Diet pills are big business. With Americans spending over $60 billion dollars a year on weight loss products and programs, but about a third of this sum goes to supplements with nearly $20 billion spent on weight loss pills, powders and supplements, according to Marketdata research. So if someone wanted to get involved in the supplement gold rush it would be pretty hard, right? After all, they’d need to hire chemists, buy quality ingredients, set up a sterile lab, conduct safety and efficacy research, get government approval, and everything else that goes into making a pill.
Actually, no, making and selling a supplement is shockingly (and terrifyingly) easy in the U.S. Need proof? Consumer Reports did a recent demonstration of just how easy it is to make a weight-loss pill.
Thinitol, their hilariously-named diet pill, was created solely by buying ingredients and packaging off the internet and then assembling them at their office desks. They even used a hair dryer to make a “safety seal” for good measure. But these pills were anything but safe—another thing they have in common with the diet supplement industry at large. Weight loss pills account for about 25 percent of all ER visits due to supplements, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
“In formulating our product, we didn’t include prescription drugs or any other illegal chemicals,” the Consumer Reports team wrote. “But we did use potentially harmful ingredients that are sold legally.”
These potentially harmful ingredients are ones used in many popular weight loss formulations including guarana, bitter orange, kava, and green tea extract. While they may sound all-natural and harmless, they can cause serious reactions, as evidenced by the FDA’s recent warning saying that green tea extract can cause liver damage.
Of course, Consumer Reports had no intention of selling their pills. But they said if they had, the last step would have been to register with the FDA, “a simple process of filling in a form with basic information such as our company name and address.”
And… that’s it! All you need to make and sell a weight loss pill is access to the internet, a credit card, and the ability to fill out a form. This puts the responsibility back on the consumer—a scary prospect considering the target market is desperate to find anything that works.
“The supplement market is very much a ‘buyer beware’ industry,” says Shawn Talbott, Ph.D., a nutritional biochemist at Harvard and author ofThe Secret of Vigor. “Consumers need to ask questions. Reputable companies will answer questions, disclose ingredients, and provide safety and research evidence for their products.”