MLMs have been around for decades, and especially in the nutrition space, there’s always more popping up. People flock to them because as consultants, they’re looking to make money. And as consumers, the products promise all sorts of great things that aren’t available in mainstream stores.
My Arbonne review post continues to be my #1 performing piece on my site, probably because Arbonne is so popular. Its flashy, go-for-it messaging and female-targeted products (rose champagne fizz sticks and marble cake protein shakes, anyone?) really bring home the bacon for the company.
But there’s another side to Arbonne and other nutrition product MLMs, and it’s not so bright.
The Issue with Arbonne and other MLMs
The first indication that something’s shady is with the information that’s online for consumers.
A quick search online reveals Arbonne materials put out by Arbonne’s ‘independent consultants’ aka salespeople – probably unauthorized, but bearing the Arbonne logo to look ‘official’ – that communicates a vaguely ominous message:
You need our products, or else you’re unhealthy.
These infographics are complete garbage science, yet they’re neat, engaging, and appear to be professionally done.
Unfortunately, the layperson doesn’t understand how faulty a lot of this information is. All they see are the promises and ‘wellness’ verbiage:
‘Pure’ – Arbonne’s products are ‘pure,’ therefore they must be high-quality.
‘Cellular’ – Your cells need cleaning, and Arbonne can do that for them.
‘Detox’ – Your organs need support, and Arbonne can support them.
‘Unprotected’ – You can’t trust the FDA, but you can trust Arbonne.
‘Cleansing’ – If you’re fat, you’re unclean. But once you’ve cleansed, you’ll lose weight. Then, you’ll be clean.
Every one of these statements is untrue, but it’s the MLM M.O.: rely entirely on fear to persuade a buyer that a product is something they ‘need’ for some nebulous condition that you’ve convinced them they have (but actually don’t).
MLM claims are almost always based on immeasurable metrics. So, they might sell a product that ‘cleanses the cells’ or ‘rests the liver,’ but how in the world does a person even measure an outcome? They can’t. All they can do is trust the MLM and the people they’re buying from.
The fear tactics that MLMs use to sell products and establish loyalty create anxiety and fear around food, and a distrust of our food system.
And as we start to get a sense of belonging and become one of an MLM’s ‘followers,’ we can lose our common sense and ability to think critically about what they’re telling us.
In other words, they suck us into their tangled web with alternate facts and a community of believers that creates a biased echo-chamber.
Even the salespeople are subject to the same influence: with a promise of earnings and bonuses while they work at home, plus an insta-family of like-minded women who are also selling the products, it’s a no-brainer.
To ‘prove’ the efficacy of their products and convince people to purchase them, companies like Arbonne often use very poor science, or no science at all.
For example, Arbonne claims in a roundabout way that its Metabolism Support product causes increased thermogenesis to burn calories, but then at the bottom of the materials, in small print, says this:
**Increasing thermogenesis may aid in weight management, although this has not definitely been shown.
Okay, so which is it? Does thermogenesis work, or is Arbonne full of it?
The plot thickens when the company says the product includes the ingredient Svetol, which ‘research’ says helps with weight loss:
“Rev it up. Metabolism Support provides 400 mg per day of green coffee bean extract, which in a clinical trial was shown to help study participants manage their weight.* Also contains a blend of targeted botanicals to help support metabolism.”
Oooh! CLINICAL TRIAL!!
And again: “**Consumption of Svetol induces a reduction in glucose absorption in the small intestine, which may help support weight management.”
SCIENCE-Y AND STUFF!! Sounds like it works!
But does it reeeaaaaally? What is this special Svetol stuff that works so well?
Pay attention now, because I’m going to show you how MLMs (and any other nutritional company, really) pull the wool over peoples’ eyes with their ‘research’ to convince them that their stuff has magical, ‘scientifically proven’ ingredients that are worth buying.
Svetol is a name-brand green coffee bean extract, otherwise known as chlorogenic acid.
Curiously, both the Svetol and Arbonne sites don’t link to any of the Svetol research that’s so incredibly fantabulous. I wonder why?
So, I went digging, because of course I did.
I found the review of studies – that both sites reference. Here it is.
