How a supplement company became a haven for misinformation


On a Friday afternoon in July, as many New Yorkers fled the scorching city streets, a couple of dozen out-of-towners descended on Times Square. They came bearing gold letter balloons spelling out LFVN, the stock symbol for LifeVantage, the company they’d come to promote, and foam cutouts of its navy blue supplement bottles. LifeVantage’s chief executive officer, Steve Fife, rang the Nasdaq exchange’s closing bell, a celebration of the Utah-based company’s new products and rewards programs. Displayed on the side of the seven-story Nasdaq building were advertisements promoting the company’s dietary supplements and their power to “optimize health.”

At first glance, LifeVantage, worth some $84 million, looks decidedly mainstream. It boasts plaudits from Nasdaq, has blue-chip investors like Fidelity and BlackRock, and Erin Brockovich, the iconic crusader for corporate accountability, sits on its board of directors. Its products are widely available; a bottle of its main supplement goes for around $56 on Amazon.

But in interviews with LifeVantage distributors, executives, and former scientists, as well as in court filings, documents obtained through records requests, and online material, a pattern emerged in the way the company and its representatives have sought to straddle the mainstream and the fringe.

LifeVantage and some of its distributors promote — and in many cases, distort — scientific evidence to tout the benefits of the products they’re selling. While that might be common among supplement companies, what has experts and some employees uniquely concerned is how LifeVantage has capitalized on conspiracist thinking about Covid-19 and the broader health care system to draw customers and sellers looking to resist mainstream medicine altogether.

“Don’t be afraid to rise up and go with what you know,” Erin Brockovich told a crowd of 5,000 elite LifeVantage distributors at a 2019 gathering, alluding to her high-profile fight to hold a gas company to account for polluting groundwater. “We are finally owning ourselves and going, ‘Yeah, I don’t think so. That isn’t working for my health — and let me please be in charge of my own health and what I know is happening to me.’”

But the sheen of academic science and Wall Street, and the emphasis on personal wellness, has obscured what former employees say is a growing push within LifeVantage’s massive salesforce to undermine evidence-based medicine and promote shoddy science.

At the 2022 Health Freedom Summit, an online event that featured a number of prominent anti-vaccine advocates, two of the company’s distributors appeared onscreen to promote Protandim. One, Andrea Ebert, went on to suggest, without evidence, that the supplement might reverse what she characterized as harmful effects of the vaccines against the coronavirus, using talking points commonly used by anti-vaccine groups to tout the supplement.

“Maybe you or your loved one have been coerced into getting this jab, and had serious and deep regrets, and are suffering health-wise from it,” she said.

Nathalie Chevreau, a biochemist who served as a senior scientific researcher for LifeVantage from 2014 until 2019, told STAT that distributors also routinely made inaccurate claims — including, in some cases, that the products could help with cancer — at corporate events.

“When the distributor[s] came onstage and would start talking, sometimes my hair was standing up,” Chevreau said. “We’d have to go and stop them, and say ‘you cannot say that.’”

Like some of its competitors in the dietary supplement space, LifeVantage uses a choreographed multi-level marketing operation, relying on some 54,000 active independent distributors to recruit even more salespeople, sell its flagship supplement, Protandim, and push product lines aimed at weight loss, skin care, and pets. In private online gatherings, Facebook groups, and Zoom sessions, distributors are trained to promote Protandim’s purported ability to reduce oxygen-free radicals, and to suggest that scientific evidence supports a broad spectrum of potential benefits.

“LifeVantage is very proud of the science that backs our products,” Fife told STAT, adding: “People want to take control of their own destiny, physically and financially.”

LifeVantage claims that Protandim increases the activity of the Nrf2 pathway, which produces antioxidants in the body. Joseph M. McCord, a biochemist credited with inventing the Protandim compound who went on to serve as the company’s lead scientific officer, gave occasional talks to LifeVantage distributors describing how components of the supplements — such as plant extracts, like milk thistle or ashwagandha — might regulate a biochemical pathway by switching on particular genes.

“You may not have any idea what I just said,” McCord told an audience of elite distributors in 2010. “But you have a job — you have an obligation — to learn what this means.”

McCord co-authored around 17 published studies on LifeVantage products. In some in vitro lab studies, and in others using mice, Protandim appeared to reduce oxidative stress, a measure of the presence of oxygen-free radicals or other reactive species. The studies include one conducted under the auspices of the National Institute on Aging, one of the National Institutes of Health, published in the peer-reviewed journal Aging Cell in 2016. Among its findings: Protandim increased the median lifespan of male mice by 7% — which the paper characterized as a “small but statistically significant” change that wasn’t seen in female mice.

In an interview, McCord noted that not all the research was primarily funded by LifeVantage, and said the studies suggested the Nrf2 pathway was a promising avenue for continued research and development in the supplement space.

