If sales are any indication, this may be true. Calcium already accounts for a large fraction of the $60-billion worldwide supplement market. The term "coral calcium" yields 1.7 million hits on Google—half of them sites actually retailing the product. (Typical price: $30 to $40 a month, versus $1 for ordinary calcium.) Many sellers claim that their brand has been formulated by Barefoot. His name shows up on Google 183,000 times.
Not everyone agrees with Barefoot. At the height of the infomercial's popularity, the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), a trade group representing 70 large supplement companies, urged the Federal Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration to "end Mr. Barefoot's highly visible and deceptive marketing campaign for coral calcium, and to prevent Mr. Barefoot from further fraudulent activities."
Is CRN just jealous? Is coral calcium really special? Who's making the big bucks here? Is any of this illegal? To find out, we checked the scientific evidence, consulted legal and regulatory sources, and spent an hour on the phone with Barefoot—a rare accomplishment because he seems to be ducking the press lately. "My business manager told me not to talk to you," he said from his headquarters in Arizona.
Let's begin with Barefoot's scientific claims, then move on to the legal and financial.
(Except where otherwise noted, Barefoot makes all of these assertions in "A Closer Look: The Calcium Factor," the infomercial in which he is interviewed by Kevin Trudeau. It has aired on many cable channels.)
1. Calcium is enormously important to health.
True. Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body, comprising 2 percent of the average adult's weight. Although it's known chiefly as a building block for bones and teeth, it also plays a role in blood clotting, muscle contraction, nerve transmission, and chemical regulation of hundreds of other processes.
2. Most people don't get enough calcium.
True, but they're not "totally deficient," as Barefoot often claims. In 1994 the U.S. Department of Agriculture pegged the median intake of calcium at 865 milligrams for men and 625 milligrams for women. That's lower than the adult Recommended Dietary Allowance—1000 milligrams through age 50 and 1200 milligrams thereafter—but when your intake falls a bit short, your body cleverly absorbs a higher percentage of the calcium that you do get, minimizing the problem.
If your intake is severely deficient, however, your body begins borrowing the calcium stored in your bones. Long-term borrowing can lead to osteoporosis and eventually "dowager's hump," hip fracture, and premature death.
Osteoporosis is by far the most prevalent calcium-related disease, yet Barefoot never discusses it in the infomercial—nor did he mention it on the phone with me.
3. Okinawans live longer than Americans.
True, but residents of this Japanese archipelago do not live to 140, as Barefoot has claimed. (France boasts the oldest well documented age ever achieved: 122, by Jeanne Louise Calment.) In 1996, average life expectancy in Okinawa was 82, versus 73 in the United States.
4. Okinawans seldom get cancer.
False. Their cancer rate is lower than ours—but they do get the disease. Squamous-cell lung cancer, for example, is several times more prevalent in Okinawa than on the Japanese mainland. Gerontologists attribute the longevity of Okinawans to a happy combination of diet, exercise, clean environment, good medical care, and a laid-back lifestyle.
5. Cancer is caused by an oxygen shortage in the cells.
False. Barefoot claims that German scientist Otto Heinrich Warburg (1883-1970) won two Nobel prizes for proving this in the 1930s and 40s. In fact, Warburg earned his medals for unraveling the chemistry of cellular energy supply. He believed that cancer involved an oxygen shortage, but research has since proven him wrong.
6. The shortage happens because your body is too acidic.
False. In fact, almost everyone's body is slightly alkaline—the opposite of acidic. Acidosis can be fatal, but it's uncommon and doesn't cause cancer.
7. You can easily measure your acid level yourself.
False. Barefoot advises testing your saliva with litmus paper. (Coral Calcium sellers often provide a free litmus kit with each order.) But your mouth can be far more acidic than the rest of your body, particularly when it contains bacteria that cause tooth decay. (Whose doesn't?)
