Imagine a company that claims its products can help you lose weight, have more energy and make money at the same time?
Getting slimmer while your wallet grows fatter sounds appealing – and these are some of the claims made by Isagenix, one of the latest diet and lifestyle programs to hit our shores.
But just how effective is the Isagenix way of life? We take a closer look at the hype.
Isagenix sells a variety of shakes and herbal supplements which are said to help you lose weight.
What is Isagenix?
Isagenix is a US-based company that was founded by Jim and Kathy Coover in 2002 and operates in seventeen countries worldwide. It develops and produces products that it says assist with "nutritional cleansing" which can result in "greater health, well-being and weight loss".
In a nutshell, the products are a variety of whey protein shakes, bars, snacks and herbal supplements, which promise to help you lose weight. They also now produce 'nutritional shakes' for kids and have expanded into the essential oil market.
Rather than using traditional forms of advertising, Isagenix uses multi-level marketing (MLM), which relies on participants to set up distribution networks among friends, and the company pays commissions based on sales by the participants.
The Australia and New Zealand arm of the business launched in 2007, and local associate websites feature enthusiastic Aussies giving testimonials on their weight loss and financial gains. (Even Australian Olympian Jana Pittman has spruiked the wonders of the program.)
How much does it cost?
It depends on which 'program' you choose.
The nine-day weight-loss program, with products to "kick-start your weight-loss journey by gently cleansing and nourishing your body", retails for $265, while a 30-day program is $504.
The cleansing drink component is also available on its own for $60 and "designed to be used as an aid to gently assist ridding the body of impurities during intermittent fasting" (or "Cleanse Days", as they like to call them).
There's also a variety of products and product combinations on sale that retail from $36 for a single product to $1043 for the 'Ultimate Pack', which includes the "30-Day Weight Loss System along with extra items to try and share with your friends, family and new customers".
If participants choose to take up a subscription arrangement they receive a discount and go on a monthly direct debit.
How does it work?
Both the nine- and 30-day cleanse programs consist of shake days and cleanse days (Isagenix recommends completing at least two shake days before a cleanse day, and no more than two cleanse days per week).
On a shake day, you replace two meals with Isagenix shakes and eat a 400-600 calorie meal for the third. You can also eat two healthy, balanced snacks.
On a cleanse day, you replace all meals with four Isagenix 'Cleanse for Life' liquids, plus up to six Isagenix approved snacks.
You can also take Isagenix supplements during shake and cleanse days.
Does Isagenix work?
There's no shortage of people happy to sing the praises of the program. When we asked people to contact us with their Isagenix experiences many said they'd lost weight and had never felt better.
However, according to Accredited Practising Dietitian and Nutritionist, Dr Alan Barclay this has more to do with weight loss than anything unique to Isagenix. "People often feel euphoric when they consume low-kilojoule meal replacements, due to the rapid weight loss. Losing weight can provide you with the sensation of having more energy – because you have less weight to carry around. It's very subjective though."
Despite the testimonials by many who have used the program to achieve significant weight loss … the average weight loss on the program is approximately 3.2 kilos
The other claim is that the program provides "nutritional cleansing" and can "gently rid the body of any potentially harmful impurities".
Barclay says this is also likely due to the weight loss and that: "There is no evidence to support detox diets. Our bodies naturally detoxify daily."
And despite the testimonials by many who have used the program to achieve significant weight loss – Isagenix's previous Australia General Manager Angus Love has said in a television interview that the average weight loss on the program is approximately 3.2 kilos.
Cheaper alternatives just as effective
Dr Tim Crowe, accredited practising dietitian, says the cost of the products is high, particularly in comparison with real food and similar supplements available in chemists and supermarkets.
"There's nothing new here," he says. "It's a supplement diet that is basically very low calorie (VLCD) and these have been around for years."
A similar product such as Optifast would work equally well for significantly less money, says Barclay.
"You can buy a month's supply of Optifast for around $150 per month. This would achieve approximately the same weight loss as Isagenix and you would feel equally good."
There's nothing new here… it's a supplement diet that is basically very low calorie (VLCD) and these have been around for yearsDr Tim Crowe, accredited practising dietitian
According to Barclay the main difference with the Isagenix products compared to similar meal replacements is the inclusion of the herbal supplements, but he says there's little evidence these assist with weight loss.
"It's the replacement of two to three meals with the shakes that makes you lose weight – the supplements are just window dressings."
Both our experts also said that while VLCD meal replacements can work very well in the short term, they can be difficult to sustain long term for weight reduction.
