The scrutiny over the potential safety risks of diet pills continues, with the recent discovery of an untested amphetamine-like compound in a host of popular sports supplements that are marketed as products to assist with weight loss, athletic performance, and brain function.
Researchers found the substance, named BMPEA, in products advertised as containing Acacia rigidula, a plant found in Texas. Their study, published in the journal Drug Testing and Analysis, said that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) didn’t order the removal of the substance or warn consumers despite knowing about its presence since 2013.
While little is known about BMPEA’s effects on human health, the substance is banned by the World Anti-Doping Association because it is similar to an amphetamine. Studies conducted on dogs and cats in the 1930s and 1940s drew a connection between the substance and increased blood pressure and heart rate.
The latest study about BMPEA started from research that the FDA launched in 2012 on supplements containing the Acacia rigidula plant that led to the discovery of BMPEA in nine of 21 supplements tested.
“The FDA should immediately warn consumers about BMPEA and take aggressive enforcement action to eliminate BMPEA in dietary supplements,” the study’s authors concluded. “Physicians should remain vigilant for patients presenting with toxicity from sports and weight-loss supplements as they might contain undisclosed stimulants, such as BMPEA.”
In a statement in response to the new research, FDA officials said that the current information about the number of products that contain BMPEA “does not identify a specific safety concern at this time.” However, the agency added that it will “consider taking regulatory action, as appropriate, to protect consumers.”
This news comes amid contentious debate about the manner in which the FDA has regulated dietary supplements, as critics argue the agency has failed to act proactively to take dangerous and misleading dietary supplements off the shelves. However, part of the issue stems from the current laws in the area. The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 say that diet pills and sports supplements aren’t subject to testing before entering the market.
The law as it stands has, in some way, allowed dietary supplement companies to market their products as the real deal, even if they contain dangerous ingredients. For example, a recent study by New York state prosecutors led to the discovery of ingredients in GNC Holding’s diet products that weren’t listed on their labels. Last month, the national supplement retail giant signed a settlement agreement with New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneideman that required it to use DNA-based testing to verify the ingredients in its herbal supplements.
“If this data is accurate, then it is an unbelievably devastating indictment of the industry,” Dr. Pieter Cohen, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and an expert on supplement safety, told the New York Times in the wake of the investigation in February. “We’re talking about products at mainstream retailers like Walmart and Walgreens that are expected to be the absolute highest quality.”
More than 17 percent of adults used nonvitamin, nonmineral dietary supplements in 2012, classifying the products as one of the most popular natural health methods in the country, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report. Nearly five percent of children between the ages of 4 and 17 also use these products. Even with the cloud of uncertainty around their safety and effectiveness, dietary supplements have remained the top alternative health methods since 2002. Eighty-five percent of Americans believe these products are safe, which has translated to annual sales of more than $30 billion.
Questions about the safety of ingredients notwithstanding, the popularity of dietary supplements has placed alternative medicine in the spotlight. Alternative medicine — defined as methods of treatment that are not a part of conventional medical training — has found increasing appeal among Americans amid skepticism about the medical industry. Recent surveys have shown that Americans are increasingly distrustful of doctors, which falls in line with the public’s general distrust of institutions.
However, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine — housed under NIH — spends about $120 million annually to research complementary and alternative medicine, and hasn’t yet found much evidence to support the alternative treatments being studied there, including dietary supplements.
Last week, 14 state attorneys general wrote a letter to Congress pressuring lawmakers to launch an investigation into the supplements industry. “My fellow attorneys general and I are urging Congress to consider stronger federal oversight of the herbal supplements industry so that members of the public have full information about a product they are ingesting,” Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller said in a press release announcing the initiative.