Pai You Guo

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Tainted Weight-Loss Supplement Still Widely Used Despite Recall

In the great battle between government regulators and dietary supplement peddlers, some think the regulators are losing.

According to Harvard Medical School researchers, a slew of dietary supplements contaminated with “a dangerous mix of banned pharmaceuticals” continue to be widely sold and used by women in the Boston area despite regulatory efforts to stop sales of the illegal products.

Indeed, nearly a quarter of the more than 550 women surveyed in the Harvard study were using or had previously used one product in particular, Pai You Guo, a weight-loss supplement made in China and known to be adulterated with the appetite suppressant sibutramine, which was pulled from the U.S. market because of increased risk of heart attack, stroke and cancer, and the laxative phenolphthalein, withdrawn from over-the-counter sales in 1997 “due to its carcinogenic properties,” the study says.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced a “voluntary” recall of Pai You Guo in 2009, but researchers say the move had “little effect” on the number of women using it.

Study author Pieter Cohen, a general internist at Cambridge Health Alliance and Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School said that despite intense outreach by doctors and the FDA about the perils of taking such contaminated products, not a single woman interviewed in the study was aware of the FDA action. Moreover, the majority of those surveyed began taking Pai You Guo after the recall went into effect, he said.

Participants were a group of Brazilian-born women who attended a primary care clinic in Somerville, Mass., or one of several nearby churches. (Cohen said there was evidence that the weight-loss supplements were popular among these immigrants.) Researchers found that participants who were overweight, obese or lacked health insurance were more likely than normal weight and insured women to report taking Pai You Guo, which means “the fruit that sheds the fat” in Mandarin.

The study, published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, focused only on Pai You Guo, a poster child for dangerous, drug-laden, over-the-counter products masquerading as natural slimming aids. (With nice marketing too, after all, who wouldn’t want to look like the hot, svelte, bikini-clad model on the box?) Taken as a capsule, or as a tea, Pai You Guo has been featured in news stories, and the general problem of contaminated supplements has been widely reported, for instance, in The New England Journal of Medicine, among other publications. But Cohen says there are literally hundreds of different tainted weight-loss supplements, with names like Super Slim and Planta Fruita, sold in shops around town. Continue reading