8. Taking extra calcium will lower your body's acidity.
Not really. No matter what you eat or drink, your kidneys keep your blood pH in a surprisingly narrow range (7.32 to 7.43) by dumping excess acid into the urine. Your kidneys may have to work harder if you eat a lot of protein, because protein digestion produces sulfuric acid. In that case, extra calcium may lighten the workload by combining with the acid to produce salt. But this won't significantly change your pH.
9. Okinawans consume 100,000 milligrams of calcium every day.
Doubtful. That's a quarter-pound of pure calcium—the amount you'd get from 355 glasses of milk.
When we pointed this out to Barefoot, he explained that many Okinawans make tea from "milk of the mountain," a slurry of glacial melt and calcium. "They drink 30 cups of this stuff every day," he said. "Now, your experts will tell you, 'Oh, sh*t, that'll kill you,' but the body only takes what it wants—it will absorb only 800 to 1000 milligrams of calcium a day, and the rest of it passes through."
Thirty cups a day is one pint every waking hour. That much water alone might be harmful (click for details). But more important, 100,000 milligrams of calcium is 40 times the U.S. Food and Nutrition Board's official Tolerable Upper Intake Limit. "It would kill you—and very quickly," said Robert P. Heaney, M.D., Professor of Medicine at Creighton University and a leading expert on calcium metabolism.
We asked Dr. Heaney about Barefoot's claim that the body would simply eliminate the surplus. "That's nonsense," he said. "It's true that the body absorbs less and less calcium the more you put in, but this effect bottoms out around 10 percent. We know, because we've actually tested it on people in our laboratory. But it's nothing you would ever do nutritionally, for heaven's sake."
10. Coral calcium is absorbed better than any other kind.
Unlikely. In the infomercial, Barefoot claims that the body uses 100 percent of the calcium in coral, versus only 17 percent of that in milk and 2 percent in antacids.
The truth is, all sources of calcium (dairy products, citrus fruits, leafy vegetables, antacids, and supplements) provide roughly the same degree of absorption. It ranges from 25 to 35 percent in young adults to slightly lower in older people.
Dr. Takuo Fujita, founder of Japan's Calcium Research Institute and author of more than 400 scientific papers on calcium, is a one of the world's leading experts on the mineral. Coral calcium, he says, is essentially calcium carbonate —the same stuff used in supplements. "It is no more available to the body than other forms of calcium," he says.
When we pressed Barefoot on his total-absorption claim, he said, "Well, the reality is, it's up to 100 percent. We've documented over 70 percent. And it's absorbed within 20 minutes."
"Totally wrong," said Dr. Heaney when we described this. "They haven't actually measured the absorption. I don't know of anyone who's done that for coral—at least not accurately. What they mean is that in 20 minutes, 70 percent of the calcium is dissolved. That doesn't mean the body's actually absorbed it." He said that in assays that he's done for fruit-juice companies, some of the best-dissolving calcium turned out to be the worst-absorbed.
11. Coral calcium also provides important trace minerals.
True, but you probably don't need them. Barefoot makes much of the fact that coral calcium also contains "yttrium, germanium, and 100 other trace minerals." Most nutrition experts feel that people get enough of these from their food. (There is no Recommended Dietary Allowance for yttrium or germanium. Yttrium is used chiefly for strengthening aluminum alloys; germanium for manufacturing computer chips.)
Some of the minerals in coral may even be dangerous. A few years ago, health authorities discovered that calcium supplements made from dolomite (a rock similar to limestone) contained lead. Coral-calcium sellers often insist that their products are tested for lead, but so far we haven't seen any independent tests.
12. Coral calcium provides valuable organisms, too.
False. Barefoot says that the marine microbes in coral calcium take up residence in your intestines and help to break down your food. "When you eat the coral calcium, these critters go to work and all of a sudden you take in ten times as much nutrition," he told us.
