Most smoothie shops provide a menu of drinks that are described by their use of ingredients like bananas, raspberries, and spinach.
But if you have recently visited two of the Portland area’s newest smoothie makers, you may have encountered something different.
Port City Nutrition, at 333 Clarks Pond Parkway in South Portland, and Foreside Nutrition, 251 U.S. Route 1 in Falmouth, both opened last year, and at first seem unconnected. But the shops are linked by their inventory: shakes and teas made solely with products from Herbalife Nutrition, a multi-level marketing company that settled a $200 million complaint from the Federal Trade Commission five years ago after being accused of deceiving its distributors.
Neither Portland-area store appears to be doing anything illegal by selling Herbalife, and both clearly display the Herbalife containers of protein powder and other products. Still, customers with knowledge of the company’s history may wonder if it has changed its ways.
Menus at both Foreside Nutrition and Port City feature several shake flavors to choose from, but no familiar ingredients. Instead, a sign on the counter at Port City indicates the shakes are made with an Herbalife powder called Formula 1, intended to be a meal replacement with as much protein as three eggs.
Additionally, customers at both shops are offered a dollar off the total price of their drinks if they post a picture of them on social media.
The Portland area is far from the only place where storefronts selling only Herbalife products have popped up recently. The stores have opened in several states in recent years, but can be hard to identify. They often use the word “nutrition” in their name.
Rising Sun Nutrition in Topsham, for instance, also sells shakes and teas made with Herbalife products, as does Embrace Nutrition in Lewiston.
Many of the shops’ websites call their smoothies “healthy meal replacement protein shakes,” and require users to click through before disclosing any mention of Herbalife.
The Instagram pages of Port City and Foreside Nutrition look alike too – full of photos of new tea and shake flavors that often rotate by month and are topped with cookies, sprinkles, or other non-Herbalife brand treats. The shops regularly share posts by customers on their Instagram stories.
But not everyone is pleased, as a quick look into Port City’s Yelp reviews revealed: “Their recipes and shakes are the exact same ones you’ll find among other Herbalife ‘nutrition’ shops,” reviewer Julius S. of Portland wrote. “If you’re unsure of Herbalife or don’t know who/what they are, Google them.”
Owners of Foreside Nutrition and Port City Nutrition either declined to comment or did not respond at all to repeated requests for an interview.
A loaded past
Herbalife Nutrition was founded in 1980 and has weathered several legal storms in the succeeding decades.
The FTC’s 2016 lawsuit against Herbalife called it a multi-level marketing company “through which participants may earn compensation by selling weight management, nutritional supplement, and personal care products (by) recruiting new participants into the organization.”
The lawsuit alleged that Herbalife led its distributors to believe they were likely “to earn substantial income, including significant full-time or part-time income, from pursuing a retail-based business opportunity.”
“In reality, however, (Herbalife’s) program does not offer participants a viable retail-based business opportunity,” the complaint stated. “(Herbalife’s) compensation program incentivizes not retail sales, but the recruiting of additional participants who will fuel the enterprise by making wholesale purchases of product.”
It also alleged the income participants were able to derive through the company was far less than marketing materials seemed to promise.
Herbalife ultimately agreed to pay $200 million to consumers who lost money on its nutrition supplements. It also vowed to make “substantial changes” to its sales and distribution practices, including rewarding participants for what they sell rather than how many people they recruit, according to the FTC.
It begs the question: Are stores like Port City and Foreside Nutrition Herbalife’s way of restructuring business practices to focus on retail?
Similar businesses, sometimes called “nutrition clubs,” have existed across the U.S. for the past several years. A 2018 article from MLM News Report, which reports on multi-level marketing companies, said Herbalife began piloting storefronts in 2006 in Mexico.
It said an FTC survey found 57 percent of nutrition club owners made no profit or lost money after spending an average of $8,500 to open their club.
The article also said that despite the FTC settlement, Herbalife nutrition clubs operate in “essentially the same fashion as they have since 2006.” Figuring out how many exist nationwide is nearly impossible, it also said, because Herbalife’s tracker is outdated, and nutrition club owners are not able to use Herbalife in their business names.
Nothing on the Port City or Foreside Nutrition websites indicates the ability for patrons to sign up for memberships with the shops, but gift cards are available for purchase.
On the Rising Sun Nutrition website, however, there is a tab to become a “preferred member,” which offers patrons a 25 percent discount for ordering Herbalife products directly through the company’s website.
“The more you buy the bigger your discount becomes,” it promises.
A “Make it at Home” tab gives customers the opportunity to buy their Herbalife products in bulk, with prices ranging from $20-$120.
Herbalife’s legal troubles have not gone away with the FTC settlement, either.
In October 2020, a federal court in Miami reopened a class action lawsuit seeking more than $143 million in damages against 44 of the top Herbalife distributors, according to Law.com. The suit was filed on behalf of people who claim they were defrauded by the company in its promise of financial success.
Herbalife also agreed to pay $123 million last August as part of a deferred prosecution agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice, to settle charges that it bribed Chinese officials to grow the company’s business in China between 2007 and 2016, according to Forbes.
The settlement, Forbes reported, was the third time in four years Herbalife was penalized by the U.S. government.
Still, Herbalife appears to be doing well financially, with the company recently reporting an 18.9 percent increase in sales in the first quarter of 2021 to a record $1.5 billion, according to Direct Selling News.
Business practices aside, questions have also been raised about the nutritional value of Herbalife’s products.
Nutritional or not?
Several of the Instagram posts on stores selling Herbalife Instagram pages promote the nutritional benefits, such as boosting metabolism, of the stores’ energizing teas.
But in an investigation into the nutritional value of the teas last summer, NBC’s “Today” found mixed results.
After looking at nutritional labels for the teas, the show found some have an abundance of vitamins that can benefit immunity and energy. However, Herbalife’s Liftoff Tea Concentrate also contained several stimulants, which can lead to adverse health effects.
“Today” also reported that storefronts selling Herbalife products often use the word “nutrition” in their names, although the label may not be supported.
“While some people who run these clubs may have a background in fitness or nutrition,” the show reported, “training in nutrition is not required – nor is it provided by Herbalife to open a club.”