall taste, aesthetics, smell and portion size”. 

These “results” were interpreted as showing that people can be duped by chefs and that this is a result of the celebrity chef culture. Of course, this wasn’t a scientific experiment and doesn’t necessarily tell us this at all.

It may be true that people were influenced by the introduction of the food and the presence of the chef. We’ve certainly seen that food names and presentation can influence perceived quality through research done by the Cornell Food and Brand Lab. However, this wasn’t scientific research and it irritates me that the article frames it as such. It’s entirely conceivable that the diners did actually prefer the “inferior” risotto. After all, the only apparent distinction between the two dishes was the use of homemade broth versus bouillon powder. Considering that many of us have palates that prefer the taste of salty food, diners may really have thought the bouillon version was better. It would be interesting to see the results of a true experiment examining the influence of the presence of a chef on the perception of meal quality.

I also find the whole “ha ha, we sure fooled you” sentiment a little over the top here. I mean, come on. It’s not like they tricked diners into believing the double down was fine dining. They swapped one ingredient, the broth, in a risotto recipe. It’s still practically the same recipe and it’s still freaking risotto.

1 Comment

Dr Folta and Dr Blair and the problem with industry funding


Photo: Coke de Plume by BFLV on flickr. Used under a Creative Commons Licence.

A couple of things happened in the scientific world in fairly short succession recently. I spent a lot of time waffling about whether or not I should write about them. Primarily because I don’t want to draw the ire of the pro-GMO community. I see a lot of rabid support for “science” on twitter and I fear being dismissed as anti-science. But this post isn’t about whether or not GMOs are great, or even whether or not they’re safe. It’s not about my opinions on genetic modification nor organic farming. “What is it about?” you ask. It’s about credibility and honesty in scientific research and dissemination of said research.

A few weeks ago the Internets got their collective panties in a twist because some scientists were revealed to have received money from Monsanto. In particular, one scientist received money to pay for his travel expenses in order to enable him to speak at events. Naturally, he was speaking in support of genetic modification, which aligns with Monsanto’s values. I’ve since seen his supporters claim that this information was freely available to anyone who was interested and that he had never failed to disclose his funding sources. I’ve also seen his detractors attribute quotes to him clearly stating that he did not receive money from Monsanto. I don’t know who to believe. It doesn’t really matter who I (or anyone) believes anyway. The important fact of the matter is that he received money from Monsanto to speak at conferences and events.

The following week the news broke that a number of scientists have been receiving funding from Coke (via a nonprofit organization) to support their research and other logistics. That research focusing on the import of exercise in weight management. Once again, the Internet was collectively outraged. Okay, I exaggerate. Nearly everyone I follow on twitter, and much of the mainstream media, were outraged. The researchers shrugged and said: what’s the problem, we’ve never hidden the fact that we received money from Coca Cola and that money had no influence on our research findings. Everyone rolled their eyes and said: um, bias, helllooo. 

Here we have two instances of scientific funding by organizations which have vested interests in the results. Here we have two groups of scientists saying that the funding doesn’t matter and that their findings would be the same no matter where the money was coming from. So, what’s the problem?

The problem is that by accepting financial support from organizations that have a vested interest in the results and the messages from theses scientists creates the perception of bias. Even if these scientists are completely impartial, and that’s being incredibly generous given the fact that the majority of industry funded research findings support the interests of the funders, it raises doubts about that impartiality. At worst, the scientists receiving the funding have a conflict of interest. At best, they have a perceived conflict of interest, and perception matters. It also makes for an uneven scientific playing field. If all of the players on one team are having their expenses covered by a benefactor then how can the other team hope to succeed. Even if they are better players, they can’t afford to go to out-of-town matches or find the time for extra practice.

If only the scientists with the pro-GMO message or the scientists with the pro-exercise message are given the platforms to share those messages how can we ever hope to find out the truth?

1 Comment

Infographics; heavy on the graphics, light on the info

Every body loves a good infographic. They’re eye-catching, succinct ways of sharing information. The problem is, for the most part, they oversimplify complicated information. At best, that means that viewers end-up getting only a partial picture of an issue. At worst, that means that they hasten the spread of misinformation.

Take the example of the viral Coke infographic.


This was all over the place a few weeks ago and it made me want to tear out my hair. Don’t get me wrong, I personally dislike Coke (and pop in general) and I’m no fan of their marketing to developing nations and children, but I don’t want to dissuade people from drinking Coke using questionable science. Since this infographic went viral fellow RD Andy Bellatti wrote an excellent piece about it.

Following hot on the footsteps of the original Coke infographic came the Diet Coke infographic:


And then…


As Andy points out in his article, such infographics only provide information (and not necessarily accurate information as many people aren’t consuming these beverages in isolation) about a brief period of time. There’s nothing about the long-term implications of regular or excessive consumption of these drinks, which is the real concern. An occasional Coke isn’t going to kill you. It’s the daily, often multiple times a day, consumption of Coke that becomes a concern.

These are just a very small example of the infographics out there. Even when infographics are grounded in good science and information, when taken on their own they may not tell you the whole story. Anyone can put together an infographic. If you want the full picture you need to look beyond the graphic and find more info.