Your dietary supplement might contain banned drugs

Some manufacturers are flouting the FDA and continuing to sell illegal concoctions, study finds

Published: October 21, 2014 05:30 PM

Searching for a safe, natural product to help you lose weight, boost your libido, or pump up your pecs? Don’t be fooled by the seductive marketing claims for Botanical Slimming 100% Natural Softgel, Slim Xtreme Herbal Slimming Capsule, or Magic Power Coffee. Those supplements aren’t healthy, let alone magical. In fact, all three have been recalled by the Food and Drug Administration for containing banned drugs.

That would be a great success story except for this hitch: More than six months after they were supposedly yanked from the market, researchers found that many supplements recalled by the FDA are still being sold and still contain banned drugs. That revelation appears today in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

“The bottom line is that the FDA is simply not getting the job done,” said the study's author, Pieter Cohen, M.D., an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and an authority on dietary supplements. “Our laws are lax when it comes to regulating supplements. But it is at least clear that you cannot sell pharmaceutical drugs as if they are supplements.”

Cohen and his team tested 27 easily obtained supplements out of 274 that had been recalled between 2009 and 2012 for containing banned drugs. His study, financed in part by a grant from Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, found that two-thirds of the supplements were not only still easy to acquire, but also contained either the exact chemical the FDA had detected or another banned substance with a similar effect.

For example, they found that Slim Xtreme Herbal Slimming Capsule, which comes in a tantalizing package boasting that it will make you “Lose up to 20 Pounds in JUST 4 WEEKS!” contained sibutramine, a banned obesity drug similar to amphetamine. The drug may lead to some modest weight loss, Cohen said, but, “We know that it causes more harm than good when prescribed by doctors, so we can only imagine how much more harmful it can be when the doses vary.” Sibutramine, in fact, was withdrawn from prescription drugs in 2010 because it often caused side effects such as heart attack, stroke, dizziness, seizures, and depression.

Another supplement, Magic Power Coffee, pictured at top, is touted as a sexual enhancement drug that is “proven" to "increase libido” and “guarantee maximum potency.” It was taken off the market in 2010 when it was found to contain hydroxythiohomosildenafil. Yet Cohen’s team found that a recently purchased sample was spiked with a similar drug, sildenafil—the same drug found in Viagra.

Another harmful supplement, On Cycle II Hardcore, was removed from the market in 2009 when the FDA discovered that it was laced with a “steroid or steroid-like compound.” Frighteningly, Cohen’s team found that a recently purchased sample contained two anabolic steroids—drugs that may cause hepatitis, a severe inflammation of the liver that requires hospitalization. Steroids can also induce psychiatric changes, acne, and hair growth in men and women. Hardcore, indeed.

Cohen said that the FDA has spent millions tracking down tainted supplements and issuing warnings to their manufacturers. “The problem is that they don’t check that the products have been taken off the market,” he said. “There needs to be significant financial and legal consequences for repeatedly introducing banned substances in supplements.” (To see if a supplement you're taking has been found to be tainted, search the FDA's database.)

Without proper enforcement, Cohen said: “They are basically permitting manufacturers to continue selling these products that they themselves have identified as a high-priority risk to the public. There is no leadership. They send out alerts, but are they getting the products off the market? No.”

—Lauren Cooper

Watch out for these supplements

All of the supplements listed below were found found to contain banned or potentially dangerous drugs (shown parenthetically).

Weight-loss supplements

Botanical Slimming 100% Natural Softgel (sibutramine)

Everslim (fluoxetine, sibutramine)

Mince Belle (fluoxetine, N-didesmethyl sibutramine—an analog of sibutramine)

Slim Forte Slimming Capsule (sibutramine, phenolphthalein)

Slim Xtreme Herbal Slimming Capsule (benzyl sibutramine, an analog of sibutramine)

Zi Xiu Tang Bee Pollen Capsule (sibutramine, phenolphthalein)

Bodybuilding supplements

2a, 17a Methastadrol (anabolic steroid)

E-Pol: Inslinsified (two anabolic steroids)

Finaflex 550-XD (two anabolic steroids)

Forged Extreme Mass (anabolic steroid)

Novedex XT (aromatase inhibitor and an anabolic steroid)

On Cycle II Hardcore (two anabolic steroids)

P-Plex (anabolic steroid impurities)

M-Drol (anabolic steroid)

Massdrol (anabolic steroid)

Sexual enhancement supplement

Magic Power Coffee (sildenafil)

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