DAVID GREENE, HOST:
If you find it hard to change your diet or hit the gym more, maybe you've looked at weight loss supplements as an easier fix. Well, this morning some reasons to reconsider. NPR's Allison Aubrey has been looking at new research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Turns out some dietary supplements that have been recalled by the Food and Drug Administration are actually still on the market, and they might be putting consumers at risk.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Americans spend about $4 billion a year on weight loss supplements. But physician Pieter Cohen of Cambridge Health Alliance in Massachusetts says he now warns his patients to beware. And why?
PIETER COHEN: Several years ago, I was struck that many of my patients were taking a weight loss supplement that the FDA had already recalled. And I was struck by both the side effects that they were having and the fact that they were still able to purchase them.
AUBREY: The supplements had been recalled because they contained a banned drug, or dangerous ingredient. Side effects of patients told them about included anxiety, a racing heart and trouble sleeping. Cohen wondered, was this just one rogue distributor selling a tainted product, or was the problem more pervasive? To look into it, Cohen and his colleagues got a list of 274 products that the FDA recalled between 2009 and 2012, not just weight loss products, but also sports and sexual enhancement products. They also looked to see which ones were still on the market.
COHEN: And then we went about purchasing those products to see what was really in them.
AUBREY: They analyzed 27 products, and they found in about two-thirds of them the dangerous ingredients have not been removed.
COHEN: I was so disheartened to see that so many manufacturers would have the chutzpah to continue selling the exact same product.
AUBREY: Take, for instance, a product called Zi Xiu Tang Bee Pollen Capsules. The FDA took action to recall this product back in late 2012 because it contained a banned drug called sibutramine, which can increase the risk of heart attacks. But this product can still be found on the Internet.
DANIEL FABRICANT: People selling these products should be enforced against to the fullest extent of the law.
AUBREY: That's Daniel Fabricant, the CEO of the Natural Products Association, which represents the supplement industry. He says the distributors of the illegal products are not part of the legitimate supplement industry.
FABRICANT: The products analyzed in this study aren't supplements. People selling these products online don't represent the industry.
AUBREY: In a written statement, the FDA told us that they pursue civil and criminal enforcement against fraudulent distributors. But cracking down on them is tough. For instance, a weight loss product such as the bee pollen capsules, which appears to be manufactured overseas, may be sold by dozens of different distributors in the U.S. Candy Tsourounis is a pharmacy professor at UC, San Francisco. She says her advice is to steer clear of all weight loss supplements.
CANDY TSOUROUNIS: I think what's the most striking is that these supplements pose a significant health risk.
AUBREY: And she says even weight loss products that don't contain banned substances are unlikely to help.
TSOUROUNIS: None of these supplements have adequately been tested to demonstrate that they work even marginally.
AUBREY: To sustain weight loss over time. Allison Aubrey, NPR News.
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