Class-Action Suit Filed against FreeLife and Earl Mindel

Stephen Barrett, M.D.
September 10, 2009

Six former distributors have filed a class-action suit accusing FreeLife International, two of its officers, and marketing spokesperson Earl Mindell of misrepresenting the value and health benefits of Himalayan Goji Juice, GoChi, and TAIslim. The suit, filed May 29, 2009 and amended one month later [1], seeks damages on behalf of purchasers of these products during the previous four years.

Company History

FreeLife International, now headquartered in Arizona, is a multilevel marketing company founded in 1995 by Raymond J. Faltinsky and Kevin Fournier. Until recently, its promotional program was centered around Earl Mindell, whom FreeLife has represented as “an internationally recognized expert on nutrition, drugs, vitamins, and herbal remedies.” The company’s first centerpiece product was the Soy Miracle Body Program, which included soy-based shakes and several formulas that contained vitamins, minerals, herbs, and/or other dietary supplement ingredients. During the same year, Simon & Schuster published Earl Mindell’s Soy Miracle, which discussed “how adding soy foods to your diet may protect you against diseases such as prostate and breast cancer, osteoporosis, and coronary disease.” [2] The first distributor manual included a photograph of the book which it called “The Ultimate Book on Soy!” [3] Over the years, FreeLife has added dozens of supplement products to its offerings. Since 2003, its most heavily promoted products have been Goji berry products. TAIslim was introduced in 2009.

False and Misleading Claims

The class-action complaint identifies many of the false and misleading claims made for Goji and TAIslim and includes documents in which the claims were made:

  • The flyer “Goji and cancer” falsely suggests that Goji helps manage and fight cancer [4].
  • The flyer “Goji and depressive disorders” falsely suggests that Goji promotes cheerfulness, alleviates anxiety and stress, fights fatigue enhances libido and sexual function, and improves sleep quality [4].
  • The flyer “34 reasons to drink Goji juice every day” claims that its use extends life, prevents cancer, improves vision, strengthens the heart, and provides dozens of other health benefits [4].
  • The flyer “27 reasons to drink TAIslim every day” claims that the product causes people to absorb fewer calories from the food they eat and provides dose ns of other health benefits [5].
Mindell’s Background

Earl Mindell, R.Ph., helped found the Great Earth chain of health-food stores. He has written more than 50 books and many 3]booklets that promote dietary supplements with false or unsubstantiated claims. His best-known book, The Vitamin Bible, has sold over 10 million copies worldwide. During the past 25 years, he has been repeatedly represented as a leading expert. FreeLife’s initial distributor’s manual, for example, described him as “America’s #1 Nutrition Expert” [2] and jackets of his books have described him as America’s #1 vitamin and nutrition expert, ” a “master herbalist,” and a “professor of nutrition” at Pacific Western University. And a 2005 pamphlet, “Goji and Depressive Disorders,” copyrighted in by Mindell and Rick Handel, stated that Mindell is “generally recognized as the world’s leading nutrition authority.” [6]

The idea that Mindell is a leading nutrition expert is preposterous. His only respectable credential is a Bachelor of Science in Pharmacy degree from North Dakota State University in 1963. His “Ph.D.” was obtained in 1985 from Pacific Western University, a nonaccredited correspondence school that has no recognized scientific standing. His herbalist diploma was obtained in 1995 from nonaccredited Dominion Herbal College.

During the 1970s, Mindell acquired a “Ph.D.” in nutrition from the University of Beverly Hills, a nonaccredited school that lacked a campus or laboratory facilities. His adjunct faculty adviser for the project was James J. Kenney, Ph.D., R.D., a genuine nutrition expert who worked for many years at the Pritikin Longevity Center in Santa Monica, California. While tutoring Mindell, Kenney reviewed the Vitamin Bible manuscript and told Mindell that it contained over 400 errors, more than 100 of which were important. According to Kenney, most of the errors were repeated in the published edition [7]. After acquiring his second nonaccredited degree, Mindell stopped mentioning his first one.

