What is Isagenix?
The US-based company was founded by Jim and Kathy Coover in 2002 and operates in seven countries worldwide. The company 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 and herbal supplements, which promise to help you lose weight.
And rather than using traditional forms of advertising, Isagenix uses multi-level marketing, 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 the local website features enthusiastic Aussies giving testimonials on their weight loss and financial gains. (Even Australian Olympian Jana Pittman pops up in one of the company's promotional videos spruiking the wonders of the program.)
What does it cost?
It depends on which 'program' you choose. The nine-day cleansing program, with products to "support healthy energy and help satisfy hunger", retails for $260, while a 30-day cleanse is $490. There's also a variety of products and product combinations on sale that retail from $29 for a single product to $783.00 for the 'Presidents Pak', which "combines best-selling products with proven marketing tools".
If participants choose to take up what is called an "autoship" arrangement they receive a discount and they go on a monthly direct debit arrangement.
How does Isagenix compare to similar products?
Dr Tim Crowe, accredited practising dietitian and associate professor in Nutrition 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 as well for significantly less money, says Dr Alan Barclay, chief scientific officer with the Glycemic Index Foundation. "You can buy a month's supply of Optifast for just under $150 per month. This would achieve approximately the same weight loss as Isagenix and you would feel equally good."
According to Barclay the only 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.
Don't believe the hype
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 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."
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 Australia General Manager Angus Love has said in a television interview that the average weight loss on the program is approximately 3.2 kilos.
Everyone's an expert
Multi-level marketing 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. Sophia from Sydney says she saw women who were pregnant or breastfeeding who complained of feeling hungry who were being encouraged to persevere with the low-calorie diet by self-proclaimed "wellness experts" on Facebook who were also profiting from sales of the product (see Sophia's story) while others said 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."
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."
What is multi-level marketing?
Multi-level marketing schemes (MLMs) have business models that look a lot like pyramid schemes, however the main difference between the two is that with MLMs the income is related to actual products and services.
MLMs are often promoted via social media or email – and the big sell is that you can work from home and earn a lot of money. You might have to sit through a long sales pitch or video before you are told exactly what product or service you will be selling.
Promoters of MLMs encourage participants to set up distribution networks with their friends or colleagues and they pay commissions based on sales by the participants, by their distributors and by their distributors' distributors, and further down the chain.
CHOICE consumer rights adviser Meredith Cridland says that MLM programs are promoted as fun, exciting, friendly, easy ways to make money doing the things that people love. "People are attracted to the idea of working from home with flexible hours and the potential to earn bucket loads of money. The impression given is that you just need a good network of friends and family and wealth will flow," she says.
And while some people can make good money she says this is not the norm. "The reality is that there is a lot of hard work involved. Many friends and family are not too keen on being given the big sell. Once you've exhausted your circles of friends and family, it's hard work trying to find others to market to."
Show me the money!
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".
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. 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 motza there's no denying some people love the program and all it entails. Isagenix says in just the last 30 days approximately 5771 members have purchased products in Australia and New Zealand. But why is that?
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."
What you could do for your health for the same cost
Sophia – A case study
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.
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."