Neural Science

This weight loss supplement contains toxic ingredient that can be deadly, study finds

Weight loss supplements sold online don’t always contain what the label claims they do, and in some cases, that can lead to toxic results, a new study has found.

For the study, published this week in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, researchers investigated a poisoning case in which a 23-month-old child consumed their mother’s diet pills.

The mother had purchased the weight loss supplements online and was led to believe they contained tejocote root, an ingredient the researchers say is frequently marketed on social media and elsewhere on the internet. After ingesting the product, her child began to experience nausea and vomiting. At the hospital, the child also developed a slowed heart rate and low blood pressure.

An emergency physician called the New Jersey Poison Information and Education System and, at their direction, administered an overdose antidote. After another 12 hours, the patient received another dose of the antidote, and their levels returned to normal.

Based on this experience with what were likely mislabeled pills, per the report, the study authors, one of whom is a doctor with the New Jersey Poison Information and Education System, decided to investigate. They tested 10 products sold online claiming to contain tejocote root, including the one the patient’s mother had bought.

Of those 10 products, nine of them didn’t contain any tejocote root and instead contained 100% yellow oleander, a substance known to be toxic. The one product that didn’t contain yellow oleander didn’t contain any tejocote root either.

“These readily available dietary supplements, upon testing, appeared to be mislabeled,” the study authors wrote. “Instead, they contained a toxic substance of concern to both clinicians and public health officials.”

An earlier case report found that a weight loss supplement labeled as tejocote root caused similar symptoms in a 16-year-old girl, who’d taken her mother’s. Afterward, she became drowsy, began vomiting and having diarrhea, and developed a severely low heart rate, according to a 2019 case study in the Journal of Medical Toxicology.

Earlier this month, the Food and Drug Administration warned consumers that weight loss supplements labeled as Nuez de la India also contained yellow oleander and had sent at least one person to the hospital. “Ingestion of yellow oleander can cause neurologic, gastrointestinal and cardiovascular adverse health effects that may be severe, or even fatal,” the FDA said.

Those symptoms can include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Dizziness
  • Changes in heart rate or an abnormal heart rate

Dietary supplements, including those marketed for weight loss, are not regulated in the same way that prescription drugs are, as the FDA does not test them for safety or efficacy or to ensure that they contain what the label says they do before they’re sold to consumers. Instead, that responsibility falls to the companies making and selling the supplements.

The FDA has warned consumers about this issue before, especially with regard to weight loss supplements and male enhancement supplements. The agency recently tested nearly 70 products for sale at major online retailers and found many of them didn’t contain what they claimed to or that they contained active ingredients that weren’t listed on the label.

The FDA urges caution when taking a new supplement and to steer clear of any supplements that come with miraculous health claims, such as preventing or curing a disease. It’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor before taking any new pill or supplement, the FDA says, even if it seems safe because you can buy it over-the-counter.

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