SOUTH BAY / COVER STORY : In the Green : The Growing Health Food Field Is Proving Lucrative for Some Companies, but Their Claims Are Being Questioned
At Sunrider International in Torrance, founder Tei Fu Chen talks of a world where people adhere to the “Philosophy of Regeneration,” living on a diet of herbal foods that cleanse each of the body’s systems.
He got the idea from centuries-old traditions he studied in Chinese texts.
At another Torrance company, Green Foods Corp. founder Yoshihide Hagiwara works on his late wife’s cells, searching for a cure for cancer, the disease that killed her. His solution: antioxidants derived from green barley grass.
Their research may be exotic, but the natural methods they are using already have made them millions of dollars. The men run two of the South Bay’s fastest-growing health food companies, capitalizing on a craze for natural foods ranging from grass-derived drinks to ginseng.
Their work has won praise from politicians, celebrities and athletes. Golfer Arnold Palmer drinks Green Foods’ Green Magma, as does actress Jodie Foster. Last year, former Gov. George Deukmejian and then-Torrance Mayor Katy Geissert appeared at the grand opening of Sunrider’s new headquarters and gave the company high marks for adding jobs in a dire economy.
But the combination of health and wealth has also ignited a national debate over just how far health food companies can go in the claims they make about their products.
“Free enterprise is great, but none of us want to be ripped off,” said Dan Walsh, food and drug fraud program specialist for the state Department of Health Services. “We want legitimate businesses that will build here for a while, that will be here in 20 years.”
He points out actions filed by federal and state regulators in the late 1980s to restrict both Sunrider and Green Foods from boasting that their products could help relieve a host of ills.
Walsh and several consumer groups oppose a bill pending before Congress that would prohibit the federal Food and Drug Administration from treating any dietary supplement as a drug or food additive, making it easier for manufacturers to make health claims.
But health food companies, their marketing departments and loyal customers say they are victims of a medical and government establishment that has failed to recognize the benefits of these products. They point to FDA efforts to restrict some herbal ingredients.
“Everybody should have freedom of choice to choose what kind of foods they want to eat instead of (being) regulated by the government agency,” said Chen, the founder of Sunrider. “They try to control everything. They hope . . . if you want to eat rice, you have to get a prescription.”
His company calls its approach “The Philosophy of Regeneration,” nourishing the body’s five major systems--endocrine, digestive, respiratory, immune and circulatory--with herbal formulas that include Chinese ginseng, dandelion root and licorice root.
Chen’s goal is to use modern techniques to create herbal food products that are rooted in ancient traditions.
“Rather than regulate the body (with medicines), we can nourish it, and let it regulate itself,” said Chen, who came to the United States from Taiwan in 1974.
Critics say Chen’s emphasis on ancient traditions is just a marketing technique that gives the company’s herbal foods and cosmetics a greater mystique than others on the market.
“If you look at the health food movement, it really has religious overtones,” said Mark Meskin, director of the nutrition program at USC School of Medicine. “A lot of the lingo is about detoxification and purification. They sound great, but we already have a detoxification system on board. That’s what the liver is.”
But Chen says his network of 300,000 independent distributors “are not herb food nuts.” They work in a multilevel marketing system like that established by Amway, and “are people devoted to wellness, to good health.”
Company officials say much of the skepticism comes from the clash of rigid Western ideas with Eastern traditions. They say that their marketing stops short of offering cures, but the company’s products can benefit the body.
“We think the FDA ought not to solely judge things on the Western approach to science,” said Bob Henrie, Sunrider’s marketing manager. “We do believe that herbs are good for the system. This a strong body of evidence based on 5,000 years of science.”
But the company came under fire in the late 1980s for its claims. According to a 1989 suit filed by the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office, the company said in its Sunwriter magazine that its Nutrien and other products had an effect on heart disease and pneumonia, and Sunrider salespeople said that the products had an effect on high blood pressure. In one case, the company listed Vitamin B-8 on its Nutrien food packages. No such vitamin exists, the suit said.
The district attorney obtained a consent agreement forbidding Sunrider from making unsubstantiated claims that its products have any effect on diseases or medical conditions. Sunrider admitted no wrongdoing, but paid $175,000 in penalties.
Still, some of the company’s distributors did not immediately stop making claims about the products, according to Stephen Barrett, a retired psychiatrist and author of the upcoming book “The Vitamin Pushers.” A Texas Sunrider distributor phoned him in 1990 and claimed that Sunrider products helped him and other family members who had arthritis, Barrett said.
