Pai You Guo, a supposedly natural weight-loss supplement from China that, according to federal authorities, has tested positive in the past for containing two hazardous drugs, including a suspected carcinogen. The product was recalled in 2009. One of Dr. Cohen’s patients in the Boston area ended up in the hospital last year with a range of ailments after taking Pai You Guo, a brand-name that, loosely translated from Chinese, means “the fruit that eliminates fat.”
Marketing drugs in the guise of supplements is illegal in the United States. Tainted Pai You Guo is just one small part of that global business. Federal authorities are struggling to identify and intercept these black-market goods, which, they warn, pose grave health risks.
The makers of legal dietary supplements — the kind found at GNC, for example — acknowledge they are reluctant to raise too many alarms. Even though there is little evidence that many dietary supplements provide real health benefits, legal supplements, from multivitamins to ginkgo biloba, are a big and growing business. Americans spent $28.1 billion on them last year, up from $21.3 billion five years ago, according to estimates from Nutrition Business Journal, a market research firm.
Many millions more are also being spent annually on black-market products, particularly those marketed for weight loss, bodybuilding and sexual enhancement. Some of these products, according to the F.D.A., contain amphetamines, synthetic steroids, laxatives and compounds like the active drug in Viagra. Officials say such products can cause heart attacks and strokes, and can damage the kidneys and liver. A few people in the United States, they say, have died after taking them.
Tainted products are not merely a fringe problem. Major chains like GNC and the Vitamin Shoppe, for example, withdrew a weight-loss brand called StarCaps from their stores three years ago after reports surfaced that the product, marketed as a papaya-based supplement, contained a powerful diuretic drug.
Meanwhile, many companies promote genuine dietary supplements with enthusiastic claims that resemble those of adulterated products, regulators say, making it hard for consumers to distinguish between the legal and the illegal, the harmless and the potentially dangerous.