How does Isagenix compare to similar products?
We compared the nutritional information of Isagenix to five similar VLCD products.
|Isagenix IsaLean Shake Creamy French Vanilla||1702||41||8||3||41||17||14||390|
|Herbalife Formula 1 Nutritional Shake Mix French Vanilla*||3064||69||5||1||109||88||8||1029|
|Optislim VLCD Meal Replacement Shake Vanilla||1570||42||5||2||41||38||NS||975|
|Optislim Life Shake LCD French Vanilla||1706||33||10||6||44||41||0||790|
|Fatblaster Weight Loss Shake Vanilla 30% less Sugar*||2573||45||6||5||98||62||7||636|
|Optifast VLCD Shake Vanilla||668||16||4||1||15||8||3||174|
Complete meal replacement
Of the six products we looked at, only four were suitable as a complete meal replacement:
- Isagenix IsaLean Shake Creamy French Vanilla
- Optislim VLCD Meal Replacement Shake Vanilla,
- Fatblaster Weight Loss Shake Vanilla 30% less Sugar (only when made with skim milk)
- Optifast VLCD Shake Vanilla
Three of the products we looked at are gluten free:
- Isagenix IsaLean Shake Creamy French Vanilla
- Fatblaster Weight Loss Shake Vanilla 30% less Sugar
- Optifast VLCD Shake Vanilla
Country of Origin
The Fatblaster and both Optislim products list Australia as their country of origin. Isagenix and Herbalife list the USA, while the Optifast product doesn't state the country of origin.
Isagenix sellers often provide health advice on social media, despite having no qualifications.
The dangers of MLM 'experts'
Multi-level marketing (MLM) relies on peer-to-peer recommendations, which can be a powerful sales tool – but what happens when the person selling to you is also providing health advice?
At CHOICE we were contacted by many people with concerns about health advice being provided by Isagenix sellers on social media, with some saying they were told the program would help with conditions as diverse as asthma, anxiety and insomnia.
Fiona McMillan says she tried Isagenix for a while and despite losing weight quit the program after seeing dodgy health advice provided by what she called the "pushers" on support pages on social media.
McMillan, who is a medical scientist, says she was very concerned by the many sellers providing health advice to others who complained of feeling nauseous or breaking out in a rash after using the product, despite having no qualifications.
"Any time someone mentioned any type of rash, comments would appear such as 'that's just a niacin rush', 'nothing to worry about', 'I can't wait till I have one of those' – all without knowledge of the user's prior medical history, or what said rash actually looked like. In my opinion, these blind consults are very dangerous."
We do not authorise any medical claims or advice with respect to our productsIsagenix spokesperson
Katherine Vickers from Queensland says she had a health professional try to sell her the products. The physiotherapist she was seeing for a back problem suggested she use Isagenix to lose weight and "change her life". Says Katherine, "I told him I wasn't interested but despite that he keeps emailing me all the information and doing the hard sell."
When CHOICE contacted Isagenix Australia, a spokesperson said that the company prohibits 'associates' (who are independent contractors) from providing false or misleading information about the products or business opportunities and that it routinely monitors improper claims as well as providing training sessions.
"We do not authorise any medical claims or advice with respect to our products," says the spokesperson.
Sophia's story: "It struck me as dangerous"
Sophia* from Sydney has been using Isagenix for a couple of months after seeing friends on Facebook posting selfies of their weight loss, with 'cryptic' references to doing a 'cleanse' and asking friends to message them for more info.
Sophia says despite knowing this was a classic marketing strategy she was still interested because they were people she knew. She and her husband signed up and after a month he'd lost 10 kilos and she'd lost 5kg, but quickly plateaued.
Once she was signed up by her friend she says she was put on the 'autoship' program where her credit card was automatically charged each month, and she was given an account so she could sell the product herself, if she wanted to.
These people are selling 'health' products without any kind of health or nutritional knowledge
While Sophia said she wasn't interested in selling, she became concerned when she was added to a couple of closed Facebook groups – one offering 'support' and one for sales and marketing. It was in these groups she says she witnessed firsthand the level of obsession people have with the products.
"As every person who is signed up then has their own business, the person at the top is very keen to get everyone below them selling, because that money flows upwards."
As a result she says the groups were full of salespeople doling out health advice with no qualifications. From pregnant or breastfeeding women complaining about hunger and being encouraged to persevere, to another participant dropping down from an already low body weight by another nine kilos and being cheered on by the group.
