Don't risk your money and health on bogus weight-loss products

By Anthony GiorgianniConsumer Reports

If you’re like a lot of people, you’re concerned about your weight, and there’s also a good chance you’re wasting your money on pills, creams, and other products that are being falsely promoted for weight-loss.

To help consumers identify deceptive weight-loss advertising, the Federal Trade Commission recently launched the “Weight Loss Challenge,” a new video quiz to help consumers identify weight-loss fraud. The initiative comes just as the agency testified before federal lawmakers on widespread fraud within the $2.4 billion dollar weight-loss industry.

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“In our 2011 survey of consumer fraud, the FTC reported that more consumers were victims of fraudulent weight-loss products than of any of the other specific frauds covered by the survey," Mary Koelbel Engle, the agency’s Associate Director of Division of Advertising Practices, told (PDF) the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Insurance.

She said there is “very little scientific evidence that pills or supplements alone will cause sustained, meaningful weight loss.”

“Moreover, the promise of fast or easy weight loss without changes to diet and lifestyle is especially pernicious because it may deter consumers from making the tough but necessary changes that are known to work,” she told lawmakers.

She said that overweight consumers, in their attempt to find a solution, are particularly vulnerable to fraud.

Since 2010, the FTC has collected nearly $107 million in consumer restitution for deceptive weight-loss claims. In her testimony, Engle cited several cases, among them:

  • A $26.5 million consent order against Sensa Products, whose powdered food additive the agency said was deceptively promoted as making users feel fuller faster so they would eat less
  • A $450,000 settlement with L’Occitane, which the agency said falsely advertised that its Almond Beauty and its Almond Shaping Delight creams have body slimming capabilities that could trim inches in weeks
  • A $3.5 million judgment against HCG Diet Direct, which advertised that its liquid homeopathic drops, when used in combination with a very low calorie diet, could help users lose up to one pound a day.

Find out which weight-loss strategies worked best for our readers, and use our diet plan buying guide. Learn more about vitamins and supplements before you buy them.

Engle said there has been a "distressing trend" of marketers' hyping weight-loss fad ingredients that are "propelled to popularity through exposure in mainstream media supported by trusted spokespeople." She singled out an April 2012 "Dr. Oz" show that she said touted green coffee bean extract as a miracle fat-burning pill that works for everyone. Within weeks, she said, marketers of the Pure Green Coffee dietary supplement made overblown claims for the product on the Internet, including footage from the TV show and websites that looked like legitimate news sites and blogs. (We've seen companies deploying similar tactics in promoting acai berry supplements.) The FTC filed a lawsuit against the company in May.

Although some research has suggested that an extract from unroasted or "green" coffee beans may aid in weight loss for obese or overweight patients, those studies have been small and of limited quality.

During the July 17 hearing, the subcommittee’s chairman, Sen. Clair McCaskill (D-Missouri), told Dr. Mehmet Oz: “I’m concerned that you are melding medical advice, news and entertainment in a way that harms consumers.”

Oz acknowledged that unscrupulous scammers use his words and likeness to peddle their often questionable products. “It’s a problem I have spent immeasurable time, effort, resources and money to combat,” Oz told the subcommittee. “I’m chagrined to say the problem has only increased exponentially. I am forced to defend my reputation every single day.”

In January, the FTC sent renewed requests to media outlets asking for their help in protecting consumers by halting false diet-related claims before they are published or aired. The agency identified seven false claims for dietary supplements, herbal remedies, over-the-counter drugs, patches, creams, wraps, and similar products, including that a product:

  • Causes weight loss of two pounds or more a week for a month or more without dieting or exercise
  • Causes substantial weight loss no matter what or how much the consumer eats
  • Causes permanent weight loss even after the consumer stops using the product
  • Blocks the absorption of fat or calories to enable consumers to lose substantial weight
  • Safely enables consumers to lose more than three pounds per week for more than four weeks
  • Causes substantial weight loss for all users
  • Causes substantial weight loss by wearing a product on the body or rubbing it into the skin.

What to do

Don’t simply believe it. Just because you saw it a television show, on a website, or in print doesn’t mean it’s true. Even references to clinical trials can be misleading. In the Sensa case, for example, the FTC said the company’s purported randomized control trial was in fact not randomized and that the research firm the company had hired sent results to the company before the test subjects weighed in.

Beware of big promises. Don’t trust products that promise to help you lose weight rapidly or that guarantee weight loss without lifestyle changes that include diet and exercise. We recently expressed doubt on the effectiveness of garcinia cambogia, another popular weight-loss product we've seen hyped on TV.

Check with your doctor. Always consult a physician before beginning a weight-loss program. Ask your doctor for advice on the kind of program that can work for you.

Anthony Giorgianni

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