New smoothie stores around Columbia with names like Game Day Nutrition and Feeling Good Nutrition are selling colorful teas and meal replacement shakes and promise alluring health benefits from their products.
What often isn’t apparent to customers is these products are manufactured by a billion-dollar corporation with a history of complaints from federal regulators and that owners of the stores often lack accredited experience in nutrition.
These stores use products from Herbalife, a multi-level marketing company that began decades ago with home sales but has branched into selling its products through stores. At least eight locations, all with “Nutrition” in their names, have opened around Columbia within the last three years, including one in Five Points in March.
The shops operate as a hub for recruiting more sellers of Herbalife, one marketing expert said, despite owners denying this. And those selling Herbalife products often lose money while working for the company that derives a bulk of its revenue from selling memberships, according to a 2016 Federal Trade Commission complaint.
Herbalife paid $200 million in fees to former sellers for the company, also known as distributors, who lost money in the company in a settlement with federal authorities.
Owners of the Columbia-area stores contend that Herbalife shakes and teas with names like Beach Please and Hippie Juice have helped them lose weight, clear their skin of acne and improve their focus.
Yet customers walking into these shops might not know they are buying products made from Herbalife powders.
A review by Free Times found the Columbia-area shops often don’t clearly advertise their Herbalife ties.
Herbalife does not allow operators to display the company’s logos outside the shops. The five Herbalife-selling stores still operating did have products with the brand’s logo on display, including canisters of powder behind counters or displays of protein bars near cash registers.
But none of the workers said the shakes or teas being sold were made Herbalife products.
On social media, only one store, Downtown Nutrition Chapin, openly used the Herbalife name or logo when posting on social media. Two others made no mention of the company. The last two stores used Herbalife hashtags or posted photos using the company’s logo in some online posts, but not consistently.
“People think that they’re going to a nutrition shop and the word ‘nutrition’ obviously is alluring because people think, ’OK, nutrition equals health,’” said New York-based registered dietician Laura Ligos, who studied nutrition science at Cornell University. “They do a lot of work to cover up the fact that it’s an Herbalife shop.”
The supplement industry as a whole is loosely regulated, according to Ligos. Supplement companies like Herbalife are not required to third-party test their powders. And Herbalife doesn’t — most of the powders served in shakes and teas at the nutrition stores only have the backing of the Herbalife company itself.
Most of the stores in the area are listed on Facebook as smoothie and juice bars, but two — Blythewood Nutrition Spot and the now-closed Lake Murray Nutrition — list themselves as health food stores or health and wellness websites.
Despite marketing themselves as nutrition spots, none of the store owners in Columbia have any accredited experience in the field of nutrition, a Free Times review found.
A review of the Linkedin and social media pages of store owners, as well as interviews and visits to the stores, revealed that store owners have worked as anything from sales representatives for medical companies to restaurant managers. None apparently have worked in or studied nutrition, despite making lofty health claims, namely weight loss, about the products they sell.
“If they are selling you on the weight-loss qualities of their products, believe me there are far better ways to lose weight if you need to, it’s called reducing caloric intake and eating real food,” Ligos wrote on her own blog.
At Feeling Good Nutrition in Lexington, owner Lina Starinki, who studied environmental engineering in Colombia before moving to the United States, told a Free Times reporter visiting the store as a customer that the teas cleared her skin and alleviated anxiety.
At the newly-opened Game Day Nutrition in Five Points, owner Amanda Murray, who worked as a patient services representative for a medical lab, told Free Times that she lost over 100 pounds drinking the shakes.
Soon after opening her Five Points store, Murray received social media backlash over her status as an Herbalife seller, which she did not openly disclose on social media when she first opened her business. She did not receive the same kind of criticism after opening Pleasant Nutrition in Mount Pleasant a year ago.
“We are not a front for multi-level marketing,” Murray said in a Facebook post just a week after her Columbia store’s grand opening, addressing backlash from a Facebook post about the grand opening. “Yes, our shakes and teas are made with Herbalife product. We purchase our product from Herbalife, but in no way do we recruit or ask anyone to sign up.”
Murray declined to comment to Free Times on her lack of nutritional experience. A person answering the phone at Blythewood Nutrition Spot, which opened in March, declined to set up an interview with a Free Times reporter. And at Between Chaos Nutrition, owners declined to interview based on what they said were Herbalife’s rules regarding speaking to media. The owner of Downtown Nutrition Chapin also declined an interview.
