Research conducted by: Nutrition students Gabrielle Simmonds Libby Burrell, registered nutritionist Tara Leong
Written by; Tara Leong, Registered Nutritionist.
Content warning: Weight loss, restricted food intake, dieting, low calorie diets
Research and publication: 2022
No doubt you’ve heard of Herbalife, the global dietary supplement company that’s been around since the early eighties. Perhaps you’ve tried one of their weight loss shakes, walked past one of their intriguing shake shops, or been asked by a friend if you wanted to get in on a ‘unique business opportunity’.
As a nutritionist, I regularly get asked about Herbalife. Is it good, or not? So myself and two student nutritionists (Libby and Gabby) undertook an investigation, to find out:
- How it stacks up nutritionally
- Is there any evidence to show that the program works?
- What business model does it use?
- Are there any benefits, and what are the risks?
Herbalife positions themselves as the ‘premier global nutrition company that offers high-quality, science-backed products.’ With a wealth of çustomer testimonials, their product line is extensive and includes weight loss/meal replacement shakes, protein powders, multivitamins and energy sticks.
To begin the investigation, we attempted to access all of the nutritional information about the products via their website. To our surprise, the website did not contain any product information such as the ingredients lists and levels of each nutrient. To get access to this, you are required to sign up with your personal contact details which are then auto generated to an independent Herbalife distributor (these are the people who have signed up to sell these products to the public and recruit new members).
In response to our enquiry, we received several emails back from the distributor, recommending a particular program (the ULTIMATE PROGRAM, which is the most expensive program). They offered to chat to discuss weight loss goals and strategies and provided the prices of the products, details about joining the business, and nutritional information.
We chose to analyse the popular ‘Advanced Program’ which is marketed for weight loss. You replace two meals with meal replacement shakes, take additional supplements, and have your choice of third meal:
HERBALIFE ADVANCED PROGRAM
- Two servings of the Formula 1 Nutritional Shake Mix per day (meal replacement shake)
- One to three tablets of the Formula 2 Multivitamin Complex per day
- Three tablets of the Cell-u-loss per day
- One to two servings of the Active Fibre Complex
- One to two tablets of the NRG (Nature’s Raw Guarana) per day
- One serving of the Instant Herbal Beverage (Green tea) per day.
- You then have your choice of meal for dinner
SO WHAT’S IN IT?
To determine how the product stacks up nutritionally, we compared the nutrients you would get when taking the Herbalife Advanced Program, to the nutrient requirements of an Australian female aged 30-50yrs. Keep in mind that the program we analysed is the most extensive (and expensive) option and includes not just the shakes, but extra supplements such as multivitamins.
This program contains good levels of iron (18mg/day), zinc (23g/day) and calcium 1565mg/day), to meet your daily requirements. In fact, the Herbalife program contained higher levels of most nutrients when comparing it to a similar meal replacement shake by Optifast – although this is because the Herbalife program requires you to take multivitamin and fibre supplements, whereas the optifast progam doesn’t.
The program doesn’t provide enough fibre, providing only 10-15grams (even with the extra fibre supplement). As a guide, the average female requires 25grams of fibre per day, meaning you would need an extra 10grams of fibre at your dinner meal to ensure good digestive and heart health.
The protein levels in the Herbalife program are reasonable, but not high – approximately 38 grams per day when following the program. The average female requires 0.75grams of protein per kilo of body weight, per day (that’s 60g of protein for a woman weighing 80kg). This leaves you around 22 grams to have to consume in your evening meal to meet your minimum. This is achievable, as an egg provides 6 grams of protein, for example but would require careful planning.
Protein is a key feature of meal replacement shakes due to its satiating properties and preservation of muscle mass. Not all proteins are equal, the type of protein in meal replacement shakes is very important. The Herbalife shakes contain soy protein isolate and whey protein, both a ‘complete’ protein, containing all the essential amino acids the body needs.
We found that Niacin (vitamin B3) and Magnesium exceed the recommended upper limits of intake, which can lead to potential toxicity and should be discussed with your health professional prior to beginning the program.
In terms of calories, the program is extremely low in energy, with each shake containing 205 calories (880 kilojoules) when mixed with 300mL of skim milk. This is the equivalent of two apples. Meal replacement shakes induce weight loss because you are consuming much fewer calories than what your body needs. Minor side effects can include fatigue, constipation, nausea, and diarrhea.
The program includes extra supplements that are worth mentioning. The ‘Ínstant Herbal Beverage’ is a popular green tea-based drink, marketed as being able to provide energy and help you stay focused. Despite searching, there were no scientific studies on this particular drink. It can only be presumed that the ‘energy’ one might feel is coming from the caffeine in the green tea and despite searching, there is no information available regarding the caffeine content of the drink. Does it contain as much as three coffees, for example? Who knows.
As well as caffeine in the Herbal Beverage, the program includes one to two tablets of the NRG (Nature’s Raw Guarana) per day, containing 35mg of caffeine (about half a standard coffee). Whilst many of the testimonials for the program make claims of ‘improved energy levels’ from the weight loss, it would likely be coming from the caffeine containing supplements instead.
The program also includes a Cell-U-Loss tablet, with claims that it will reduce fluid retention. The main ingredient in this is corn silk, a diuretic. Therefore, a proportion of the weight loss would undoubtedly be fluid loss (peeing a lot), rather than fat loss. There are dangers with using diuretics for weight loss which include dehydration, fatigue, dizziness, low blood pressure, muscle cramps, and potentially serious electrolyte imbalances.