But he acknowledged that few conclusions could be drawn about Protandim’s effectiveness in humans, and that the long-term safety in humans has not been studied.

A handful of small-scale studies have evaluated Protandim’s effects in humans; by the researchers’ own account, “results were mixed.” A study of 29 adults published in 2005 suggested Protandim reduced measures of oxidative stress after a month, but lacked a placebo group. Another, published in 2016, looked at 38 runners to see whether the supplement improved their performance, or reduced a measure of oxidative stress, over a period of 90 days, and found that it did neither. There is no research demonstrating that reducing oxidative stress can improve health outcomes, though limited studies have linked oxidative stress to a range of health issues.

Yet LifeVantage promotional materials and distributor pitches tend to spin these results positively.

It’s not uncommon for supplement makers to make claims that raise eyebrows. The Food and Drug Administration has the authority to regulate dietary supplements, but, unlike drugs and biologics, these compounds aren’t approved for safety and effectiveness before they hit the market. When the FDA does crack down, it’s often because problems have emerged. The Federal Trade Commission has oversight of marketing in the U.S., but it and the FDA face sisyphean tasks in a ballooning industry where advertising increasingly takes place via private channels.

Even with this latitude, LifeVantage has run afoul of regulators. Though its previous incarnations date back to 1988, the company has existed in its current form since 2005, when smaller supplement makers merged to form LifeVantage. It originally sold Protandim Nrf2 Synergizer through retail outlets like GNC. Around a decade ago, having shifted to a multi-level marketing model, LifeVantage began to ramp up spurious claims about the power of its natural compounds to halt or reverse effects not only of the aging process, but of conditions including cancer and Alzheimer’s. These claims might have resonated with those seeking alternatives to mainstream medical treatment, or who were desperate to treat serious health problems with few other options.

But the claims were in some cases false or wildly misleading. In April 2017, the FDA warned LifeVantage to stop making claims related to disease prevention or treatment. The CEO at the time, Darren Jensen, responded that “LifeVantage reaffirms its commitment to compliance and to not marketing its products for the prevention or treatment of cancer or any other disease.”

Still, McCord told STAT he has serious concerns about how LifeVantage and some of its representatives have regularly twisted research to market products. One of the reasons he left LifeVantage in 2013, he said, was its tendency to prioritize marketing concerns over scientific ones. When LifeVantage remade itself as a multi-level marketing company, this issue “went from bad to worse,” he said. “I thought it was an inappropriate way to sell a fairly serious product.”

Following the FDA warning letter, LifeVantage appeared to lean more heavily on disclaimers that its products are “not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease,” and instructed its distributors to do the same.

In a statement, a LifeVantage spokesperson wrote that the company “has multiple approaches to ensure that our Consultants” — the company’s term for its distributors — “make legal, truthful and not misleading product claims,” including a policy that prohibits unauthorized personal testimonials and “any claim that LifeVantage products are useful in the cure, treatment, diagnosis, mitigation or prevention of any diseases or signs or symptoms of disease.” The company works to educate its representatives and to take action against problematic pitches, the statement said.

And it noted that “our Consultants are independent contractors” who “sometimes challenge our Policies and Procedures.” In these cases, the statement said, “we take appropriate action.”

But that hasn’t stopped some distributors from toeing the line of truth.

While they might contain disclaimers, recent videos from distributors, including those among the company’s elite ranks — who have recruited top-performing teams — routinely flout that call for caution.

For example, in a video posted online in November 2020, April Wagner, a distributor high up in the company’s ranks, primarily addressing prospective LifeVantage distributors, highlighted the purported benefits of products including a new formulation of Protandim.

“What if you could have the blood of a 20-year-old, or extend your life by 7%?” Wagner asked.

Paul Coates, former director of the Office of Dietary Supplements at the National Institutes of Health, reviewed many of the scientific studies on Protandim, including the one demonstrating a 7% increase in lifespan for male mice, and said he found them to be largely well designed, if small in scope. But Coates also said the company and its representatives regularly went too far in their statements. “The claims are not supportable by this kind of study,” he said.

In internal meetings, distributors themselves have raised concerns about the accuracy of information some representatives use to sell products. In an April 2019 Zoom meeting, a recording of which was reviewed by STAT, led by Charlotte Venter, an elite distributor based in Australia, sellers expressed alarm at what they characterized as inaccurate material that had too often crept into pitches, such as that a probiotic product could help with gluten intolerance.

One distributor told the group she worried that sellers might “take some of these things as gospel and then go and duplicate that, not only to their teams, but potentially to customers.”

Shortly after STAT contacted Venter to ask about the video, it was removed from her YouTube channel.

By the time the pandemic hit, LifeVantage was poised to benefit from fear and confusion around this new health threat, as well as a newly remote labor pool.

