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Instagram is filled with promotions of “loaded teas” — made with tea concentrate and fruit-flavoured drink mixes — often boast cheeky names like Bahama Mama or Mermaid and appear alongside promises of zero sugar, few calories, healthy antioxidants, and perhaps most importantly, a big dose of caffeine: #cleanenergy is a frequent accompanying hashtag, which makes sense considering that many loaded teas boast more than 160 milligrams of caffeine — more than double what’s in a cup of coffee.
These drinks are sold by independent distributors from a multi-level marketing company, Herbalife.
Founded in 1980, Herbalife employed the classic MLM model by signing up independent distributors who have two responsibilities: to sell the company’s protein powders and nutritional supplements, and to recruit others to become Herbalife distributors.
Herbalife has been sued on numerous occasions for that business model, resulting in one $200 million settlement with the Federal Trade Commission in 2016 that required the company to completely revamp its compensation structure.
It’s easy to see the appeal of loaded teas. They’re low-calorie, look pretty on Instagram, and tap into trendy wellness culture buzzwords like “high in antioxidants” and “immune/energy boosting.” For dieters who are accustomed to the bitter aftertaste of artificial sweeteners and are tired of drinking plain old water, they offer a compelling alternative. Much like Starbucks coffee, too, these beverages are a way to convey status — if you can afford to buy an $8 drink every day, then you’re doing pretty well for yourself.
The way most people make money in an MLM — and why most experts view the model as a scam for consumers — is when they become an “upline,” or a person who has recruited new distributors. Uplines earn a percentage of all the items sold by and to people beneath them in the hierarchy, called “downlines.” People on the bottom end of the downline are not earning much.
Increasingly, nutrition clubs are popping up across the country as technicolour tea shops, and almost every single one of them is affiliated with Herbalife. Even as loaded teas and meal replacement shakes grow in popularity, the function of these clubs is ultimately still the same as their predecessors: Instead of only selling the powder mixes and vitamins directly to consumers, they use Herbalife ingredients in their menus of drinks, shakes, and protein coffees. And every new customer that comes in to buy a Mystic Mermaid has the potential of being a new downline.
There’s a growing trend of both online content creators and regular folks making their own loaded drinks at home. During the pandemic, loaded tea kits, which allow customers to make their own drinks with Herbalife supplements, became popular, but many at-home drinkers like the Stockstills are intentionally bypassing MLM ingredients to avoid supporting companies they see are harmful. Others made a similar decision in an attempt first to save money — who wouldn’t want to spend 65 cents on a good drink instead of $8?
Thanks to social media platforms like Instagram, TikTok, and Pinterest, a DIY version of the loaded tea craze is becoming increasingly popular — these sites are replete with recipes for loaded teas and other “health drinks” like collagen-infused “beauty teas” that only require a trip to the grocery store, not an initial investment of nearly $100 in Herbalife products. But nutrition clubs are still opening across the country at a rapid clip, and there’s an obvious demand for loaded teas and meal replacement shakes, whether they’re made with Herbalife products in a store or by yourself at home.
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