Yesterday I stopped at a Natural Grocers market to pick up some ginger ale, and the store gave me a free copy of the June issue of a magazine called “Energy Times” with my purchase. As I glanced through it before throwing it out, I noticed it contained big ads for supplements that promised weight loss, “digestive perfection,” better blood circulation, additional energy and sexual enhancement. Page 12 had an article saying the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is “attacking health freedom.” Right next to the article was a prepaid, business-reply tear-out postcard with blazing red lettering screaming, “Don’t Let the FDA Take Your Vitamins Away! …Join the [National Health Alliance] and protect your health care rights.”
I follow much of what the FDA does, and I just didn’t buy the idea that the FDA was out to take away vitamins or infringe on my health care rights. But it got my curiosity up about how I ended up with this crazy magazine.
It took quite a lot of digging to find out who is behind “Energy Times.” The magazine was started by Gerald Kessler, founder of the Nature’s Plus supplement company. Nature’s Plus was charged with deceptive advertising by the New York City Consumer Affairs Department in 1993 for using product labels that “prey on the fears and abuse the hopes of desperate people who have the AIDS virus.” Kessler marketed a product called “Ultra Male” that contained dried cows’ testes and prostate glands. According to the Los Angeles Times, Kessler is a supplements zealot who has “a taste for the jugular” and was instrumental in pushing through the Dietary Supplements and Health Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA), signed into law by President Clinton.
DSHEA was a big win for the supplements industry. It prevents FDA from assuring that dietary supplements and their ingredients are safe to use before marketing. DSHEA put the responsibility for assuring the safety on supplements manufacturers, thus assuring that the fox would be able to guard the hen house and consumers would have no protection at all against deceptive marketing of supplements. What’s more, the DSHEA says FDA can only take action against a manufacturer after a supplement is marketed, effectively turning the entire population of the United States into a giant pool of guinea pigs for the supplements industry. Just like the prepaid post card in “Energy Times,” Kessler over the years has sent out millions of pieces of junk mail and fliers screaming “Don’t Let the FDA Take Our Supplements Away!” and “The FDA wants to expand the war on drugs to include nutritional supplements!” But Kessler completely misled the public. FDA doesn’t want to restrict access to these products. FDA wanted to assure supplements were safe and put an end to the deceptive, fraudulent advertising used to push them. DSHEA doesn’t protect us, it protects the supplements industry.
I found out myself that supplements are far from harmless. On the recommendation of a friend, I took a supplement called called “Immuplex,” touted for relief from seasonal allergies. Just hours after my first dose, my tongue developed bumps and my eyes started itching like wildfire. I was lucky — the symptoms went away after I stopped taking Immuplex. Far worse than what happened to me, though, was what happened to my 80 year-old father after he started taking an herbal supplement called “Hoodia” to lose weight. My Dad bought multiple bottles of Hoodia from a local GNC store when he saw them on sale, and after a month or so of taking Hoodia developed severe abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting so severe that it drove him to the emergency room — several times. It ultimately required abdominal surgery to find the problem: my Dad had a perforated intestine, caused by his use of hoodia. His experience with Hoodia nearly cost him his life.
“New Energy” magazine rails against the FDA, but the FDA is on our side. FDA, despite DSHEA, is still trying any way it can to protect Americans from a dietary supplement industry that preys on peoples’ insecurities about their weight, sexual performance and personal appearance.
In April, 2012 alone, FDA sent warning letters to eleven supplement manufacturers who added chemicals to their products that were never present in the food supply before and had not been shown to be safe to consume — actions that render their products “adulterated” under the law. FDA found that supplement companies were adding a chemical called dimethylamylamine, commonly known as DMAA, to dietary supplements marketed with names like “Biorhythm SSIN Juice,” “Napalm,” “Nitric Blast,” “Code Red,” “Spirodex,” “PWR” and “Hemo Rage Black.” Dimethylamylamine is a geranium extract often touted as a “natural” stimulant. It narrows blood vessels and arteries, leading to elevated blood pressure and shortness of breath, conditions that can potentially cause a heart attack.
FDA has been trying to warn consumers about the dangers of supplements and manufacturers’ predatory marketing for years. In 2010, FDA issued a warning (pdf) that supplement companies were marketing products containing hidden or deceptively-labeled ingredients that can be dangerous, including synthetic steroids and analog drugs that are closely related to FDA-approved drugs.
That seemingly harmless little free magazine, “Energy Times,” is really a PR and marketing vehicle for the supplements industry, poised to take advantage of our ignorance and personal insecurities. According a story board I found for a marketing campaign for Kessler’s company, Natures Plus products, “Energy Times” is a “sophisticated and savvy marketing tool” that “educates people right in their homes” and helps develop “loyal consumers” of supplements and Natures Plus products. It is also aimed at recruiting people, especially retailers, to help the supplement manufacturers battle the FDA and any further efforts to protect people from the deception, excesses and predatory marketing of the supplements industry.
It’s no wonder “Energy Times” magazine is free. It’s worthless, and worse than that. And the fact that Natural Grocers gives it away to every customer shows that Natural Grocers cares more about protecting and advancing the supplements industry’s interests and its own bottom line than it cares about their customers’ health and safety.