High concept

For the past five years, multilevel juice marketer Morinda (#26) has ridden the fortunes of a booming alternative-health-care market to $392 million in annual sales. That's pretty impressive, considering that its product has been described as smelling like goats, vomit, and rotten cheese.

Morinda's controversial juice mixes the noni fruit, a product of Tahiti and the other islands of French Polynesia, with blueberry and grape juice to render it palatable. Morinda's beverage line accounts for 90% of annual sales. The company also offers skin-care products and protein-shake mixes containing the extract.

While some noni fans believe the bitter-tasting extract to be an elixir for ailments ranging from the common cold to arthritis to cancer, Morinda executives make no such claims. The attorneys general of California, New Jersey, Texas, and Arizona investigated Morinda in 1998, alleging that the company's 500,000 enthusiastic independent reps touted the company's noni juice as a medicine. Morinda has never sought nor received Food and Drug Administration approval to market the product in that way. Morinda settled the suits and paid $100,000 as part of a voluntary compliance agreement, although the company admitted no wrongdoing.

The brouhaha aside, company founder John Wadsworth stands by the product, calling it "just remarkable juice." His research team continues to study Morinda citrifolia (noni's scientific name), and they're developing several new applications for it. "We believe that we know more about this plant and this product than anybody in the world," Wadsworth says.

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