In September 2000, my local newspaper carried a full page ad headlined: “Chantal Legrand reveals: How I lost 54 pounds without dieting or medication in less than 6 weeks!” The ad promised:
By following the simple instructions for the weight-loss plan, just as I did, you will start to lose weight immediately. You could lose 8 to 10 pounds per week, easily, just until you attain your ideal weight. And you won’t gain it back afterwards. because your weight will have reached an equilibrium. You’ll remain thin and no one will ever believe you ever had a problem with your weight before. . . . Some people have lost 13 pounds the first week.
The product — called the 16 Point Macerat Weight-Loss Plan — was offered in two versions. The “standard” plan for losing less than 20 pounds in 3 to 4 weeks cost $34; and the “intensive” plan for losing more than 20 pounds in 5 to 8 weeks cost $56.
“Chantal Legrande” is claimed to have reduced from 174 pounds to 120 pounds. The ad contains two pictures, one said to be her present appearance and the other said to be from “not long ago.” Based on her given height of 5’2″, I estimate that one picture reflects a weight between 100 and 115 and the other a weight between 130 and 140. I an uncertain whether the same woman appears in both pictures.
The plan includes two bottles: a “Purgative Elixir” and a “Drainer Elixir.” The booklet that comes with the products suggests that the number of drops should vary according to the amount of weight loss desired. The herbal ingredients listed are:
Purgative: Aqueous extracts of artichoke, black radish, camu cane, cardamon, celery, Chrysantellum indicum, and muscade.
Drainer: Aqueous extracts of anis seeds, bardane root, birch leaves, black currant leaves, black radish, cherry stems, commen, dandelion roots and leaves, fennel seeds, fumitory, Green tea, heather, mint, nettle, parsley, sage, and watercress.
Checking the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database — which I consider to be the most reliable herbal guide — I found no evidence that any of these ingredients is effective for weight control. Several had diuretic properties, which means that they could cause the body to shed water. A few had possible side effects of diarrhea. Two were said to stimulate appetite. Not surprisingly, some users reported diarrhea and increased urination after using the drops.
Diuretics and laxatives can cause temporary weight loss by causing the body to shed water. But as soon as the body is rehydrated, the weight returns. Meaningful weight loss requires loss of body fat.
Regardless of the ingredients, simple arithmetic shows that no product can do what the ad promises. The two basic factors in weight control are caloric intake and energy expenditure. To lose weight, one must eat less or exercise more — but most people need to do both. There are about 3,500 calories stored in a pound of body weight. To lose one pound a week, one must consume an average of 500 fewer calories per day than are metabolized. Most moderately active people need about 15 calories per pound to maintain their weight. Obese and sedentary people need less. To lose 8-10 pounds per week, one would have to burn off 4,000 to 5,000 calories per day more than are consumed. Even complete starvation will not create a caloric deficit that large. Moreover, the ad says that the user can continue to eat and exercise normally.
Who Runs the Company?
The company may be as nebulous as the product itself. According to the ad, the Macerat plan is available from Phytopharma, North American Head Office, 1265 Morningside Avenue, Suite 109-208, Toronto, Ontario M1B 3Vb, Canada. Searching the Internet, I found several unrelated “businesses” using the identical address, which suggests that this is simply a mailbox, not the real headquarters. Callers to Phytopharma’s toll-free number have been unable to find out the real physical location of the company. Until recently, the orders actually went to Corporatel, an independent call center in St. John that takes orders and responds to a few basic questions from customers. Some callers were told that the product is shipped from a location in New York State. A legitimate drug company named PhytoPharm is located in the United Kingdom, but it is not the same company.
Ron Reinhold, a private detective who has investigated many health frauds for the Canadian Department of Health, suspects that the people running Phytopharma are also responsible for at least seven other scam diet-pill promotions: Algoxyll, PhytoLab HCA; Naturlab Apple Cider Vinegar Capsules; Boreal Health and Beauty; Hollywood Weekend Turbo Diet; Genesis Health PhytoTrim; and American Orchards Apple Cider Vinegar Capsules (operating from Connecticut) .
In 2002, a investigative television reporters in Canada were able to trace what happened to orders mailed to PhytoPharma. In a February broadcast , they reported:
- The principals in the scheme, operating as a company named Infogest, were Patrice Runner and Daniel Sousse (who acknowledged that they are the North American representatives of Phytopharma).
- Sousse was involved with various companies a few years ago that were assessed large fines in the United States and Canada for selling bogus diet products, including one called the Svelt Patch . Runner was Sousse’s boss at that time.
- Souse picks up the mail at the Infogest post office box, and his name appears on the contract for the rental.
- The product is made in Florida. A company in New Jersey handles the advertising. The orders are processed in New Brunswick and shipped out of Toronto and New York. The money ends up in a bank in Ireland.
- Phytopharma is a company registered in Panama. Finally, all of this activity revolves around Infogest in Montreal and Daniel Sousse and Patrice Runner.
- Richard Cleland at the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) said Canada has become such a problem that he’s considering recommending a boycott of Canadian mail order products, even though it will punish a lot of legitimate businesses. Cleland said that unless Canada cleans up its act with mail orders, the U.S. may have no choice.
Consumer Protection Is Needed
Although these products are advertised with a “money-back guarantee,” many dissatisfied users have reported that they were unable to obtain refunds. Not only that, but some people who bought products have found that they have received solitications from other companies, which suggests that their names are being sold to others. If you have purchased the product with a charge card and the protest period has not expired, immediately ask your credit company to cancel the charge. (Follow the procedure outlined on your bill.)
Why are products like these tolerated in the marketplace? Why do newspapers and magazines permit them to be advertised? Why hasn’t the Canadian Health Branch - which knows about PhytoPharma - shut the company down? Why are the U.S. postal authorities ignoring Plant Macerat and similar scams in the United States?
- Reinhold R. PhytoPharma and Algoxyl: The latest info. Rianbow Investigations Web site, April 2002.
- Tracking a diet scam. Canadian Television News (CTV.ca W-FIVE), Feb 22, 2002.
- Federal Trade Commission. In the matter of 2943174 Canada Inc., also doing business as United Research Center, Inc. a corporation, and Patrice Runner, individually and as an officer of the corporation. Information packet, March 1997.
This article was revised on August 3, 2002.