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Coral calcium scrutinized

Regulators say some supplement sellers make outrageous claims about its benefits.

September 29, 2003|Melissa Healy | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Perhaps you've seen it touted in television infomercials as a wellspring of long life and a treatment for, among other things, colon cancer, multiple sclerosis, lupus and heart disease. Federal regulators too have seen the advertisements for coral calcium, and they're not buying the claims.

They have, however, claimed some of the goods.

In late June, U.S. marshals, operating at the behest of the Food and Drug Administration, seized about $2.6 million worth of Coral Calcium Supreme, a dietary supplement hawked by entrepreneurs Kevin Trudeau and Robert Barefoot in paid advertising that aired until midsummer on cable channels including Discovery Channel, Bravo and the Comedy Channel. The FDA and the Federal Trade Commission went to court to make Trudeau and Barefoot stop making the claims for coral calcium's health effects, and until the case comes before a judge in the spring, the infomercials touting its benefits may not air.

Coral Calcium Supreme, meanwhile, continues to be marketed, both on the Internet and in stores, costing about $17 for a one-month supply. One wholesaler selling the product online prominently advertised as of last week on its Web site: "Plenty of coral calcium in stock, ready to ship!"

The Federal Trade Commission also has warned at least 18 firms that operate Web sites selling coral calcium that they should stop making unsubstantiated health claims for the popular calcium supplement or they too will be hauled into court.

Coral calcium contains calcium derived from crushed coral taken off the seabed near Okinawa, Japan, as well as magnesium and other minerals found in the skeletal remains of these reef-swelling organisms. Calcium plays a key role in regulating body chemistry, facilitating electrical impulses in the cells, and building and maintaining healthy bones.

But because roughly 90% of American girls and women and almost three-quarters of American men do not get enough calcium in their diet, supplements -- which derive calcium from sources as diverse as oyster shells and limestone deposits -- have become big business in recent years. According to the San Diego-based Nutrition Business Journal, calcium supplements commanded about $877 million in sales in 2002, a figure that has surged because of market interest in coral calcium.

Although other dietary supplement companies offer coral calcium, the federal actions focused specifically on Coral Calcium Supreme and its makers and distributors. Barefoot's once-ubiquitous infomercial had made Coral Calcium Supreme the largest seller in this thriving cottage industry.

Calls for the FDA and FTC to clamp down on the marketing of Coral Calcium Supreme came from the dietary supplement industry itself. In a letter sent in May to the agencies, the Washington, D.C.-based Council for Responsible Nutrition, a trade group representing the dietary-supplement industry, appealed to the government to "take action against outrageous marketing claims for the dietary supplement product, Coral Calcium."

The council's president, Annette Dickinson, called the supplement "one of the most aggressively and pervasively promoted dietary supplements on the market today," adding that "the entire industry is tarnished when irresponsible companies appear to be getting away with making illegal claims."

In addition to their claims that Coral Calcium Supreme could treat or prevent several major illnesses, Trudeau and Barefoot told potential buyers that calcium derived from crushed coral found on the ocean floor is more easily absorbed into the system than supplements derived from other sources -- a claim the FTC also disputes.

Preliminary studies have suggested that adequate levels of calcium may provide some protection against the growth of precancerous intestinal polyps, protect against high blood pressure during pregnancy and reduce premenstrual symptoms. But claims made by Trudeau, Barefoot and many Web sites selling coral calcium "go far beyond existing scientific evidence regarding the recognized health benefits of calcium," the FTC charged in court.

The FTC complaint was filed against Trudeau, Barefoot and two of the companies they formed to sell dietary supplements, Shop America and Deonna Enterprises Inc. Until the matter comes before a judge this spring, the makers of Coral Calcium Supreme may not air the infomercials that contain those claims. The court case stemming from the FDA's seizure of Coral Calcium Supreme in a warehouse outside of Chicago will determine whether and how the product may be sold.

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