Beware of weight-loss supplements spiked with speedlike drug

FDA knew for two years—but did nothing

Published: April 07, 2015 04:30 AM

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You might think that if the Food and Drug Administration found an untested amphetamine-like substance in an "herbal" remedy, the agency would shut the manufacturer down or at least warn consumers. You would be wrong.

Two years ago FDA scientists found such a substance, called BMPEA, in 9 of 21 supplements that claimed to contain the plant Acacia rigidula. But all the agency did was publish the results in an obscure publication called the Journal of Pharmaceutical and Biomedical Analysis.

Now, a Harvard researcher has gone back and retested 21 Acacia rigidula supplements, such as Jet Fuel Superburn and Fastin-XR, and found that 11 still contained the stimulantlike compound. BMPEA (beta-methylphenylethylamine), which does not occur naturally in Acacia rigidula, is chemically similar to amphetamines and has never been tested for human safety.

“It’s mind boggling,” said Pieter Cohen, M.D., the Harvard physician who is the lead author of the new study, published online in the journal Drug Testing and Analysis. “The companies think they have complete impunity. They assume the FDA will do nothing about it. And they’re right.”

Canada recalled Jet Fuel Superburn in December, and the United Kingdom’s Food Standards Agency has deemed Acacia rigidula a "novel food" that cannot be sold in Europe because it has not been proved safe for consumers, Cohen said. “How could the FDA just sit on its hands for two years as other countries act?” he asked.

Read more about the dangers of weight loss supplements, including garcinia cambogia, plus muscle-building supplements. To lose weight the healthy way, find the best diet for you.

Acacia rigidula

FDA officials said in a statement that their review of the available information on products containing BMPEA "does not identify a specific safety concern at this time," but that the agency "will consider taking regulatory action, as appropriate, to protect consumers."

The FDA's 2013 report said there are no known reports of Acacia rigidula ever being used as a traditional medicinal plant (although there are reports that cows who eat too much of it reproduce poorly).

Animal studies from the 1930s and 1940s found that BMPEA drives up blood pressure and heart rate in dogs and cats, according to Cohen's review. And studies in rats found that BMPEA crosses the blood-brain barrier. But BMPEA, which was presumably added to the Acacia rigidula products, has never been proved safe for human use, according to Cohen. "BMPEA is in a sense, being tested on buyers," Cohen says. "The consumer becomes the guinea pig."

Most Acacia rigidula supplements that contain BMPEA are promoted as weight-loss supplements; they include Vitocost’s Aro Black Series Burn; Dexaprine XR made by IForce Nutrition Tribravus Enterprises; iSatori’s MX-LS7; and six supplements sold by Hi-Tech Pharmaceuticals Inc., including Black Widow, Lipodrene Hardcore, Lipodrene Xtreme, Stimerex-ES, Yellow Scorpion and Fastin-XR. Fastin-XR and Lipodrene Hardcore actually list BMPEA, or Beta Methylphenylethylamine, on the label.

GAT’s Jet Fuel T-300 and Jet Fuel Superburn—which are promoted as sports supplements—also contain BMPEA.

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