Pyramid Schemes

Almost everyone has been to one of those home shopping parties. Your friend signs up to sell kitchen gadgets, Tupperware, jewelry, or even “marital aids”, then hosts a party at their house.

We go, since they are our friends, have a little vino and laugh at the weird overpriced gadgets.  Nobody gets hurt, everyone has a little fun, and you come home with a fruit slicer you will never use.

The parties aren’t really the problem.  I mean, we can get into the psychology of why those parties work (the salespeople are friends/known – not strangers, peer pressure from other buyers at the party, the sunk cost fallacy), but we don’t want to be Grinches.  The parties are fun.  The pyramid system, in many cases, is the issue.

I’ll come right out and say it.  We don’t like pyramid companies.  We also don’t believe that multi-level marketing (MLM) is ANY different than a pyramid company.  Especially as it pertains to the ultimate goal – using peer influence to increase the bottom line for stuff that isn’t really any better or different.

Look, even the government and regulatory bodies have a difficult time distinguishing between the two in many cases.  True pyramid companies make almost all of their money on sales of products to their “employees” (buying overpriced inventory) and fees charged to the new recruits.  MLMs pay commission based on sales and you make a smaller commission on the sales of people you recruit to work for the company too.  Yeah yeah, they’re not the same, but they are the same shape…

“Despite your obvious personal objection to MLM companies, what does this have to do with wellness?”

Great question, glad you asked.  Supplement companies are getting in on the MLM action. Here are a few of the stellar supplement MLMs floating around:

  1. One of the most popular companies claims to sell pills containing just fruits and veggies.  You know our thoughts on the fake “whole food” stuff… Yet the company lies and the salespeople gobble it up, taking it as gospel.

The vitamin content on the label is almost exclusively from added isolated and synthetic vitamins, which are listed, in plain sight, in the “Other Ingredients” section on the label. Ready for the big one:  these products are made in a candy factory.

  1. Another company uses the “cleanse” buzzword as the key premise in their sales pitch. Their whole line is about “cleansing.”

Their program is simple:  replace most of the food you eat with shakes and bars. Sometimes, people lose weight.  Not from their magical products of course, but because they’ve dramatically reduced their calories.  Don’t try to tell them that…

They fill their products with laxatives and purgatives to make people poop a lot. No joke. They include magnesium oxide in their leading product (the poorly absorbed form of magnesium that is the active ingredient in laxatives).  They do the typical “cleanse” company parlor trick by also including bentonite, a non-absorbable, clumping clay to “rid the body of toxins”.  The bentonite doesn’t do that, but it does take the shape of parts of the intestines and visually supports their false claim that the products assist in the “cleansing” process.  “More stuff is coming out, so I must be cleansing right?”

  1. Another company likes to sell powdered vitamins. Regular, synthetic, isolated vitamins like you can get at any dollar store these days, but just in a powder form.

Their factless claim is that vitamins in the powder form are “more absorbable” and therefore superior.   Putting anything in a powder form may decrease the time needed to absorb something – at best 15 minutes – but not change anything about how much gets absorbed. In other words, it doesn’t matter.

They offer no evidence to support their claims but still shout it from rooftops. Sound bytes and buzzwords that sound like they could be truthful (BUT AREN’T!), coming from the mouths of those you trust and care about because a big company wants to move product.

You can’t say something is all-natural if its primary ingredients are synthetic chemicals.  You can’t say a “cleanse” product does anything because that’s not how our body works.  You can’t say a synthetic vitamin is taken up by the body better because it’s in a powder.   

We intentionally kept our examples at the super-simple, almost unarguable level.  The reason we did so, is to prove the final point about MLMs that we don’t like: people involved in MLMs become emotionally attached to the cause, for many reasons.

A key trait of anyone involved in the practice of medicine (natural or traditional) must be the willingness to change in the face of new evidence.  Yet these sales reps refuse, even when confronted with the most basic facts about their poor products.  They resist.  So much so, that it’s seen not as discussion, but rather an attack on the individual’s identity.

Our decisions are based on biases all around us.  When it comes to wellness and supplement decisions, we get a little testy when logic, science, and evidence aren’t used in that process.

The companies are selling ineffective, cheap products at a premium price by using a heavily psychological recruiting and development process to “employees” that are, in almost all cases, not qualified to talk about complex things such as the body, health, and wellness.

One of our mentors told us, “In a pyramid company, you are the product.”  Did supplement companies get into the MLM scene, or did MLM companies choose supplements as an easy way to get people into the system?  I swear I’m not on mushrooms, I’m just being extra thoughtful today.

Our standard disclaimer applies:  If you think we’re generalizing and there are good products out there, bring them on in.  We’re always up for a balanced discussion; challenges keep us on our toes.  Want to get more information about the new energy drinks your second cousin is hawking at Easter?  We got your back.  If we are wrong, we’ll gladly clarify our stance! 

So if someone in your life is trying to get you to buy wellness products through their “independent sales business”, tell them, “No thanks, but I’ll take a gravy ladle if you sell those.”

Just trying to keep it real…

Dr. Neal Smoller, Holistic Pharmacist

About Neal Smoller

Dr. Neal Smoller, PharmD, is a licensed pharmacist: and owner of Village Apothecary, an independent pharmacy in the most famous small town in America—Woodstock, NY. He’s also the host of the popular wellness podcast, The Big Mouth Pharmacist.”


The Vital 5

Nutrients you shouldn’t live without
The Vital 5 Nutrients You Shouldn't Live Without