FTC Charges Marketers of Ultrafast, Medifast
and Optifast Liquid Diet Programs
Consent Agreements to Settle Charges
FTC News Release
October 16, 1991
The Federal Trade Commission today announced for public comment three separate settlement agreements with the marketers of Ultrafast, Medifast, and Optifast liquid diet programs. The agreements would settle charges that the marketers made deceptive and unsubstantiated advertising claims regarding the safety and long-term efficacy of their programs. These are the first three cases to emerge from the FTC's ongoing, industry-wide investigation of claims made by medically-supervised and commercial diet programs.
The FTC's complaints name the Minneapolis, Minnesota-based Sandoz Nutrition Corporation ("Sandoz"), which markets Optifast 70 and similar programs and related products; Jason Pharmaceuticals, Inc. and the Nutrition Institute of Maryland (collectively, "Jason"), both based in Owings Mills, MD, and which market the Medifast 70 and similar diet programs and related products to consumers through Medifast Associate physicians; and the National Center for Nutrition ("NCN"), of Newington, Virginia, which markets Ultrafast diet programs and products.
Popularly known as liquid diets, these very-low calorie diet (VLCD) programs typically involve a nutrient-supplemented fast — usually a liquid protein diet — of 420 to 800 calories per day for 12 to 16 weeks, followed by a "refeeding" period during which the patient returns to a normal, reduced-calorie diet of 1000-1200 calories per day. In many cases, the programs include optional longer-term maintenance sessions designed to help patients continue their behavior modification and nutritional education efforts. The cost of the programs ranges from approximately $1,400 to $2,800.
Low-calorie (LCD) or "commercial" diet programs, on the other hand, are 1,000 to 1,200 calorie-per-day regimens of real foods instead of dietary supplements. Like VLCDs, LCD programs often include optional maintenance sessions, but LCDs typically cost less than VLCDs.
In its investigation of diet programs, the FTC is examining the support that companies have for their advertising claims, particularly claims relating to the safety and efficacy — both short- and long-term — for the programs.
Sample claims for the three VLCD programs cited as misleading by the FTC in its complaints include:
- "The One That's Clinically Proven Safe and Effective." (Optifast program)
- "Studies have shown that supplemental fasting, when medically supervised, is the quickest, safest way of losing excess body weight." (Ultrafast program)
- "…more than 300,000 formerly obese patients had already been helped by Medifast without one instance of serious side effect associated with their treatment." (Medifast program)
Specifically, the FTC has charged, these and other statements misrepresent the programs to be either unqualifiedly safe or free of serious health risks when, in fact, the reason for physician supervision is to minimize the potential for health risks. (There is some empirical evidence that, during the period in which they are dieting, patients on VLCDs may be at increased risk of developing gallstones.) Moreover, the FTC charged, NCN falsely represented that the Ultrafast program is safer than all non-VLCD programs. There is no competent and reliable scientific evidence to support this claim, the FTC said.
The FTC does not allege in its complaints that these diet programs are unsafe but, rather, that the respondents' claims were deceptive in light of their failure to disclose either the health risks associated with them, or the need for physician monitoring to minimize these risks.
Other claims cited in the FTC complaint included:
- "You can call the OPTIFAST program today, and have all you need to control your weight for the rest of your life." (Optifast program)
- "…you will not experience a rebound phenomenon [regain lost weight] after you attain your goal." (Medifast program)
- "Weight Loss Myth #4: Once You Lose it, You'll Gain It Back … with the support of the ULTRAFAST Program, you get a new attitude. The weight stays off." (Ultrafast program)
The agency charged that these and other claims made by the companies about the success of their programs in helping patients keep off the weight lost — and Sandoz' claims that the Optifast program is superior at weight-loss maintenance — were not substantiated.
Finally, the Commission charged that Jason falsely claimed that its physicians are certified through an objective evaluation process in the treatment of obesity.
The proposed consent agreements settling the charges against the companies contain prohibitions against misrepresentations about the likelihood of regaining lost weight, and against any unsubstantiated claims about the success of former patients in achieving or maintaining weight loss. The proposed orders set out the following minimum requirements for substantiation:
- substantiation for claims that a certain weight loss is typical must be based on a sample of all patients who have entered the program, or all persons who entered and completed the entire program or a portion thereof (where the claim only relates to such persons);
- substantiation for claims that weight-loss is long-term must be based on the experience of patients followed for at least two years after they complete the program; and
- substantiation for claims that weight-loss is maintained permanently must be based on patients followed for a period of time generally recognized by experts as sufficient for such a claim, or for a period of time demonstrated by reliable survey evidence to permit such a prediction.
The proposed orders would require any claim about the safety of these programs to be accompanied by a clear disclosure about the need for physician monitoring to minimize the potential for health risks. Claims that patients have successfully maintained weight loss would have to include disclosures of the average weight-loss maintained by those patients and how long they have maintained the loss, as well as the statement, "For many dieters, weight loss is only temporary."
The proposed order against Jason also would prohibit false claims that physicians are certified.
The vote to accept the consent agreements for public comment was 4-0, with Commissioner Dennis A. Yao not participating.
- (Sandoz) FTC File No. 912-3023. FTC Docket No. C-3394.
- (NCN) FTC File No. 902-3024. FTC Docket No. C-3393. li> (Jason, NIM) FTC File No. 902-3337. FTC Docket No. C-3392.
This page was posted on August 27, 2006.