The Herbalife advanced program cost between $100-$130 per week. This does not include the cost of your evening meal, or the skim milk required to mix the shakes.
On their website, Herbalife claims that they employ more than 300 scientists and over 50 PhD’s and we were thrilled to find a section on their website titled ‘Our Science’ expecting to read through the studies they had conducted. After all, their website boldly claims ‘People love our product because it works’. However, there were no studies to show it works. Rather, the page was simply a glossy marketing section that says they used science, but nowhere did it actually show evidence of this.
Upon searching the scientific journals (this is where you find details of scientific studies), there is very little research conducted. One recent meta analysis which summarised the results of 9 clinical trials and found that a Herbalife meal replacement program was successful in promoting weight loss (around 3-5 kg over a couple of months). It’s important to note, Herbalife funded this study.
Typically, meal replacement shakes (calorie restriction) have proven to be successful in promoting weight loss. However, the evidence is clear that the weight loss will return when finishing the program. And while the promise of rapid results is enticing, meal replacement programs can be difficult physiologically, psychologically and socially and not an effective long-term strategy.
While there is a little evidence to show Herbalife may work, there is a lot more evidence in the scientific literature documenting cases of liver damage and liver failure that have been attributed to herbalife. It’s unknown exactly which ingredient in their products could be causing this, but The Australian Therapeatic Goods Administration is currently monitoring the safety of Camellia Sinensis (Green Tea extract), found in the Herablife Instant Herbal beverage. This is following 20 adverse events have been reported after consuming the extract.
TROUBLE WITH THE LAW
The company has been subject to a number of lawsuits which mostly involve questionable business practices. Herbalife has recently paid out settlements over allegations by distributors that most distributors make little to no money, despite the marketing to the contrary.
This includes a settlement for a potential 1 billion dollar class action suit in the U.S federal court where distributors have spent thousands of dollars to attend ‘Circle of success’ training events and received no benefit from doing so.
In 2020, Herbalife agreed to pay $123 million dollars in civic and criminal penalties for falsifying documents and providing corrupt payments to the Chinese government officials, in order to Chinese government officials for the purpose of obtaining, retaining and increasing business in China.
THE BUSINESS MODEL
Herbalife uses a direct selling strategy where you can:
- Buy Herbalife Nutrition products at a discount for your own or household use.
- Sell Herbalife Nutrition products to make a retail profit.
- Recruit others who want to consume or sell Herbalife Nutrition products.
- You can also earn money from the sales of people you recruit
This last point is where things can get messy. The drive here is to recruit as many people as you can (create a downline), to earn money from their sales. And while Herbalife as a company is going gangbusters, reporting net sales of 1.4 billion dollars for the second quarter of 2022, the individual distributors who buy into the program, don’t seem to be making much money at all.
In Australia there are 16,476 members that have been active for at least one year. Not all of them recruit distributors, but of those that do, 50% earned more than $480 for the year, before expenses. Interestingly, the top ten percent of Herbalife earners earned more than $8094 before expenses.
Many people are investing into scheme such as this and coming out of it earning little money and even losing money (having to purchase product, investment in educational retreats etc). But aside from the financial cost, is also the social cost where people are losing friendships and family. In an attempt to make any money, distributors are having to convince their current customers, friends, family and acquaintances to start selling and buying, often employing aggressive and coercive strategies out of desperation. Friends and family are then pressured to purchase or become a distributor and as there is implicit trust there, they don’t ask the hard questions before jumping into consuming the products or buying into the business.
Remember at the beginning of our investigation we were unable to find out anything about the Herbalife products until we had ‘signed up’ and the company had our contact details? This is a typical strategy employed by these business models and raised the question around transparency and ethical business practice. Consumer safety is compromised as it is difficult for consumers to make an educated decision about purchasing and consuming the product prior to being given a marketing spiel.
And you may have noticed the ‘Shake Shops’ that have been popping up everywhere recently, selling enticing healthy shakes? It turns out that these are often where a herbalife consultant approaches the customers in-store, with the aim to upsell customers to join their wellness clubs. These clubs are promoted as being an ‘exclusive’ membership to be a part of a social team and become healthy, although it appears that this is where the recruitment of distributors and ‘downlines’ and selling of products occurs.
Qualifications, what qualifications?
Herbalife claims their products are available exclusively through their ‘educated and trained Herbalife Nutrition independent distributors’ (and there is certainly a short course you can do through an academy they independently established), though it’s highly likelty that the average person selling this stuff and offering you weight loss advice, doesn’t have any nutrition qualifications, which carries risks. Our contact at Herbalife was a ‘health and wellness coach’, but it is unclear what that title involves.
Take home message
- Nutritionally, the program is ok, providing good levels of the important nutrients. Care should be taken if starting this program, due to calorie restriction reports of liver damage, so it’s important to speak to a health professional if considering the program.
- Despite lots of clever marketing, there is very little scientific evidence to support their claims.
- The company employ questionable business practices
- Like anything, there are pros and cons to the program and it’s important you look into all aspects of the programs, supplements, and company prior to making any decisions
Thank you to students Gabrielle Simmonds and Libby Burrell of the University of the Sunshine Coast Bachelor of Nutrition program for the extensive research they have conducted for the purpose of this article.