Company officials, however, say distributors must sign forms agreeing not to make false claims about the products. “We focus on wellness, we focus on health and not disease,” Henrie said. Making “claims doesn’t succeed much. People won’t purchase the product on a sustained basis if it doesn’t work.”
Sunrider has also been sued over its products.
In 1989, U.S. judo champion James Martin filed suit against the company after he failed a drug test that disqualified him for the 1988 Olympic team. Martin said the Olympic Drug Testing Center found ephedrine, a stimulant banned by the Olympic committee, in Sunrider Action Caps, an energy product he had taken. Sunrider did not admit any wrongdoing, but settled the lawsuit for an undisclosed sum.
In another lawsuit, Phoenix resident Debi Boling claimed that she purchased an herbal weight-loss medicine from Sunrider that contained rat poison and lead. According to court records, she lost her hair and suffered gastrointestinal problems. A federal District Court jury in Phoenix agreed and awarded her $650,000 in damages after a 1992 trial.
The company says that it has found a new piece of evidence: Boling’s ex-husband Ken Andrews told a private investigator that he tainted the food in a scheme to defraud the company. But a U.S. District Court judge refused to overturn the judgment, saying the evidence was not sworn testimony. Sunrider is appealing his decision.
Publicity over the trial proved troublesome for Chen.
Company sales literature included in court files claimed that Chen was the owner of manuscripts that contained Chinese herbal-medicine secrets dating back 5,000 years. It said Chen’s great-grandfather, a guard at the Emperor’s Palace in Beijing, obtained the texts during the Boxer Rebellion and passed them down through the Chen family.
In an affidavit, however, Chen’s father said he had no knowledge of his son’s story about the documents. He also refuted some of the claims made in the company’s sales literature about the younger Chen. Among them: that he was a sickly, impoverished child until the herbal formulas transformed him into the two-time kung fu champion of Taiwan and, later, a Chinese medical doctor. The father said Chen was a healthy child and was not trained as a doctor.
In a deposition, the younger Chen said that he could not recall where his kung fu medals were, and could not specifically name where the championships were won.
The company also has said that Chen is not a doctor in the Western sense, but it “is the Chinese custom and tradition that a person with (Chen’s) experience, education and traditional training to be referred to as doctor.” Chen has an honorary doctorate degree from the Chinese Culture University in Taiwan.
The story about the manuscripts, Chen said in a deposition, was a “legend.”
But Chen insists that he does have texts, which are 100 to 300 years old and include information gathered over 5,000 years.
“My attitude is to say, ‘So what?’ ” Henrie added. “People are not joining Sunrider based on what transcripts he has in his possession. . . . The issues raised, in my mind, are diversionary issues. There are some that compete in this business by attempting to discredit others.”
Chen says one such company is E. Excel International Inc., a Utah health food company and competitor that is run by his sister, Jau Fe. The company in 1992 mailed letters to Sunrider’s distributors, informing them of the judgment in the Arizona case.
The motive, Chen said, was to “be a success without starting from the beginning. What is the easiest way? The best way is to knock me down.”
In any case, publicity about the cases hardly cut into the company’s sales. Revenue has steadily climbed in the past five years, to $350 million in 1993, Chen said. It now employs 150 people in Torrance and 500 at its manufacturing operations in the City of Industry.
The company also has its world headquarters, a futuristic, green glass building featuring indoor streams and herbal gardens, a movie theater and museum of Chinese artifacts.
Skeptics have also criticized Green Foods, which makes the barley products. But that company’s sales have climbed ever since its Green Magma powdered drink was first introduced in the United States 14 years ago.
On a visit to Green Foods headquarters in a Torrance industrial park, founder Hagiwara, 68, holds up a Japanese tabloid that displays his photo. It trumpets his resolve to live to be 129 by eating natural foods.
“Just about every food you eat, you can’t help but get a pollutant chemical in your body,” said Hagiwara, who runs the company from Osaka, Japan. “You need something to remove the toxics.”
Green Foods’ U.S. sales in 1993 were $50 million, primarily through distribution in health food stores as Green Magma and through multilevel marketers as Barley Green. And customers swear by it.
“I live for my Green Magma,” said Janice L. Green, 35, a Lomita photographer who takes it six times a day and says it cleans toxins from her body. “When I don’t have it and go running, I’m dragging the rest of the day.”