While Mindell was associated with Great Earth, two regulatory agencies filed claims against the company:

  • In 1987, Great Earth signed a consent agreement that settled FTC charges that it had falsely claimed that three of its amino acid products would enable users lose weight, build muscle, burn fat, promote healing, protect against mental and physical fatigue and strengthen the immune system. The company’s ads stated that these benefits result because the products stimulate the body to release human growth hormone from the pituitary gland. However, the complaint charged that the products would not stimulate the pituitary gland in that way and or provide the promised results [8].
  • That same year, the Orange County (California) District Attorney accused Great Earth, Mindell, Great Earth’s president John R. Gorman, Jr., and two other companies of making false and misleading claims for nine products. The complaint noted that Mindell had written the literature for the products and owned a Great Earth store in Los Angeles [9]. In 1989, Great Earth, Gorman, and the other companies settled the California case by agreeing to pay $109,520 and to refrain from making illegal claims in the future. The case against Mindell remained open, but I don’t know its eventual outcome [10].

In January 2007, Canadian Broadcasting Company’s “Marketplace” aired a program that debunked Mindell’s goji-related claims and his credentials, One segment showed Mindell telling a large audience of distributors that his goal is “to close half the hospitals because we won’t need them.” In another segment, Mindell claims that a study at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center had found that lycium barbarum (a botanical name for goji) had inhibited the growth of human cancer cells. A CBC reporter checked, however, and found that no such study had been done at Sloan-Kettering and the researcher who actually did the study said it was done in cell culture and its results should not be extrapolated to humans. When closely questioned about his claims and credentials, Mindell lost his temper and terminated the interview. During this segment, he claimed that Pacific Western University is “accredited in every state in the union.” [11]

In September 2007, plaintiff David Lucas Burge published the Web site to expose many of FreeLife’s misrepresentations. Not long afterward, FreeLife modified some of its claims and announced that the company was no longer associated with Mindell [1]. However, many distributors continue to rely on his false claims to promote FreeLife products.

Sloan-Kettering officials have been sufficiently concerned about the research misrepresentation that their Web site contains a bold-faced statement that “Despite claims by several marketers, the efficacy and safety of lycium products for cancer treatment in humans have not been established.” [12]

The current class-action suit charges that the FreeLife promoted Goji products with false and misleading claims and falsely represented Mindell as an expert.

  1. First amended complaint. Burge et al v. Freelife International, Inc. U.S. District Court, District of Arizona, Case No. CV 09-1159, filed June 30, 2009.
  2. FreeLife distributor’s manual, acquired in mid-1995.
  3. Mindell E, Handel R. Goji and depressive disorders. © 2005.
  4. Exhibit A of first amended complaint.
  5. Exhibit B of first amended complaint.
  6. TAIslim for a totally new you. FreeLife International flyer, 2009. Included as Exhibit B of first amended complaint.
  7. Mindell E, Colman C. Earl Mindell’s Soy Miracle. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.
  8. Lowell JA. An irreverent look at the Vitamin Bible and its author (Earl Mindell). Nutrition Forum, June 1986.
  9. Agreement containing consent order to cease and desist. In the Matter of Great Earth International, Inc. FTC File No. 842 3212, Oct 8, 1987.
  10. Complaint for injunction, civil penalties, and other relief. People of the State of California vs. Great Earth International, Inc. et al. Orange County Superior Court Case No. 52-85-77, filed July 6, 1987.
  11. Stipulation for final judgment. People of the State of California vs. Great Earth International, Inc. et al. Orange County Superior Court Case No. 52-85-77, filed Nov 20, 1989.
  12. Getting juiced. Canadian Broadcasting Company, Jan 27, 2007.
  13. Lycium. Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center Web site, March 23, 2009.

This article was revised on September 10, 2009.