The Scary New Amphetamine Now Being Added to Weight Loss Pills
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The Scary New Amphetamine Now Being Added to Weight Loss Pills


It seems like only yesterday that Dexatrim had to yank the ephedra out of their products so weight-losing souls wouldn’t die from a heart attack. Well, the weight-loss supplement biz is back at it again. According to a recent study published in the journal Drug Testing and Analysis, supplement manufacturers have been adding a potentially dangerous synthetic amphetamine-like chemical called BMPEA to pills containing the plant Acacia rigidula without telling anyone.

Science uncovered the dirty little secret through DNA barcoding, a technology that unravels supplements’ genetic codes, parsing out each and every substance in a diet pill—from cornstarch to echinacea (when it’s actually present) to the questionable BMPEA.

The Food and Dumb Administration?

Shady dealings in the supplement industry aren’t exactly news. Just this February, Walmart, Target, GNC and Walgreens bit some serious dust after selling bogus herbal supplements cut with allergenic fillers like wheat and beans. Why didn’t the FDA stop this? Because under the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, dietary supplements are not subject to FDA approval prior to hitting shelves. And get this—supplement manufacturers are only required to use the “honor code,” that is, swear on their mothers’ lives that they’ve tested the efficacy and safety of their products diligently. But to think that anyone doing business in our predatory free marketplace abides by the honor code is naive to say the least.

Not only do we have a network of profit-driven supplement companies tampering with what might otherwise be healing herbs, but we’ve got a Food and Drug Administration that kept its mouth shut even when it knew there was risky business going on. In 2013, the FDA did its own study on weight-loss supplements containing Acacia rigidula and found a “non-natural” amphetamine in nine of the 21 brands they tested.

But they did nothing about it. They didn’t warn consumers, they didn’t order more research, they didn’t force the companies to nix the BMPEA  from their magic thin pills, and they didn’t pull the supplements from the shelves. It’s true the risks of BMPEA aren’t completely understood, but it’s known to jar the central nervous system and raise blood pressure and heart rate drastically.

“It’s mind-boggling,” says Pieter Cohen, a researcher at Harvard Medical School and lead author on the most recent study, which found that 11 of the supplements on the market containing Acacia rigidula have BMPEA. “The companies think they have complete impunity. They assume the FDA will do nothing about it. And they’re right.” He adds that the fact that the FDA hasn’t “done anything two years after their own research team sorted this out is completely inexplicable.”

Ditch the Diet Pills

The FDA piped into the conversation, with officials saying, “The FDA’s first priority with regard to dietary supplements is ensuring safety. While our review of the available information on products containing BMPEA does not identify a specific safety concern at this time, the FDA will consider taking regulatory action, as appropriate, to protect consumers.”

In the FDA’s defense, the 1994 law—a bipartisan effort that was signed into law by Bill Clinton—doesn’t give them much control over the supplement industry to begin with. On top of that, the agency is understaffed and overworked, so they could be excused for not addressing the BMPEA issue immediately.

Either way, until further notice, health experts are advising consumers to ditch the diet pills. Sounds pretty smart.

Not Worth Its Weight in Pounds

We all know that a fast but dangerous way to lose weight is to pop uppers. It’s how those runway models remain sickly-thin and why actors feign attention problems to weak-willed shrinks. Sure, fitting into size 000 jeans from Banana Republic feels awesome (for a chick, anyway), but is it worth taking an amphetamine that will also bring on irregular heartbeat, insomnia, anxiety, paranoia and malnutrition, and increase the risk of stroke, cardiac arrest and an addiction?

Runway models may say “Yes,” but that might be because they’ve already killed so many brain cells from snorting cocaine.

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About Author

Tracy Chabala is a freelance writer for many publications including the LA Times, LA Weekly, Smashd, VICE and Salon. She writes mostly about food, technology and culture, in addition to addiction and mental health. She holds a Master's in Professional Writing from USC and is finishing up her novel.