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Playing to Our Vanity

Ab gizmos, body wraps and other products promise fixes quicker than diet and exercise. A look behind the claims.

January 14, 2002|Benedict Carey, Jane E. Allen, Linda Marsa and Shari Roan. | Times Staff Writers

The perfect body may not come in a bottle, but that doesn't stop many people from wondering: Could it come in a capsule? From a full body wrap? Perhaps one of those new abdominal stimulators would make a difference.

To wonder is not to be entirely naive. The alternative, after all, is to accept a future in which the only answer for an out-of-shape body is a long, grim dose of leafy greens--and exercise. Or worse. "I sure don't know of any way to lose 100 pounds in five weeks, and keep it off," said Judith Stern, a professor of nutrition and internal medicine at UC Davis. "Except maybe amputation."

And so despite strong native skepticism, many consumers reserve a wisp of hope, and thereon hangs a $5-billion to $10-billion industry of body-shaping products, from supplements to new spa treatments. In recent years these products' claims--melt away pounds as you sleep; increase breast size; lose weight without changing your diet--have become bolder, and more frequent, say those who watch the industry. "There's been a dramatic increase in the amount of advertising and the number of products out there" in the last 10 years, said Rich Cleland, a senior attorney in the advertising division of the Federal Trade Commission, which enforces consumer protection laws prohibiting deceptive practices. Cleland attributes much of this increase to the explosive growth through the 1990s of the dietary supplement industry, which includes such things as herbs, vitamins and diet and nutrition products. Especially on the Internet, pitches for weight loss and body shaping products have adopted a scientific tone. In addition to the standard before-and-after pictures, testimonials and endorsements from unfamiliar doctors, many ads now include references to clinical studies, body mass indexes, bio-availability of nutrients and so on. "They have picked up all the same medical jargon you would get from a reputable medical source" such as the Mayo Clinic or the National Institutes of Health, said Stern.

Federal law prohibits companies from making false marketing claims about the health benefits of products. Companies can say a product "promotes" weight loss, for instance, but cannot claim that it prevents or cures a specific health condition. Companies are also not supposed to make health claims that are not substantiated by research, under penalty of settlements that can run into the millions of dollars.

Such products proliferate nonetheless, because regulators concede that they lack the staffing or resources to police all of them. Carefully worded ads--making generous use of words such as "suggest," "may" and "could"--can sometimes mislead without actually violating the law, some industry critics contend.

Several popular products illustrate the appeal of products that promise a easier way to make our bodies beautiful.

Breast Enhancement

Can pills containing a special blend of natural herbs enhance a woman's cleavage, making breasts firmer and more attractive, without the need for surgical implants or a breast lift? A host of ads and infomercials beckon with claims that such products can transform a woman's breasts, enabling the user to "gain back the firmness you had as a teenager."

Doctors and herbal medicine experts say that a few of the ingredients could have some visible effect on the breast, although they don't know if that's a result of swelling or new cell growth. Unlike prescription drugs, which must undergo a lengthy approval process before being allowed on the market, the FDA does not require makers of dietary supplements to demonstrate that their products are safe or effective. Doctors also express concern that the herbal ingredients contained in some products have not been studied to determine if any adverse health effects might result.

Two of the products being promoted for "natural" breast enhancement are sold under the names Breast Assure and Bloussant. The products have several herbs in common, including saw palmetto (a traditional folk treatment said to make breasts larger), dong quai (an herb long used in China for gynecological ailments), damiana leaves (used as an aphrodisiac), dandelion, blessed thistle and wild yam.

Bloussant also contains fennel seed, used as a folk remedy to increase breast milk in nursing women and to increase libido; watercress, a leaf with antibiotic and diuretic actions; and black cohosh, often taken to relieve the hot flashes of menopause.

Breast Assure also has fenugreek, an herb used in folk medicine to encourage breast milk production.

According to Home Health, the Bohemia, N.Y.-based maker of Breast Assure, the product contains vitamin C and collagen "to support the underlying structure of the breast," and chaste tree fruit, which "has been shown to help with breast tenderness," said Ona Scandurra, director of nutrition communications for Home Health. Asked for specific effects on the breast, she said: "It helps nourish them. It provides ingredients for the cells and tissues."

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