It's true that human digestion is aided by intestinal bacteria, but a) they can't produce a tenfold improvement (if they did, you'd be overdosed on a lot of nutrients), and b) the bacteria in your intestines evolved in warm-blooded animals and differ greatly from marine bacteria. Many of the "critters" in coral calcium probably wouldn't survive the trip through your stomach. Or if they did, they might harm you—especially if you're allergic to shellfish.
When we described all of these natural "extras" in coral calcium to Dr. Heaney, he commented, "You know, there's a name for that stuff. It's called dirt."
13. Cholesterol doesn't cause heart disease; acidosis does.
False. Barefoot claims that cholesterol is just the "goop" that your body uses to seal "holes that the acid eats in your artery walls." It's true that homocysteine, an amino acid, may damage artery linings if blood levels get too high, but a) it doesn't "eat holes" in them (amino acids aren't that powerful), b) high levels may occur only in rare individuals who've inherited a 1-in-100 gene from both parents, and c) homocysteine's role in heart disease is too poorly understood to make such a sweeping generalization. Most cardiologists would laugh at it.
14. The AMA Journal says calcium supplements prevent cancer.
This is a classic Barefoot exaggeration. His exact words (taken from the infomercial): "The Journal of the American Medical Association—this year—quoted the Strang Cancer Research Institute and said that calcium supplements reverse cancer. That's a quote from the Journal of the AMA. And they quoted how much: they said 1500 milligrams a day is enough to reverse colon cancer. And they said other cancers will grow back to normal."
Now here's what the Strang study actually said: People who have polyps (sometimes a precursor to colon cancer) often show abnormally rapid cell growth in their intestinal linings. When such people were given enough low-fat dairy products to increase their calcium intake to the Recommended Dietary Allowance of 1200 milligrams per day, the cell growth changed "toward normal." The study did not use calcium supplements, nor did it prove that calcium could "reverse" an existing cancer.
15. Taking calcium will make a diet 10 times more likely to succeed.
False. Barefoot made this claim during our phone conversation. When you reduce your calorie intake, he said, "this lack of nutrients makes you crave food," and taking calcium cuts the craving by replacing the nutrients.
If "lack of nutrients" really caused food craving, the best solution might be a multi-vitamin-and-mineral supplement, not a calcium pill. Furthermore, if calcium really improved weight-loss success by 1000 percent, the news would be running on the ticker in Times Square.
16. Robert Barefoot is qualified to interpret medical studies.
We don't think so.
Although Barefoot calls himself a scientist, he doesn't have a bachelor's degree in science—or in any other field. A native of Edmonton, Alberta, he completed a three-year certificate in chemical research technology at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology in 1967. The school seems to specialize in vocational-technical training—welding, auto-body repair, and the like. According to its website, chemical engineering technology "deals with the processing of oil, natural gas, and bitumen into final products such as motor gasoline." Later, Barefoot had a year's training in geochemistry and worked in the mining and petroleum industries. He holds a patent on an electrostatic method of extracting metals from ore. But he has no formal education in organic chemistry or human biochemistry.
Barefoot also seems to lack familiarity with basic medical terms. In both the infomercial and our telephone conversation, for example, he referred to the pineal gland as the "penal gland" and the hypothalamus as the "hypothymus." No one who has read much about these parts of the brain or discussed them with experts should be mispronouncing their names. (We also wonder about a guy who says "pitcher" instead of "picture.")
Similarly, the footnotes in Barefoot's book seem to give equal credence to peer-reviewed medical studies, magazine articles, and publications by notorious cancer quacks—including Max Gerson, who treated patients with coffee enemas, and Mary Ruth Swope, M.D., who sold them powdered grass.
(Barefoot's book does have a medical co-author: the late Carl M. Reich, M.D., who, according to Barefoot, treated many cancer patients with calcium. Reich's medical license was revoked by the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1986.)
