Hundreds of sex and diet pills tainted with unapproved drugs, study shows

Leslie Hanson
October 14, 2018

During that period, 776 supplements marketed for muscle building, sexual enhancement, or weight loss were found to contain prescription drugs, such as the stimulant ephedrine, anabolic steroids, and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) commonly prescribed to treat anxiety and depression, as well as the active ingredients in erectile dysfunction drugs Viagra and Cialis, to name a few.

The new paper, written by a team from the California Department of Public Health, was published online Friday in JAMA Network Open. Such products are not meant to prevent or treat diseases, but is a $35 billion industry. Supplements aren't intended as a substitute for food.

Dietary supplements promising weight loss, sexual enhancement, or muscle building were the overwhelming majority of supplements identified by the FDA as adulterated. And "all of the ones that are not recalled will remain on the market.' It's unclear exactly why these products weren't recalled".

Of dietary supplements available for sale in the US from 2007 to 2016, the FDA identified 776 that were adulterated with active pharmaceuticals yet rarely used its mandatory recall authority, instead opting for softer warnings, reported Madhur Kumar, PhD, of the California Department of Public Health in Sacramento, and colleagues in JAMA Network Open. "The drug ingredients in these dietary supplements have the potential to cause serious adverse health effects owing to accidental misuse, overuse, or interaction with other medications, underlying health conditions, or other pharmaceuticals within the supplement". One product contained a drug that raises blood pressure and another drug that lowers it. About 1 in 5 products (20 percent) were found to contain more than one hidden drug ingredient, the study found.

But the agency is responsible for testing any suspicious products and issuing recalls if they contain any mislabeled, potentially unsafe or unapproved ingredients.

For example, some muscle-building supplements were found to include actual steroids or similar ingredients, while sexual enhancement supplements were found to contain sildenafil, the active ingredient in Viagra. "If people choose to start taking supplements without medical advice, Cohen recommends 'single-ingredient" supplements rather than supplements with mixtures of ingredients, and to avoid supplement that promise health benefits like weight loss.


Under a decades-old act, supplements are classified as a type of food and do not receive the same federal regulation as drugs.

Dr. Pieter A. Cohen of Cambridge Health Alliance in MA said that although the FDA discovered 746 adulterated supplements, it announced voluntary recalls for fewer than half of these products. She noted that once an adulterated supplement is discovered, "the agency's primary objective is to mitigate any risk posed to public health by informing consumers about any dangers associated with the product and to work to remove it from the market as soon as possible".

He questioned the effectiveness of voluntary recalls - the most common approach by the FDA.

Cohen, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, believes that "more than FDA action will be required to ensure that all adulterated supplements are effectively and swiftly removed from the market".

"As the dietary supplement industry continues to grow in the United States, it is essential to further address this significant public health issue", the authors concluded.

About 20 percent of the warnings identified products containing more than one unapproved ingredient, the investigators found. Sildenafil (commonly known as Viagra) was the ingredient in almost half of the warnings concerning sexual enhancement supplements.

Other reports by Iphone Fresh

Discuss This Article

FOLLOW OUR NEWSPAPER