Aside from the fact that the review was done by the company that produces Svetol (I know, so shocking!), the studies that were reviewed were faulty AF.
There were only two human studies included in the review. The other studies were in rats or about drinking coffee. Irrelevant.
Both human studies were done by the developers of Svetol.
Both were small. Both were short. Both are over 10 years old. This is important, because if Svetol was a big important discovery, we would have seen more of it since 2007.
But we haven’t, and there’s a reason for that.
The first human study the authors refer to links back to their review. Weird.
The second study, and the only one done specifically on Svetol’s effect on body weight, has typos (boby mass index?) and questionable science like this: “There is a relationship between the amount of carbohydrates in the diet and the amount of fats in the adipose reserves since the carbohydrates are responsible for most of the calories introduced and the intake of sugars reduces energy consumption.”
Um, pardon me?
So, carbs are responsible for most of our calories, and if we reduce sugar then that automatically reduces our caloric intake?
How about the other two macronutrients, fat and protein? Do those not count or something?
Not exactly what I’d call, ‘strong clinical evidence.’
Aside from questionable research, I have real issues with how MLM nutrition products are sold.
The Structure of MLMs
MLMs work because the consultants are incentivized with sales. Consultants are encouraged to sell product themselves and to recruit ‘team members,’ whose sales the original consultant will get a percentage of. The more everyone recruits and sells, the more everyone makes, and the higher they climb within the pay structure.
So obviously, recruiting and moving product is a big deal. Gotta level up to Area Manager!
I’m not even going to address how MLMs target women and how many of them lose, not make, money from them.
The problem with the MLM setup is that consultants have little to no information about their customers. And when you’re selling supplements and weight-loss products, there’s risk that comes with that.
Sure, anyone can go to the drugstore and buy products that are basically the same as Arbonne’s and others – protein shakes, fat burners, energy drinks. But MLMs’ way of selling ads another layer onto that: it’s not just someone wandering into a store.
A person establishes a relationship with their salesperson or ‘consultant.’ There’s a conversation and a give-take that happens.
Many of these MLMs are selling programs and lifestyles, and although I don’t expect salespeople to take a full health history, I do expect them to hold off on selling products to people who they know full well aren’t appropriate for them.
But the combination of a drive to sell, coupled with ignorance of a customer’s health status, can be deadly.
I’ve heard from far too many followers who have first-or-secondhand experience with MLM salespeople from Arbonne, Slimroast, and others selling shit to customers who they know have eating disorders.
A lot of MLM nutrition products contain stimulants like octodrine, which can be dangerous if overconsumed, and active ingredients in ‘proprietary blends’ that may interact with certain medications.
But salespeople don’t know anything about that.
The question remains: should we actively be searching out and selling weight loss programs and supplements to random people who we really know nothing about?
Which brings me to my next point: the coaches.
How to be a “Nutrition” Coach
A lot of MLM nutrition companies use coaches with zero experience, in particular to communicate complex nutrition science or to counsel people on their eating habits. These coaches are also driven by incentives, combining bad nutrition information with the desire to make money into a vortex of misinformation.
Why in the world would anyone hand over their precious health to somebody with what amounts to no nutrition training.
It’s like the blind leading the blind, and in extreme cases, it can be dangerous. Weight loss isn’t something to take lightly. It can be a tangled web of emotional and physical issues that can worsen with the wrong type of counselling.
It’s not a matter of ‘just eat less and drink these protein shakes and take these detox pills,’ so let’s not pretend that it is.
Saying that to the wrong person can be deadly.
It has taken me literally YEARS to get where I am in terms of nutrition counselling, and I’m still learning, so make no mistake about it: MLM coaches are in no way qualified to do what they’re doing. And no, going through the program and losing weight is NOT adequate experience to coach others.
Aside from irritating MLM consultants clogging up your social feeds and asking to ‘meet for coffee to reconnect,’ MLMs can be dangerous physically and emotionally.
The false claims, bad science, and shady tactics aren’t going to lead you to some undiscovered weight-loss pot of gold. More likely, you’ll be out a bunch of money and in for a lot of BS.