Finally, Barefoot does not reason like a scientist. Instead of considering all the evidence on a question, he seems to select only the facts that support his preconceptions. In addition, he frequently misinterprets the facts in convenient ways. That's not a scientist; it's a salesman.
Financial and Legal Claims
1. Barefoot isn't making a lot of money from Coral Calcium.
He says he isn't.
"People think, 'You must be making a killing from that infomercial,'" Barefoot told us, "but I'm not. Kevin Trudeau has made hundreds of millions of dollars from coral calcium. I've been paid less than one percent of that—and I've had to use it all for lawyers and taxes. Last month alone, I paid one lawyer $140,000."
Kevin Trudeau is the man who interviews Barefoot in the infomercial. He's not a journalist—he's a marketer who specializes in infomercials that masquerade as talk shows. (Sometimes he plays the host, sometimes the guest.)
In his video with Barefoot, Trudeau gives an 800 number that sells coral calcium—not Barefoot's book. Nevertheless, says Barefoot, "there's lots of ways to make money." His own company, Deonna Enterprises, "is selling The Calcium Factor all over the world. It's being translated into Russian—they've invited me to Moscow. And the Chinese—they love Bob Barefoot, and they love coral calcium, too."
At one point, The Calcium Factor was ranked among the top 500 books sold by Amazon.com. When we ask Barefoot how many copies were in print, he answered, "'Hard to say. There's a group in Canada mass-producing and pumping it illegally into the U.S. I have a lawsuit against them. Oh, it's a hot seller."
2. Barefoot isn't doing anything unlawful.
You be the judge.
First, look at the company he keeps. Kevin Trudeau is not just a marketer; he's a convicted felon. In the early 1990s he served time in a federal penitentiary for credit-card fraud. He also pleaded guilty to state charges for depositing $80,000 in worthless checks at a bank in Massachusetts. And in 1998 he paid $500,000 in a consent agreement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for making false advertising claims in infomercials.
(When we asked Barefoot whether he knew about Trudeau's criminal history before agreeing to do the infomercial, he replied, "I didn't meet him until five minutes before the shooting.")
Lately, however, Barefoot and Trudeau seem to be having a falling out. Barefoot told me that he had filed suit against Trudeau to pull the latest infomercial off the air "for being noncompliant. I want them to change some words so they'll be compliant." He explained that he was concerned about "things people at the Washington Post have been telling me." The Post ran a story the month before my interview implying that Trudeau's infomercial might now be under FTC scrutiny. Barefoot told me that Trudeau had "finally agreed to reshoot the show." (We have not yet confirmed this with Trudeau—he hasn't responded to repeated requests for an interview.)
After our conversation with Barefoot, we put the question of legality before Stephen Barrett, a psychiatrist in Philadelphia who runs a website called Quackwatch and is vice president of the National Council Against Health Fraud. Dr. Barrett has helped the Council file suits against firms selling questionable products. For coral calcium, he said, "it depends on what is being sold and who owns it."
Barefoot's books, tapes, and speeches are protected by the First Amendment, of course. But if he is selling coral calcium itself, he could be prosecuted for "marketing an unapproved drug," said Dr. Barrett. Reason: supplements are perfectly legal when sold without therapeutic claims. But when a supplement is claimed to prevent or cure a disease, it is legally considered a drug and can't be sold until it is approved as "safe and effective" by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
In the infomercial, Barefoot clearly argues that coral calcium cures cancer and prevents a host of other diseases. "Under federal law," Dr. Barrett explained, "those are drug claims."
Trudeau, on the other hand, makes no claims in the infomercial—in fact, he displays great skepticism. "But that's just your opinion!" he objects at one point, and at another, "Well, then, how come doctors aren't telling their patients?" Trudeau may be professing doubt in order to enhance the pitch's credibility. ("While thinking they're watching actual programming," he told Brill's Content in 1999, "viewers allow themselves to be persuaded. That's what we want to do. That's our idea. We don't want to look like an infomercial.") But he may also be trying to side-step his $500,000 agreement with the FTC, which promised he would no longer make unsubstantiated claims in infomercials.
