Dietary supplements are supposed to be made in facilities that follow guidelines set by the Food and Drug Administration, but there are some that may fly under the radar. Almost anyone can blend and package a supplement—even a product that contains potentially harmful ingredients. No special training or education is required to set up a supplement business. And the products don’t need to be approved by the FDA before they’re sold.

“We have found people manufacturing supplements in residential basements and in labs that were smaller than a bathroom,” says Lyndsay Meyer, an FDA spokeswoman.

To demonstrate just how easy it is to order equipment and ingredients, then package a supplement that looks just like one you might find at your local vitamin store, we decided to create our own.

We chose to make weight-loss capsules because they’re among the best-selling supplements on the market. They’re also some of the most dangerous supplements available. According to a study in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2015, they were responsible for about 25 percent of all supplement-related emergency-room visits by adults from 2004 to 2013, causing such symptoms as chest pain and a rapid heartbeat.

“Weight-loss supplements, along with those for bodybuilding and sexual enhancement, are commonly found to contain pharmaceutical drugs or illegal chemicals,” says Pieter Cohen, M.D., an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and an expert on adulterated dietary supplements. And, he says, “weight-loss supplements are among those most likely to feature false or misleading claims on their labels.”

In formulating our product, we didn’t include prescription drugs or any other illegal chemicals. But we did use potentially harmful ingredients that are sold legally.

We made about 80 capsules of our supplement, which we called Thinitol. If we had intended to market our product, we would have been required to register our facility with the FDA, a simple process of filling in a form with basic information such as our company name and address. But our product never left our building.

Guarana, Kava, Citrus Aurantium, Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA), Green Tea Extract,Garcinia Cambogia
Photo: John Walsh

Ingredients List

  • Guarana: A plant-based stimulant similar to caffeine, and a diuretic.
  • Citrus Aurantium: A stimulant and purported appetite suppressant.
  • Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA): A chemical marketed for its purported ability to reduce body fat and improve body composition.
  • Garcinia Cambogia: A plant extract claimed to prevent fat storage and suppress appetite.
  • Green Tea Extract: A stimulant and diuretic (and on our list of ingredients to avoid).
  • Kava: A plant root known for its capacity to relax muscles and induce sleep (also on our list of ingredients to avoid).

How We Did It

Step 1: Research and Development. We selected three types of ingredients for our formula. We chose extracts and chemicals marketed for weight loss that have not been clinically proved to be effective. We also included diuretics, which cause the body to lose water weight, and stimulants, which are known to suppress the appetite and boost metabolism. Most of the ingredients we selected are commonly found in weight-loss supplements.

Step 2: Procurement. It was relatively easy to find the ingredients and manufacturing advice online. A Google search using the phrase “how to make a supplement” directed us to instructional videos on YouTube. A Google Shopping search then led us to large, online vendors that sold all of the ingredients we wanted in powdered form (including the ones that are potentially dangerous). We also found common packaging materials, including empty gelatin capsules, a Cap-M-Quik gadget that fills 50 capsules at a time, white plastic containers, and clear plastic bands to be heat-sealed over the lids to prevent tampering. We ordered all of our supplies on Amazon and eBay. The total cost, including shipping, was $190.62. Everything arrived within 10 days.

Step 3: Manufacturing. We made our supplements on a desk in an editor’s office—a clear violation of the FDA’s Current Good Manufacturing Practices. First we measured and mixed the ingredients, then poured them into capsules using our Cap-M-Quik device. Packaging was a simple matter of counting out the capsules and putting them into a white plastic container, attaching a laser-printed label we designed, and shrink-wrapping a tamper-proof seal with a hair dryer. The whole process took about 10 minutes.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the September 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.