Just as Helen of Troy has gone down in history as The Face that Launched a Thousand Ships, a seriously flawed study purporting to show that green coffee bean extract is scientifically proven to cause weight loss may be remembered as The Fake that Launched a Thousand Slips. An FTC settlement with Applied Food Sciences, Inc. – whose ingredient has been promoted everywhere from diet pill ads to The Dr. Oz Show – reminds marketers at every level of the food chain that they’re responsible for ensuring that claims are substantiated.
According to Applied Food Sciences, a clinical trial published by two University of Scranton researchers and a physician from India established that Green Coffee Antioxidant, an extract sold by the Texas-based company, caused people to lose a substantial amount of weight and body fat. The company trumpeted the study, Randomized, Double-Blind Placebo-Controlled, Linear Dose, Crossover Study to Evaluate the Efficacy and Safety of a Green Coffee Bean Extract, in its marketing to trade customers. Just one example: a company press release that claimed, “Green Coffee Bean Extract GCA® from Applied Food Sciences Inc. Proven in Randomized, Double Blind, Placebo-controlled Study to Efficiently Aid Weight Loss Lower Body Mass.”
Once word of the study was out, it was off to the races. Applied Food Sciences sold the constituent to other businesses – many of which featured the study in their own ads – and the green coffee boom was on. Product after product was marketed based on the purported results of the study. And it didn’t end there. Others cited the research to pitch diet products containing different green coffee extracts.
But a look at just what Applied Food Sciences relied on reveals a laundry list of errors so serious as to render the study worth not much more than the paper it was printed on. The story begins when Applied Food Science paid for a clinical trial of its Green Coffee Antioxidant in Bangalore, India, ostensibly in cooperation with a physician affiliated with a hospital there. According to the FTC, at various points throughout the study, both the doctor and his assistant altered participants’ weights and other key data. What’s more, they couldn’t manage to keep straight who was in the test group vs. who was getting the placebo, further undermining the reliability of the study.
And how’s this for a curious result? According to the data, participants lost more weight when they were using neither the product nor the placebo – a fact that should have raised a major “huh?” in the mind of any researcher. (That would make for an interesting ad campaign: “Lose weight by not using our product.”)
When the doctor in Bangalore wasn’t able to find a publisher for his summary of the purported trial, Applied Food Sciences hired the two Scranton professors to revise the draft and submit it for publication under their names, too, even though they played no role in designing or running the trial. The data they received contained numerous discrepancies – how long the study lasted, how much of the purported ingredient the subjects ingested, how much weight they lost, and whether it was really a double blind study, to name just a few. Data sets seemed to change from draft to draft, including crossed-out figures indicating different final weights for many of the subjects. But that didn’t stop Applied Food Sciences and the two Scranton researchers from ultimately signing off on the study.
Of course, the purported results attracted substantial attention. To publicize one of the professor’s appearance at a professional event, Applied Food Sciences issued a press release claiming, “Most recently in a randomized double blind placebo-controlled crossover study GCA was proven to aid in weight loss when combined with controlling diet and exercise.” But just two months later – after shows like Dr. Oz jumped on the green coffee bean extract bandwagon – the company issued a new round of press releases with a much different marketing message: “With staggering results participants in the study lost an average of 10% of their body weight without changing diet or exercise.”
The complaint challenges Applied Food Sciences’ underlying weight loss representations and its claim that the study supported those conclusions. The FTC also charged the company with providing trade customers with the “means and instrumentalities” for violating Section 5. To settle the case, Applied Food Sciences will turn over $3.5 million and will notify trade customers of the FTC’s conclusion that the company lacked reasonable scientific support for its claims.
What’s the message for other marketers?
You’re liable to be liable. Section 5 of the FTC Act applies to a broad range of acts, practices, and parties. Even if you’re not the one selling the finished product directly to consumers, you may still have legal responsibilities related to substantiation.
Consider the evidence carefully before incorporating the ingredient du jour. The problem with jumping on bandwagons is that the footing can be precarious. Just because a particular ingredient is making headlines doesn’t relieve advertisers of their long-standing obligation to support their claims with sound science.
Evaluate other companies' representations with care. The FTC’s general suggestion to consumers is to keep an open ear – but a wary eye – when someone is trying to sell you something. The advice is the same when it’s B2B. Like any other transaction, business executives should keep their guard up when evaluating claims from companies trying to sell them materials, ingredients, or constituent parts. It’s unwise simply to pass along a supplier’s promises without first running them through your own finely-tuned bunkometer.