In a May 2020 Instagram post, the company shared a line graph of its share price labeled “LifeVantage Stock During Quarantine,” a short-lived bump that saw its stock price rise from about $10 in March 2020 to upwards of $16. Text above the chart read: “Surprised by what you see? We’re not.”

Though there was little evidence to support claims they could ward off or help treat Covid-19, dietary supplements became an attractive option for those seeking remedies based on natural compounds, including individuals in anti-vaccine circles and other groups who resist mainstream health guidance. The global market for supplements grew 7.5% in 2021, ending that year at nearly $60 billion — a figure that dwarfed predictions issued before the pandemic, according to the Nutrition Business Journal.

LifeVantage is one of a number of supplement makers that have lately gained traction with fringe alternative-health activists, who see its messaging around self-determinism as resonating with their particular concerns, and as signaling an openness to unorthodox attitudes towards health.

The public-health restrictions implemented to curb the effects of Covid-19 catalyzed a growing number of activists who make up the “health-freedom movement.” The movement champions the notion that individuals should make their own decisions about health, even when those choices contradict the consensus of doctors or public-health officials. And its members have long fought for a supplement market free of regulatory oversight.

These dynamics represent a front in a larger battle over truth, said Thomas H. Murray, president emeritus at the Hastings Center. The movement’s rhetoric is an echo, he said, of “our inability as a country to agree on who is trustworthy and what is true.”

Those disagreements flared during the pandemic, when even basic health information became a target for skepticism or misinformation.

Fife, the LifeVantage CEO, said the company was “very careful” not to tie product launches to the pandemic.

But language in distributor pitches has invoked Protandim’s purported ability to repair damage from the virus, or supposed adverse effects from the vaccines.

Online, distributors have suggested that Protandim could help fight off Covid-19. In a clip that Wagner, the elite distributor, posted to TikTok in September 2021, she holds a yellow caplet in one hand and a Protandim bottle in the other, and urges viewers to try “one of these magic tablets” that have been “medically studied.” Protandim, Wagner said, “will increase your glutathione by over 300% — glutathione is our master antioxidant, and there are even studies on Google Scholar that show increasing glutathione levels will inhibit the Corona disease.” (The relevant papers appear to be surveys of previously published literature — not clinical studies conducted since the onset of the pandemic.)

“The idea that these supplements would be marketed in a way that people have a higher risk of using these sham snake oil products is outrageous,” said Bryn Austin, professor in the department of social and behavioral sciences at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “If people turn to supplements marketed with claims of boosting immunity,” Austin said, it’s likely they’re not following the evidence on what would actually protect against Covid-19.

Kelsey Brennan-Patrick, who owns a dance studio in Phoenixville, Pa. and has been a LifeVantage distributor for around six years, told STAT that in the early days of the pandemic, “we were all trying to understand and figure out what this virus was.” She said she was aware that claims that Protandim could prevent or treat illnesses including Covid-19 were off-limits. But anecdotally, she’d heard that the supplement might help mitigate symptoms. (This is not supported by scientific evidence.)

“It was hard for us, as a company, because we could not communicate it like that,” she explained, citing the company’s disclaimers around preventing or treating disease. “So we had to be very compliant and just kind of lead the horse to water.”

Ebert, the distributor who presented at the Health Freedom Summit, said she was aware of other sellers within the company who shared her skepticism of public health regulations and vaccines, and who saw the supplement — which she has called a “golden bullet” — as a step toward health freedom.

She told STAT she leads a team of around 100 distributors and isn’t opposed to science, but questioned the motivations of health officials who established vaccine mandates and the companies that manufactured them — a common anti-vaccine talking point.

“In the medical world, there’s science spelled with an ‘s,’” Ebert said, “and then there’s science spelled with a dollar sign.” (Researchers have estimated that the vaccines, and the massive campaign to make them accessible to the public, have saved as many as 3 million lives in the U.S. alone.)

In a follow-up message, Ebert told STAT she could not categorize the beliefs of other LifeVantage distributors, and reiterated that “we never claim to cure, prevent or mitigate disease.”

Without large-scale controlled studies demonstrating Protandim actually helps people, LifeVantage has had to rely on a series of ever more aggressive sales tactics hinging on fragments of limited findings.

Health-freedom groups spent the height of the pandemic stoking mistrust as a fundraising ploy, and now court new audiences for hawking products and ideology alike. A company that says its products are backed by “science” — yet stands to profit as science deniers in its sales force tout them as a panacea of choice — harms consumers, health misinformation experts said, by pushing falsehoods along with pills.

Meanwhile, as it rings in a “strategic transformation,” including a revamp of product offerings, such as a new line of collagen products, and distributor-compensation plans, LifeVantage is also in search of fresh scientific talent. In a job posting currently live on its website, the company seeks a senior research scientist with a “commercial mindset.”

After all, it reads: “we are in the business of monetizing products and ideas, not conducting research for the sake of research.”

Source link

Comments are closed.