Commercialization of the academy: diet supplements edition

The LAT's Hiltzik on professors who hawk Herbalife

The Herbalife story is a business-press feast.

You’ve got warring billionaires, the words “Ponzi scheme” being thrown around, a televised feud, and a $4 billion multilevel-marketing diet company run by the Highest Paid CEO of 2011.

The New York Postwas so eager for scoops on the Herbalife story that it screwed up big time earlier this month, reporting that the feds were investigating Herbalife. That caused the company’s shares to plunge 12 percent before recovering on news that the report was false.

So if this story hasn’t always been well covered, it’s been thoroughly covered. But the Los Angeles Times’s Michael Hiltzik finds a new angle, and one that’s just as interesting: The corrupting influence of corporate money in the academy. Herbalife has paid four UCLA professors big money to lend a veneer of scientific credibility to the company’s products with their credentials, which include a Nobel Prize for one of them.

Hiltzik report focuses on professors David Heber and Louis Ignarro, who shill for Herbalife products whose efficacy is questionable at best. For instance, Ignarro, the Nobelist, who ran into trouble a decade ago with research that didn’t disclose his commercial interest in Niteworks:

Herbalife relentlessly promotes its Ignarro connection. At distributor events he’s treated like a rock star, telling packed, cheering audiences how great Niteworks is — “It’s magical in that it works!” He can be seen in an Herbalife video talking about this “refreshing lemon-flavored product” that “enhances the body’s natural nitric oxide production while you sleep.” If you look fast, you’ll see a disclaimer flash on the screen warning that these statements “have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration” and that Niteworks “is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.”

Heber’s treated like a rock star at Herbalife’s events too, as you can see from his website, the homepage of which looks like this:

Let’s not forget: These professors are government employees. Why is it okay for them to shill for companies, much less ones selling unproven magic pills via manipulative marketing technique like MLM, much less infomercials like this one?

And Herbalife is hardly a one-off. Hiltzik flags other Heber/UCLA entanglements with commercial interests:

Nor is Herbalife the only firm to dig its talons into the medical school’s Center for Human Nutrition. In one of his books Heber mentions that the center’s donors have included Lynda and Stewart Resnick, whose Roll Global markets Fiji Water, Pom Wonderful pomegranate juice and Wonderful Pistachios.

So you may not be surprised to learn that in 2008 Heber was appointed to the firm’s Pistachio Health Scientific Advisory Board. Or that he was co-author of a 2012 scientific paper finding that pistachios are a more healthful snack than pretzels. Or that when Pom got in trouble with the Federal Trade Commission for making inflated health claims for its pomegranate juice, he was a leading expert witness for the defense. (The FTC found the firm’s ads deceptive anyway.)

This isn’t just a UCLA problem, unfortunately, although this particular one is pretty egregious.

Worries about the increasing commercialization of academia have been around for some time now. Just in the last few years Reuters’s 2010 report showed how academics testified as supposedly independent experts while failing to disclose their industry ties. And who could forget the documentary Inside Job’s interviews with Columbia Business School’s Glenn Hubbard and Frederic Mishkin about their extracurricular clients.

If you haven’t seen that excellent film, you can watch it free here, by the way:

Good for Hiltzik and the LAT for shining a light here. And this is reporting that every metro paper should be doing on their own colleges and universities.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,