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SOUTH BAY / COVER STORY : In the Green : The Growing Health Food Field Is Proving Lucrative for Some Companies, but Their Claims Are Being Questioned

August 11, 1994|TED JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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."

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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.

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