For example, the attorney general's consumer fraud section is looking into sales of colostrum, the first milk secreted by mammary glands. Elkins, the division head, said small bottles are being sold for up to $100 on the claim that it can prevent AIDS.
In an interview, one Southern California colostrum distributor defended the claim.
"You can take colostrum for the prevention and treatment of AIDS," said Dave Meyers, president of the Colostrum Co. and Research Society in Universal City. "I take it myself as a preventive measure because of all the AIDS guys I deal with."
He described his product, which sells for $34 for four ounces, as "the first secretion of mammals, whether they be cows, whales or people. It's a different chemistry than milk. . . . It defies total laboratory analysis."
The health department recently stopped a Los Angeles firm from claiming a "food supplement" made from shiitake mushrooms could treat AIDS. But officials say many firms have learned to use euphemisms like "boost" and "nutritional support" to remain within the law.
"Clearly, the underlying message of these products is that they can prevent AIDS, and that's not true," said Jim Harbin, a postal inspector in Cerritos who specializes in medical fraud. "But unfortunately, there's nothing illegal about using suggestive language."
"I know of nothing that 'boosts' the immune system," insisted Dr. John Renner, a member of the board of the National Council on Health Fraud. "This is just a sales gimmick because the immune system has had so much media coverage in the past four years."
Renner's organization, a 2,300-member group of medical skeptics who like to scour the country in search of quack cures, is in the end perhaps the harshest and most vocal critic of the proliferation of alternative therapies for AIDS.
William Jarvis, the president, says experimenters are risking poisoning and perpetuating the public's blind faith in magic cures. But he admits some people have become almost willing victims out of alienation and despair.
"Serious quackery more often involves people who are true believers rather than con artists," Jarvis mused. Trying to change an enthusiast's mind "is a little bit like going to Jonestown and trying to make Presbyterians out of all of them."
Doug Brown in Orange County contributed to this story.