No Prescription Needed: Pharmaceuticals in Your Supplements

vintage photoThere are many fake products out there including foods like “virgin” olive oil, honey and branded liquor. I hear a lot about these because my work focuses on food and food safety. Food fraud seems to be on the rise…at the very least governments and researchers are devoting more resources to finding and tracking incidents. Sometimes adulteration of foods can be dangerous, but often, fraud takes the form of mislabeling or misbranding, dilution or substituting lower quality, less expensive ingredients. One recent example is the presence of horse meat in food sold as beef.

But other types of products like dietary supplements can prove more dangerous, particularly items like weight loss supplements. The US FDA monitors these products and sometimes finds some interesting compounds, including controlled pharmaceuticals.  

A few years ago I got a notice that one such product had been pulled from the market because it contained drugs that were considered

Throwing caution to the wind, I found a website still offering the product and ordered it immediately. My colleague Jack Cochran and I took a look using GC-TOFMS and GCxGC-TOFMS to see if we could find the same compounds as the FDA reported as well as anything else that looked interesting.

We found fenfluramine, sibutramine, propranolol and ephedrine, which were reported by the FDA. Fenfluramine was part of the weight loss drug Fen-Phen that was pulled from the market in 1997 because it is a stimulant that caused heart valve problems. Sibutramine has a similar story; it was prescribed as a weight loss drug until being withdrawn from the market in 2010 due to heart health concerns. Ephedrine is a CNS stimulant with a well-documented history of producing weight loss as well as recreational use. It has been linked to a host of adverse effects resulting in partial bans, restricted levels or requiring a prescription. Propranolol is a beta-blocker used to treat disorders like anxiety and panic as well as heart-related problems like hypertension and myocardial infarction.

We also found niacinamide which is part of vitamin B and a popular supplement often found in energy drinks. We detected caffeine as well as phenolphthalein. As a chemist, I immediately associated phenolphthalein with acid/base titrations and that pretty pink color. I found out that it is also a laxative that has been used for many years but has lost favor because it may be carcinogenic. Sounds like you would be full of energy, have to stay near a bathroom and be relaxed all at the same time while taking this product!

You can read the product instructions here…seems to me like it calls for a lot of this cocktail.


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