Introduction: Chinese medicine and herbal nonsense
The supplement market is something that we’ve always surveyed with caution: when there is a quick buck to make in unregulated markets, there will always be ‘cowboys’ looking to exploit people. This is incredibly common in the supplement industry –fuelled by the fact that weight loss is something that many people are desperate for and will try almost anything. In recent times, the FDA has been clamping down on diet pills that have dangerous ingredients – one of these was discussed in one of our reviews and there are many more on the market. In this article, we will take a brief overview of a number of recent cases where these pills have caused serious illness or death, as well as providing customer advice on how to avoid dangerous products on the market.
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Things to look out for: heart attack and FDA reviews
There are a wide variety of diet pills on the market and it is impossible for us to discuss the various dangers associated with them: whilst some compounds like DNP are inherently dangerous, it is always possible that a rogue supplement manufacturer might put Ricin in their products. Rather, we’re going to discuss some recent, high-profile cases and use them to highlight the larger problems so that you can take the right approach to supplementation.
Firstly, our own recent review of ‘Botanical slimming’ diet pills makes a great case for caution in the supplement market. The FDA registered a warning on this product due to the inclusion of sibutramine – a compound associated with increased event of heart attacks . The inclusion of this compound in the botanical slimming supplement means we should be incredibly rigorous with our reviews and choices of dietary supplements: this is likely to increase the incidence of heart attacks by 1.5 in 100 cases . In this case, there were numerous indicators that this product was “shady” to say the least.
Avoiding heart attack and death
The marketing and internet presence of a company is not the definitive measure of the product’s effectiveness, but when the company’s website shows structural inconsistencies like Botanical slimming’s, it is important to take serious time to research the supplements that you want to put into your body. Whilst it may be rather obvious advice to some, it is usually important to check the reviews of a product prior to buying it. Whilst there is an appeal to being the first person to stumble on a new “miracle” product, it is important to remember that a supplement that nobody knows about is less likely to be safe – especially without scientific evidence. Always look for the FDA’s review of a product to ensure that cases like this are avoided!
In the supplement market, companies are responsible for regulating themselves and providing customers with the information necessary to make informed decisions. The FDA is the closest thing to a real seal of approval in the industry: they can endorse products that are manufactured in good conditions and provide reliably-correct information. Equally, they can ban or condemn products that are life threatening. The ratings given to products provide an idea of the effectiveness and safety – always go for products that have actively sought out an FDA approval, this shows that they are “above board” and contain what the label says. They’re also less likely to give you a heart attack!
Things to look out for: “natural supplements”
Chinese diet pills tend to be marketed as an effective alternative to “western medicine” (or an active lifestyle and caloric deficit, apparently) and are consumed as any other dietary supplement. Aside from the fact that these tend to be ineffective, the worrying areas are the dangerous, life-threatening ingredients. Whilst these are often seen as herbal, natural remedies it is important to remember that natural things can be incredibly dangerous (for example, the death cap is a ‘natural’ mushroom but will also kill you pretty happily). One of the first things to note is that natural is not the same as healthy, and dismantling this scientific ignorance will improve market conditions.
Secondly, there is no real defined and widely-applied definition for “natural” products. The FDA has no real category for natural foods. This is purely a marketing trick that is used to make people think that they are eating healthy foods, as opposed to processed, chemical-ridden food. Whilst there are benefits to avoiding processed foods, dietary supplements are slightly different and drugs/chemicals are not bad things.
The irony here, of course, is that these supplements are far more dangerous than the chemical counterparts that they have opposed themselves to! For example, the FDA recently issued a recall on all products including Fenfluramine , after a large clinical report on the negative effects. This product, claimed “natural”, artificially increases the circulation of serotonin in the brain and reduces the sensation of hunger. As a dietary aid, this might seem to be a benefit as it will reduce the difficulty of sustaining a caloric deficit. However, this also causes serious damage to the valves of the heart, resulting in heart failure and death.
Avoiding valve failure and death
The issue here is the inclusion of “off-label” products. This simply means that the company did not put the ingredient on the bottle before selling them to unsuspecting customers. This is a shady dealing from the very start and we’d recommend avoiding buying internationally if possible: there are a huge wealth of moderately effective, domestically-produced and regulated supplements that have far fewer deaths associated with them. Whilst US companies are not bound by the kind of laws affecting drugs, they are more likely to be honest about their ingredients and are operating in a market where competition allows customers to receive an improved service.
