Poisons Found in Weight Loss Supplements

A recent study discovered the presence of a wide variety of illicit and unlabeled weight-reducing agents in over-the-counter weight loss products. This is scary news since more and more people looking for a “quick fix” are turning to weight loss promises in pill or liquid form. U.S. consumer sales of dietary supplements, which includes over the counter weight loss supplements, increased 6 percent to $26.9 billion in 2009. But often times these weight loss supplements are too good to be true, and alarmingly, new research shows that several of them contain illegal agents that can be toxic, or even fatal.

The biggest concern with weight loss supplements is that they are not FDA regulated. In other words, there are no official policies or rules in place for proper formula approval, ingredient sourcing, quality testing, or product manufacturing. The products do not undergo a formal or thorough inspection that says it’s safe to put the product on drugstore shelves. The FDA only gets involved if consumers report problems with the product after-the-fact.  If a supplement is not FDA regulated, you can’t know for sure what’s in it, what the efficacy is, or what the potential side effects are.

For this study, the researchers retroactively examined cases of patients who had been poisoned by slimming products over a five year period. Specifically, they analyzed 81 weight-loss products that had been taken by 66 patients who had come in to the hospital in Hong Kong for treatment for poisoning. One of the 66 patients died.

Researchers discovered that several weight loss products, including those which were marketed as “natural,” contained some or all of the agents listed below. Disturbingly, in some products, all six illicit substances were found.

  • Sibutramine was the most commonly encountered agent in the study. In the US, this compound was sold under the trade name Meridia, a prescription anti-obesity drug that was voluntarily withdrawn by the manufacturer this month, after a study showed it was associated with an elevated risk of heart attack and stroke.
  • Fenfluramine, which is an appetite-suppressing compound more commonly known as half of the banned substance called “Fen-Phen.” This weight-loss drug was pulled from the U.S. market in 1997 for its high association with heart valve damage among users.
  • Phenolphthalein which is a laxative that was withdrawn from the U.S. market because of its carcinogenic potential.
  • N-nitrosofenfluramine, which has been associated with numerous cases of liver injury.
  • Laxatives or diuretics, both of which can disturb fluid and electrolyte balance. While these may result in short-term changes on the scale, they do not produce actual loss of body mass: diuretics cause weight loss in the form of water weight; not fat tissue.
  • Thyroid Hormones, shockingly, in the form of animal thyroid tissue were discovered. Increased levels of thyroid hormone rev up the metabolism, which can result in weight loss. But excessive thyroid hormone may result in impaired thyroid function in the absence of the supplement.

Authors of the study note that the results of this study are “not intended to reflect the market trend or prevalence of the illicit agents [in these supplements.]” And though the study was conducted in Hong Kong, this category of supplements have a similarly bad track record in the U.S. as well.  In 2004, the FDA banned the sale of supplements that contained ephedra, and last year, a popular product called Hydroxycut was recalled after numerous reports of severe liver damage among users.  Currently, the FDA maintains a list of 70 weight loss products that contain many of the same undeclared drug ingredients found in the Hong Kong study.

Some people who turn to supplements to lose weight may see results, but at what cost? Ideally, the motivation for losing weight would be to improve overall health, but if the mechanism used to achieve weight loss is harmful, it would seem to defeat the purpose.

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