Starinki said she is aware of the multiple controversies that surround Herbalife — from claims that the product causes liver damage to accusations on social media that owners don’t disclose their status as Herbalife sellers — but said that she likes the products and uses them personally and isn’t forcing the products on others.
She also said that having moved here from Colombia five years ago with little experience speaking English, the company has given her the opportunity to make friends and own her own business.
She opened the Lexington store just over a year ago.
“It’s true we don’t have that (formal nutrition) education … but the truth is we have amazing education about this,” Starinki said. “We are not nutritionists, but we have more than 300 doctors behind us that support us and we are never talking about our shakes as if they are medicine and we always invite people to listen to their doctors before (us) because obviously we are not doctors.”
The lack of accredited background in nutrition isn’t the only thing that raises concerns.
Herbalife, which has operated since 1980, generates much of its profits by recruiting distributors who pay a fee to purchase products at a discount and who are often rewarded or compensated for recruiting other members.
“Right from the beginning, (Herbalife founder) Mark Hughes sent this message out — A: you can make a lot of money doing this and B: the only thing that stops you is you giving up,” said Bill Keep, a professor at the College of New Jersey who has researched MLM companies for decades.
But the company acknowledged that more than half of all store owners make no profit or lose money, according to information included in a 2016 lawsuit from the Federal Trade Commission. More than 60% of the company’s product sales came from selling products to its own distributors, according to a 2014 Herbalife press release and the FTC complaint. The complaint forced the company to restructure and to derive more of its profit from product sales than distributorships.
Despite finding similarities to pyramid schemes and the way that they operate, the FTC ultimately did not classify the company as a pyramid scheme. The federal department said the company “deceived consumers into believing they could earn substantial money selling diet, nutritional supplement, and personal care products,” according to the 2016 complaint.
Three of the eight Columbia-area Herbalife stores that opened within the last three years have closed. Nirvana Nutrition owners closed and new owners took over the spot and rebranded as Between Chaos Nutrition. Vista Nutrition closed after only eight months. Lake Murray Nutrition closed in May.
For years, sellers for the company sold products and distributorships through word of mouth and home sales and in the early 2000s Herbalife began to shift the focus to nutrition storefronts.
The stores started in 2004 serve as a way to publicly emphasize the benefits in order to recruit new distributors, Keep said.
The 2016 FTC settlement prohibits Herbalife from allowing distributors to open a nutrition storefronts without first being a distributor for the company for at least a year. Before 2016, the FTC found that distributors spent an average of $8,500 to open a store.
Herbalife declined an interview with Free Times.
Of the five storefronts in the area that Free Times reached out to, at least three owners told Free Times they became involved in Herbalife after hearing about it from family.
Game Day’s Murray heard about the shakes from her niece when she was struggling with her weight. Lake Murray Nutrition’s Lee Chambers discovered the business opportunity when his relatives in Mississippi opened their own nutrition store. Feeling Good’s Starinki heard about the products from her mother-in-law over 15 years ago.
All three nutrition store owners that spoke to Free Times said they do not recruit customers to sell products for Herbalife, but at least two owners said they had encouraged and successfully gotten people to join the company as distributors, one recruiting most members before opening a store and one during his time as a store owner.
Feeling Good’s Starinki has recruited at least 20 people during her five years working for the company.
Lake Murray’s Chambers had at least two former employees go on to open their own stores — Nirvana Nutrition in Lexington, which has since closed and rebranded as Between Chaos Nutrition, and Vista Nutrition in Columbia’s downtown, which closed after less than a year in business.
The owner of Vista Nutrition, Kayla Smith, closed her business after only eight months with no explanation. When reached for comment, a person answering a call belonging to Smith hung up the phone after a Free Times reporter identified herself.
Chambers announced in a social media post on May 5 that he would permanently close his nutrition club. He plans to relocate to Mississippi to be with family, he told Free Times.
The quick opening and closures of some of the stores could be a signifier that the company’s business model is not economically wise for sellers, despite the promises of financial gain Herbalife has made for decades.
“They have now bought into the misrepresentation that this is going to bring them either financial freedom, or maybe even just the same money they were making before, but on their own terms,” Keep said. “Herbalife and other MLMs have the data on how much people earn and they present it in a way that makes it impossible, literally impossible to determine the probability of success.”