Something devilishly clever seems to be going on here. Barefoot is making the drug claims, but Trudeau is selling the coral. Unless there's a financial connection between the two parties, it would seem that, legally speaking, neither is "marketing an unapproved drug."
But is there a connection? To find out, I phoned 800-987-8181, the number that appears at the end of the infomercial. As expected, I got Trudeau's company, Shop America. After a message saying that my call might be monitored or recorded, a live operator came on the line. (I know her real name, but let's call her Jill.) She said yes, she could sell me coral calcium.
"But if I buy it from you, will my purchase benefit Mr. Barefoot?" I asked. I told Jill I had seen the TV show and thought Mr. Barefoot was performing a wonderful service to America. "Does Mr. Barefoot own Shop America? Is he the company president, or something?"
Jill said no, she thought the president was Mr. Trudeau. "But Mr. Barefoot is—well, let me check for you," she said. The line went silent for nearly a minute. Then she came back and said, "Sir? Yes, Mr. Barefoot actually makes the product for us. He puts in all the ingredients, and then he gives us authorization so we can sell it under his name. So yes, he will benefit."
Jill also said that coral calcium was selling "so fast we can't keep up with the orders. We've had to add a whole department, just to handle the calls."
"A whole department? You mean, like, a hundred people?" I asked.
I told her I had to go just then, but might call back later to place an order.
In Dr. Barrett's judgment, even if Barefoot doesn't have an ownership position in Shop America, he might be prosecuted for "conspiracy to defraud the FDA" if he receives a royalty or commission from sales of coral calcium. Barefoot's remark that he was "paid less than one percent" of Trudeau's take, along with Jill's description of Barefoot's relationship with Shop America, makes me wonder.
At the end of our phone talk, Barefoot was in a jovial mood. "My secretary's in here holding up a pitcher of me behind bars," he said. "She says that's where I'm going because of this interview!"
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On June 10, 2003—five days after we published this story—the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) formally charged Robert Barefoot, Kevin Trudeau, and their companies with making false and unsubstantiated claims about the health benefits of coral calcium. The agency said it will ask a federal court to freeze the assets of both parties and order restitution to consumers who purchased their product, Coral Calcium Supreme. In addition, the FTC and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sent warning letters to websites that sell coral calcium. Click for details.
On the same day, ConsumerLab announced that tests of Coral Calcium Supreme revealed 2.5 micrograms of lead per gram. This isn't enough to pose a health threat, except perhaps to a developing child when taken by a woman who is pregnant or breastfeeding. But it does exceed the 1.5-microgram level that requires a warning label in California. (The product has no such label.) Click for details.
In January 2004, shortly before going to trial on the FTC charges, Robert Barefoot agreed to a permanent injunction against making claims that Coral Calcium can cure cancer, heart disease, and other serious maladies. He also agreed to recall any product packaging that makes such claims, notify distributors about the FTC action, and forfeit all of his royalties from the Coral Calcium infomercial.
As for Kevin Trudeau, in September 2004 he agreed to pay $2 million to settle charges of false medical claims—not only for coral calcium, but also for Biotape, a product said to relieve severe pain. The settlement banned him from appearing in, producing, or disseminating infomercials that advertise any product, service, or program and from claiming that any product, program, or service can cure, treat, or prevent any disease or provide health benefits.
There was only one hitch: The ban exempted infomercials for books, newsletters, and other "informational publications." Soon, Trudeau was back on TV with another phony talk show pushing a $19.95 book, The Weight Loss Cure "They" Don't Want You to Know About, whose claims are as absurd as those made for Coral Calcium. It's still in stock at Amazon.com. As of early 2011, Trudeau's lawyers had successfully withstood the FTC's efforts to ban the new infomercial.
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