It is important to search for the evidence pertaining to certain supplements and their ingredients when looking to add to a healthy diet. Our first principle for being a good consumer in the supplement industry is this: if the diet is not already consistent and healthy, then it is unnecessary to add supplementation in the first place. A reliance on the basics is one way of avoiding the influence of diet pills: diet pills exist for those who are desperate and do not understand the basics of nutrition and exercise. This is understandable, given the lack of formal education on nutrition in school, but it is still necessary to educate consumers about the products they may be ingesting.
This leads us to the second basic principle of being a smart consumer in the supplement market: if you don’t know what it does, don’t use it. This is really simple but should always be kept in mind – if you want to use a supplement, you should spend enough time researching it to have a solid understanding of the basics. This means understanding how it works, what it does, the pros and cons, and what side-effects you might expect. Our website provides you with the tools necessary to develop this kind of understanding, as do a variety of other websites and basic nutrition guides.
Things to look out for: cleanses and kidneys
We are always sceptical of “cleanse” products – these are generally aimed at reducing the build-up of toxins in the body (though these are always poorly defined) and the reduction of bodyfat. These are some of the most popular and controversial products on the market (because they don’t work!). Some of these are based on Chinese herbal remedies and aim to promote general health.
Imagine our surprise, therefore, when the FDA led a large recall on a number of Chinese diet pills which claimed to cleanse the body and improve “energy” for including numerous life-threatening products. These “cleansing” products were recalled after the drug was associated with several deaths in Japan. In reality, they contained a nephrotoxic (damages the kidneys) compound called aristolochic acid, which resulted in the development of serious kidney problems (and ultimately kidney failure) in certain populations. This compound is carcinogenic, mutagenic and nephrotoxic – It is hard to imagine a more counter-productive dietary supplement!
Avoiding kidney failure and death
The first step to avoiding this kind of horrible death is to know that the body is generally able to cleanse itself relatively well. If you want to assist the “cleansing” of the body then we suggest an increased dietary intake of fiber , water and high-quality vitamins and minerals. Beyond this, there are almost no benefits to the ‘cleansing’ products available in the supplement market and those that exist are generally aimed at improved “feelings” rather than improved function. These products also tend to depend on diuretics or laxatives to reduce bloating and bodyweight, both of which have severe negative health effects .
Closing remarks: how can consumers stay safe?
From what we’ve discussed so far, it might seem scary to look for supplements that aim to improve metabolic health and general wellness. However, there are plenty of safe, effective and healthy supplements that can improve your life in a variety of ways. However, this must be tempered by scepticism, research and a clear approach to supplementation. A few principles are enough to ensure that you don’t end up buying dangerous or useless supplements:
- Fix your diet first: supplements are for supplementing your diet, not replacing it!
- Always check for FDA reviews or customer reviews that might discuss possible side effects or health risks
- Avoid chasing the marketing of companies: never take ‘miraculous’ claims at face value! There are no magical diet pills or cleanses.
- Research products for yourself: if you don’t know what it is, you have no business buying or using it.
Following these principles should be enough to keep you from the worst of the supplement industry. This is not restricted to foreign supplements, either: supplements in general are lucrative and should be regarded with some skepticism – that’s why we provide a variety of reviews and articles discussing the various applications and shortcomings of supplements!
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 Vaysse et al (2010): ‘Analysis of adulterated herbal medicines and dietary supplements marketed for weight loss by DOSY H-NMR’. Food additives and contaminants, 7
 FDA (2009): ‘Early communication about an ongoing safety review of Meridia (sibutramine hydrochloride)’ [URL = https://www.fda.gov/Drugs/DrugSafety/PostmarketDrugSafetyInformationforPatientsandProviders/DrugSafetyInformationforHeathcareProfessionals/ucm191650.htm]
 FDA (1997): ‘Fen-Phen safety update information’ [URL = https://www.fda.gov/Drugs/DrugSafety/PostmarketDrugSafetyInformationforPatientsandProviders/ucm072820.html]
 Anderson et al (2009): ‘Health benefits of dietary fiber’. Nutrition reviews, 67(4), pp.188-205
 Pietrusko, R.G. (1977): ‘Use and abuse of laxatives’. American journal of health-system pharmacy, 34(3), pp.291-300
John has been a fitness enthusiast for over 10 years, starting out while struggling with obesity as a teenager. Over the years he has advised numerous clients on how to transform their physiques and their lives. As a writer on Nutrition Inspector he aims to help others achieve real results by staying clear of the common hype and false claims in the supplement industry!