This is a drum I’ve been trying to beat for a very long time.
There’s no oversight. There’s no regulation. There’s no clinical trials.
“We have found people manufacturing supplements in residential basements and in labs that were smaller than a bathroom,” says Lyndsay Meyer, an FDA spokeswoman. [source]
They can’t even recall the item and force the company to pull them off the shelves unless they’re proven to be killing people on first swallow, and even then, it’s a convoluted process. At that point, it’d be far more likely that the company would simply self-regulate and pull it from the shelves on their own; very few brands are strong enough to absorb that kind of bad publicity.
That being said, when Consumer Reports set out to show juuuuust how easy it is do create these pill brands out of thin air, they showed just how easy it is to create a scam that swiftly profits off the desperation of an increasingly health-conscious* population.
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.” [source]
What were those ingredients they chose to put in their homemade weight loss pills?
- 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). [source]
It’s worth noting that none of those are proven to do anything they’re claimed to be able to do.
And wait—how on earth do you buy something like that?
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. [source]
They put the pills together at their desks, y’all. At. Their. Desks.
I think you can get even more micro-analytical than that, though.
1) How did Consumer Reports—or anyone buying these products from Amazon or eBay, for that matter—know that they were actually getting what they were ordering? Sure, you ordered guarana powder, but how did you know you were getting exactly that instead of, say, some other random stimulant mixed in with rice powder? How did you know that you were receiving the proper strength? How did you know the proper amount to put in your individual pill, and did you know it wasn’t enough to give someone a heart attack?
In reporting from PBS’ Newshour, they pointed out that these pills often contain filler powders—so that the pill feels heavy and weighty enough—that are made from known allergens like rice and wheat, or carcinogenic compounds used in the processing and powdering process. In fact, reporting from Washington Post talked about how these “supplement powder” companies hire poor Appalachians to pick random roots and weeds off mountains and pay them per pound for what they bring. Doesn’t matter if it isn’t actually St. John’s Wort—if the company can pass it off as something decent, then they’re fine with it. It’s referred to as an “underground economy.”
And, because these little Amazon and eBay purchased happen on a smaller level, it’s near-impossible to get justice if you are given the wrong item. These aren’t insured companies, especially if they’re mixing pills on the kitchen counter, so suing for damages is an impossibility.
2) Y’all don’t even eat any-ol-body’s potato salad. Somebody potentially mixing pills on a kitchen counter? Bruh. Take a pill and let a random cat hair come out of it while it’s in you. I don’t know about you, but the mere thought makes me ready to taste my dinner twice.
3) If you don’t think the exact same thing happens with all these random soupy belly loose booty laxative teas out here, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you. And, it’s for the exact same reasons as I mentioned in that first point—there is no reasonable discernment with regard to what leaves they’re actually putting in those bags, regardless of whatever flowery unregulated language they’re using to convince you to make the purchase.
4) Most importantly, you should know that because there’s no real proven chemical compound or substance that directly targets fat burning, the only—and most common—thing you’ll find in fat burner pills is caffeine. If you look at the list of ingredients in the Consumer Reports’ list above, you’ll notice several instances of “stimulants.” That’s caffeine. The point is for the stuff to elevate your heart rate in such a way that it causes you to be jittery; the jitters cause you to move more, make you more anxious, causing a slight increase in the calories you burn all day.
While that might sound like a positive, you have to remind yourself that you’re introducing literally unknown substances into your body all to just get the same benefits you get from drinking a cup of coffee, and coffee is far more reliable a substance in terms of clarity and ingredients.
What’s more, but in an era where it seems like black women are experiencing heart disease at rates that are complicating everything from birthing babies to regular checkups, introducing a foreign stimulant that had the ability to raise your heart rate beyond what you might actually be capable of handling terrifies me.
And I don’t use that kind of dramatic language often.
So, please—pleeeeeeeease—stop using this stuff. If anything, just get yourself a good shot of espresso or something. But don’t buy this stuff, and definitely don’t rely on this stuff to create weight loss. It’s incredibly dangerous, and not even remotely worth it.