"At what point do ethics come into the sales and marketing? These people are selling 'health' products without any kind of health or nutritional knowledge. It struck me as dangerous," she says.
However, she says any criticism falls on deaf ears within these groups. "It's impossible to say anything negative about Isagenix to the 'Clan' because they're all so obsessively patriotic to it, there's almost no point in bringing things up."
Despite this, as far as the weight-loss program is concerned Sophia said it was easy to follow although she and her partner plan to transition back onto 'normal' food soon.
But she's under no illusion about the program. "Isagenix doesn't work because it has discovered the exact ingredients, potions or pills that make you lose weight. It works because it forces you to eat less. And after spending $400 on a starter pack, you won't be too quick to throw it away."
Can you really make money selling Isagenix?
Despite the shiny, happy people in the promotional material making up to $171k a month, the harsher financial reality is that the majority of members who 'share' the product with family and friends will make "less than $500 a year".
A spokesperson from Isagenix Australia says, "Most of our business builders supplement their incomes with a few thousand dollars per year. Only a small percentage earn a full-time income; the vast majority purchase for their own use or sell only to their family and friends."
The majority of members who 'share' the product with family and friends will make "less than $500 a year"
Despite this, there are plenty of Isagenix 'fans' keen to sell, sell, sell on social media. Nikalene Riddle, who runs the healthy eating Facebook group Skinnymixers, says she's been 'bombarded' with Isagenix sellers.
"What I dislike about this product and their sellers is they don't post publicly about it, they private message my members," she says.
"They use this method because they know that advertising in my group is strictly forbidden, and if they promoted such a ridiculous product in a healthy eating group they would have hundreds of people calling them out. So instead they pick off people one by one until someone bites."
So why get with the Isagenix program?
Despite the high cost of the products combined with the slim chance of making a load of money, there's no denying some people love the program and all it entails.
Isagenix told us that in one 30-day period approximately 5771 members purchased products in Australia and New Zealand. But why is that?
You can become a celebrity within the Isagenix communityformer customer Megan Moulton
While our experts agree that meal replacement programs do work well short term for weight loss and many people contacted us with stories of their weight loss success, why do people buy the costly Isagenix products when similar products could be bought for half the price elsewhere?
Former Isagenix customer Megan Moulton says that the power of the social media groups and the communities can be the magic bullet for hardcore fans. "You can become a celebrity within the Isagenix community. Social media can make you feel special and affirmed, and the more you post the more important you can feel. Some people really seem to need that."
Isagenix is now marketing nutritional supplements to kids.
Isagenix for kids
In 2019 Isagenix added "IsaKids Super Smoothies" to their range, which claim to be nutritional supplements for children over the age of four that are high in milk protein and touted as a snack alternative "without the nasty added sugar".
On the surface they may seem relatively harmless, but we think they're setting children up for a lifetime of familiarity with the product and dieting. And at $53 a pop for a pack of just 14 serves, it is better value to give your kids a snack of unsweetened yoghurt or a glass of milk with a piece of fresh fruit or vegie sticks.
A nutritious balanced diet based on a variety of foods from each of the five food groups should provide children with all of the nutrients they need and set the foundation of healthy eating habits – without the need for MLM dieting schemes.
And if you think that your child might not be getting all of the nutrients they need, speak to your family doctor or an accredited practising dietitian, not an Isagenix rep.
Isagenix Essential Oils
Essential oils sold through MLM are increasingly popular and in 2018 Isagenix jumped on the bandwagon launching a line of essential oils to "help customers meet a range of health and wellness needs, from relieving stress to supporting weight wellness journeys".
They suggest using these oils on the skin (recommended with a carrier oil), in a diffuser or by adding some oils to liquid on shake and cleanse days.
However, there's very little information around the safety and efficacy of most essential oils, and NSW Poisons Information Centre does not recommend ingesting essential oils or even using them on your skin without a carrier oil (which dilutes essential oils before they're applied to the skin)
Can You Use Essential Oils for Weight Loss?
There is scarce scientific evidence that essential oils can assist with weight loss, while the consumption and use of some oils can cause skin and mucosal irritation, burns, nausea, vomiting, seizures, allergic reactions and even organ failure.
Poisons centres and government health departments often have information about essential oils and the risks. Western Australia's Department of Health's Essential Oils – Health Warning fact sheet states "essential oils are not safe to consume and can cause significant poisoning even if small amounts are ingested".
It is worth checking or getting a second opinion from a pharmacist, doctor or health expert with a special interest in complementary medicine before using essential oils.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.