The company promotes the non-chemical means of making its products, harvested and processed at an Oxnard plant that employs about 50 people. Instead of pesticides, it uses ladybugs that eat smaller pests. Five acres of the grass are harvested a day.
Standing on the Oxnard factory floor, Takahiko Amano, who runs the company’s U.S. operations, explained how the juice drink is created. The barley is grown nearby on 120 acres of fields the company owns or leases. Then, specialized equipment crushes the grass, extracts juice and dehydrates it.
The story of how Hagiwara stumbled on barley as a dietary supplement dates back to the 1950s, when he became wealthy from a product he created to treat athlete’s foot. The formula contained mercury, a toxic ingredient.
Hagiwara said that he and others were unaware of the heavy metal’s harmful effects until his hair turned prematurely gray, he lost his teeth and skin came off his hands. The Japanese government banned the ingredient in 1962.
The experience made him wary of synthetically produced medicines. So he set out to find a natural substance that could make the body healthier. Observing that cows yielded more milk when they ate certain greens, he went on a mission to see which plants could have similar energizing benefits for humans.
At a kitchen laboratory at his home in Osaka, he sampled hundreds of greens--from bamboo leaves to chickweed--before he settled on the leaves of barley.
The leaves, he says, contain enzymes, vitamins and proteins.
“All the possible nutrients,” Hagiwara said, “you name it, it’s in there.”
In 1970, he started marketing the product in Japan.
“There was very strong rejection from the medical and drug industry,” he said. “They were saying, ‘These are the things that the cows and the horses live on. That’s not something that the humans should eat.’ ”
Nutritionists in the United States echoed the criticisms when the product was introduced here in 1980. Many questioned whether Green Magma--which sells for about $26 per box--is any better than any other form of greens.
Green Foods promotes the product’s concentration of chlorophyll, the green pigment in plants. In a press release, the company says that it stimulates the healing and regeneration of tissue and is a natural detoxifier. (Sunrider also markets a chlorophyll product, Evergreen, that it says helps eliminate body odor and bad breath.) Chlorophyll, however, has no role in human nutrition, argues William Jarvis, president of the National Council Against Health Fraud and a professor at Loma Linda University. Its benefits, if any, would be lost in digestion, he said.
“To me, it’s kind of a laugh,” Jarvis said of Green Foods’ claims. “People sell things so enthusiastically, they don’t know when to quit.”
Green Magma “is a fairly harmless mess,” said USC’s Meskin. But he fears that people who use the product will stop conventional treatment for diseases. “That is when it is a dangerous problem.”
In 1989, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned Green Foods to stop marketing their product as a way to eliminate a host of ailments, including diabetes, acne, asthma and high blood pressure.
The critics have not deterred Hagiwara from searching for a cure for cancer through his Hagiwara Institute of Health in Osaka.
He was researching treatments for cancer in 1981 when his wife was diagnosed with uterine cancer. But he was far from getting regulatory approval to use his cancer antibodies.
“I was desperate,” he said. “But to go through regular channels, it takes 10 years.”
So he tested the antibodies on himself first, and then on his son. Then he injected the antibodies into his wife, he said, in the presence of her doctors. But it was too late. She died in 1983.
“The X-ray showed that the cancer stopped spreading in the lung,” he said. “There was some effect.”
Since then, he and his son, Hideaki, have obtained a research contract with UC Davis in which they use his wife’s cells. Among their findings: that green barley inhibits “lipid oxidation,” the oxidizing process in all living matter that hastens the destruction of the immune system. Researchers at UC Davis are also studying the antioxidants in other foods, including brewed coffee and even cooked beefsteak.
The National Council Against Health Fraud’s Jarvis says that the research on antioxidants is far from conclusive.
“Antioxidants are enjoying their own mythology,” he said.
Nevertheless, Hagiwara vows to continue his research and to convince doubters with more studies. He predicts that today’s naysayers will come to accept Green Magma, even use it themselves.
“Every single household will have this,” he said at a conference table where several of his employees had glasses of the green liquid, which smells like newly mowed grass and tastes like tea. “Just like every household has Coca-Cola as a drink, we are going to market it as an ideal fast food.”
Sunrider’s Chen sees a global future for his company’s products, including untapped markets in China and Russia and in countries of South America. But he’s also not missing out on a product common to the back yards of Southern California. Just introduced: “Dr. Chen’s Secret Sauce” for barbecuing.