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Multilevel marketing companies use social media to market food scams

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Multilevel marketing companies, or MLMs, have exploded over the last few decades. Chances are, especially if you fall in the demographic of a 30- to 40-year-old woman, if you haven’t bought something from one already, you’ve received a DM from someone who you vaguely remember from high school asking you if you’d like to learn about an “amazing opportunity.”

These companies, which are basically just legal pyramid schemes, employ extremely predatory sales tactics to take advantage of particularly stay-at-home moms. What they usually don’t tell you upon recruitment is that 99 percent of MLM participants either don’t make any money or actually lose money.

In addition to these problematic sales and recruitment practices, there are several in particular that tend to spread a lot of misinformation in order to sell their products. These sales tactics are reminiscent of the “snake oil” type salesman tactics of over a hundred years ago: Fabricate a problem (usually at the expense of science literacy) and sell the solution.

Here I’m going to explore three viral videos I’ve come across on social media in which MLM salespeople are making false claims in order to sell their products, and I’ll explain why their claims are entirely false, based on some pretty basic science concepts

#1: Essential oil vegetable wash that supposedly removes pesticides.

Here we have a video of someone spraying a head of broccoli with their MLM vegetable wash. Before they spray it, they claim that the water beading on the top of the broccoli is “a result of pesticides and environmental pollution, which is why you need to wash and not just rinse your produce!” She then sprays the MLM vegetable wash on the broccoli, and viola, the water no longer beads up on the surface, to which she explains, “the layers of chemicals have been removed allowing the water to soak through the broccoli.”

So, obviously the first red flag is that she’s selling a MLM product. You should immediately be skeptical of any claims made about what the product does.

Right off the bat, the claim that water is beading up on the surface of the broccoli because of pesticides and environmental pollution is absolutely rubbish.

Broccoli, like many plants, produces a natural layer of wax, which creates a hydrophobic surface so that water beads up and rolls off. This property has nothing to do with pesticides or environmental pollution and is a natural defense mechanism against UV radiation, insects, and pathogens. It helps the plant to retain moisture so that it doesn’t dry out, in addition to keeping excess moisture out.

If you believe the first false claim, you’re more likely to believe the false explanation that follows. The vegetable wash is essentially made up of a surfactant (soap) and essential oils. The surfactant removes the wax so that when she rinses it with water after applying the soap and removing the wax, it’s no longer hydrophobic and the water is able to soak into the broccoli.

This has absolutely nothing to do with pesticides or environmental pollution, and this demonstration isn’t showing the removal of either of those things.

OK, so no harm no foul if someone were to believe this and purchase it, right? Well, not exactly.

These produce washes are not tested for safety or efficacy. The amount of residue left on the food from them is unknown. The FDA cautions that “Washing fruits and vegetables with soap, detergent, or commercial produce wash is not recommended. Produce is porous. Soap and household detergents can be absorbed by fruits and vegetables, despite thorough rinsing, and can make you sick. Also, the safety of the residues of commercial produce washes is not known and their effectiveness has not been tested.”

Researchers at the department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at the University of Maine tested three commercial wash treatments against a water wash, either with or without the help of a produce brush, and found that the water worked just as well or even better at removing microbes and residual pesticides as the commercial produce washes. Vinegar and other food ingredients can be used safely, but they aren’t necessary.

The recommendation is to simply wash all produce thoroughly under clean running water before preparing and/or eating. Scrub firm produce, such as melons and cucumbers, with a clean produce brush, and dry produce with a clean cloth towel or paper towel to further reduce bacteria that may be present on the surface.

#2: Soaking produce in alkalized water removes more pesticides.

This one is something I’ve seen from several different MLM water filter salespeople on TikTok. It isn’t as obvious that it’s an MLM, but these people are selling water filters and ionizers that cost thousands of dollars.

I covered some of the false health claims regarding alkaline water in this post and in my previous article, but in this specific demonstration they claim that soaking fruits or vegetables in alkalized water from the expensive filter they’re selling removes more pesticides than regular tap water. Of course, the demonstration starts out by falsely claiming that fruits and vegetables are “covered in pesticides.” I’ve written about this previously, and that is absolutely not true. There may be parts per billion (ppb) levels of pesticide residues on products, but they are consistently detected on both conventional and organic produce at levels hundreds to thousands of times below the already very conservatively set tolerance levels.

She then continues, “and guess what? You can’t remove them with just water.” This is also false. Running under regular tap water can significantly reduce residual pesticides. These ppb levels aren’t a food safety issue to begin with.

@foodsciencebabe

She’s selling an almost $5000 MLM water filter based on false claims. MLMs are scams, for both sellers and buyers. #mlm #mlmscam #alkalizedwater

♬ original sound – Food Science Babe

She proceeds to fill two glasses with cherry tomatoes and pours tap water over one of them and then what she claims is pH 11.5 water in the other one, although there’s no way for the viewer to verify this. We just have to take her word for it. Low and behold, the alkalized water turns a yellowish color, so she asserts that “you can already see the pesticides coming off!!”

However, big problem: Who said yellow equals pesticides?

That’s the assumption that’s made, but there’s no way to know if that’s true unless you’re actually testing the resulting water for pesticides, which of course she did not do. We’re just supposed to believe that yellowish water means pesticides, therefore it works. In actuality, what could be happening is that the highly alkaline water is just breaking down the tomatoes, therefore making the water turn yellow in color.

There is some evidence to show that soaking apples in a baking soda solution can reduce pesticides even further than just running under tap water, although this isn’t a necessary step for safe produce. If it helps to make one feel better about consuming produce and that causes them to eat more, then go for it. No need to purchase an expensive water filter though. The tap water rinse and scrub method is sufficient.

#3: Perfume kills weeds, therefore it’s bad for your body.

Surprise, surprise this is another popular MLM essential oil sales pitch. This video that went viral on Instagram shows someone spraying perfume onto a weed and then showing the weed had died sometime later. The purpose of this was to scare people from putting perfume on their body in order to sell them essential oils instead.

Hopefully this one is pretty obvious, but just because something can kill a weed doesn’t mean it’s bad to put on or in our bodies. Vinegar and salt can kill weeds too. Heck, even too much water can kill weeds. Not to mention that essential oils can as well.

Misinformation surrounding essential oils can be particularly harmful. People selling them often are misinformed themselves and tell people that it’s safe to apply them to skin or ingest them undiluted. They often claim they’re safe because they’re natural, but even natural substances can be harmful. The dose makes the poison applies to all chemicals and even a small dose of undiluted essential oil on the skin or ingested can be dangerous, causing everything from allergic reactions to rashes and seizures.

While the purpose of this is not to call out any of these people specifically who have made these videos, it’s important to know that these are very common sales tactics that many MLMs employ. The salespeople making these videos may not even understand that they’re spreading misinformation, because they may believe the sales pitches themselves. This is why it’s important to be able to spot it so that you’re not scammed as well. Beware of not only the predatory recruitment tactics, but also of the predatory sales tactics.

If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

 

Food Science Babe is the pseudonym of an agvocate and writer who focuses specifically on the science behind our food. She has a degree in chemical engineering and has worked in the food industry for more than decade, both in the conventional and in the natural/organic sectors.

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