Pseudoscience & Religion

Neutraceutical Racket Taking People For A Ride

The latest fad in town seems to be racket in what are called as ‘neutraceuticals’ by clever marketing companies out to take consumers for a ride. It could be anything from spirulina to aloe vera to herbal teas! These are the new in-things out to take people for a ride and promise cures from anything from obesity to cancer. Brimming with names like anti oxidants, bio organics, essential fatty acids to amino acids seems to be the latest jargons and fads. The pseudo science being spouted by their so called nutritional consultants can easily confuse even an educated person with a basic knowledge of science let alone the uneducated person.

Let me take on the first- the nutritional consultants. Last week when I was coming out of Mangalore city corporation swimming pool I was accosted by two persons, one carrying a weighing machine and the other with a banner. They invited me to step on the weighing scales and hold a handle connected to a string and after that took down my name, details on a chart. Then I was told that my fitness age was 57 (my chronological age happens to be 64!), my weight was 69 kgs, my BMI 22 (which is perfectly normal). But, there was only one small problem my percentage body fat was 23% which was on the higher side and I was told that I had to come to a particular place for nutritional counseling. Well, I told them that I had post graduate degree in biochemistry and had been teaching nutrition to medical students for three decades but was told they had the latest ‘research’ information for me. Just after me I saw three more people standing on the scales- one of who was on the obese side and was told that his fitness age was fifty (though he was 30 years of age), then came his mother who was cachexic and was told that her BMI was low and she needed protein, the next one was also told to come for nutritional counseling though his BMI was said to be normal. When I was discussing this matter with some of my friends at the swimming pool, I was told that many had been inveigled into this ‘free’ test and one told that he had been diagnosed with hypercholesterolemia with any blood test whatsoever!

Intrigued by this, next day I went to the address specified in the card handed over to me and when I went there I saw quite a good crowd there consisting of obese people, cachexic ones, some looking like cancer patients on chemo and such. I was asked to keep my foot wear outside and drink a cup of some dark brown liquid which I refused telling them that I would not like to drink unknown things! I was taking a few photographs of the literature hanging on the walls of premises and I was asked not to do that and after some arguments with the so called counselors I left the premises and made further enquiries with people who had been to that place.

The modus operandi of this group is quite simple.They accost people everywhere in the city particularly outside maidans, swimming pool, gyms and offices. Everyone is offered a ‘free’ check up! Once one agrees to that the bait is swallowed! No one is normal either your BMI is low or high! If it is normal then your body fat % is too high! So, you are offered ‘free’ nutritional consultation. I was told by one of the persons who attended these ‘consultations’ that they could be any one from retired or serving govt. employees to bus drivers! Some of them go around pinning badges to their shirts announcing that they have lost weight and are ready to be questioned why! They are also knit into what is called as a ‘family’ and it has all the makings of a cult. The methodology is really simple- one is offered a course of three days of the ‘herbal tea’ with a skimmed milk powder ‘shake’ for free! Then comes the catch- the next ten days will be for a payment of Rs.1600 and every morning the person has to go to the designated place for a round of their ‘tea’ and skimmed milk powder shake. Those who have fallen into this trap are encouraged to bring their friends and relatives for which they are promised incentives and so goes on the chain! The members of the ‘family’ are also fed with success stories of those who have taken up this ‘nutritional’ therapy.

Well how does this work? The main point is in scaring people- with the weight consciousness rising among people and most of us unwilling to lead a disciplined life to keep one’s weight under control there is a proliferation such enterprises advertising such ‘weight loss’ programs. In fact I can recall one such case in which a young man of around 40 had been featured in such a program of an enterprise going by initials! I know this man since he was a little boy and had congratulated him one being featured in their ads. Later one day when I had called him for something else he told me that he had just undergone an angioplasty! Just imagine this happening to a young man who was just forty. More than that to one who had been touted as a success story by this weight loss specialists’ who charge as per the weight lost in kilograms! Whatever your weight is and whatever your level of your fitness may be, one is scared with something or the other or given gratuitous bits of nutritional wisdom. When I took the online test of one such enterprise going by the name of Herbalife, I got a 15 out of 15 score. But, soon after that got an email some contents of which I have reproduced here! After sermon on how important breakfast is, here is the last paragraph:

Avoid breakfast cereals that are high in sugar, fat, and salt. Instead, choose foods such as wholegrain muesli with nuts, fresh fruit and low fat yogurt; wholegrain toast topped with eggs and sliced tomato; or oats with skim milk, nuts, seeds and fruit. Combine these wholesome foods with healthy breakfast options from your Herbalife Independent Distributor to ensure that your day begins in a healthy fashion.

So, the sermon, the gems of nutritional wisdom have to end with a breakfast option from a Herbalife independent distributor! As learnt from some of the victims of this racket the breakfast menu consists of a cup of a warm herbal concoction and a shake of skimmed milk.

Prescribing the right diet for weight loss/gain is beyond the scope of this article, but one thing that one can be rest assured that it is certainly for someone trained and qualified in dietetics and nutrition to do that and not for a member of a ‘family’ of a herbal product commercial enterprise to do that. Again some of the members of this family have risen to the status of a cult with people coming there religiously every morning to consume their breakfast. One has to remember that it is not very difficult to lose weight- but the achievement is when one manages to keep it off and see-saw swings would cause more problems than overweight by itself.

About the author

Narendra Nayak


  • Nothing serves as a more effective come-on for charlatans of all descriptions than the subject of a person’s health and well-being, with the single exception, perhaps, of the promise of a glimpse into one’s future. Con-men through the ages know this only too well. As Prof. Nayak has described so well, what makes this old racket even more pernicious in this day and age is, ironically enough, the very respect that science has won among the general public by its achievements. As a result, the gullibility of the victims increases in proportion to the quantity of (pseudo-)scientific jargon used in pulling off the con-job. What is more, those taken for a ride will hardly ever give up their belief in the hocus-pocus they have been victims of, let alone admit that they were deluded!

  • Ah Herbalife. A pyramid scheme like no other. Here in the US, they prey on the poor and the jobless to work for them with the promise of riches.

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