Updated 29 September 2014

Dodgy weight-loss pills may slip through as health supplements

The promises of a 'slimmer you' made by over-the-counter pills, potions and drops generally do not materialise,yet the public is forever searching for a get-slim-quick scheme. New proposed regulations could see weight-loss pills slip through as 'health supplements'.


Synchronicity is a fascinating phenomenon, and when it happens it sends a shiver down my spine and makes me look over my shoulder . . .

Promises don't materialise

Last week someone asked me which Herbex products would make her lose weight. I replied that I am not in favour of over-the-counter (OTC) pills, potions and drops that claim to help one lose weight. The promises of a “slimmer you” generally do not materialise and some of the Herbex products and ingredients can cause negative side-effects, including addiction.

Shortly after that I settled down with The Times to read the news of the day. And lo and behold, there on page two I stumbled on the article “Health products’ big fat lies” by Katharine Child. A coincidence indeed!

Read: Take care with over-the-counter medication

The article mentions that Judge Kate O’Regan of the Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa (ASASA), “has banned Herbex from claiming in advertisements that its Attack the Fat Syrup, Appetite Control Tablets and Booster Eat-Less Drops help people shed weight.”

ASASA Ruling

Judge O’Regan ruled that the advertisements featuring the above mentioned Herbex products are not based on sound evidence and that there was no scientific proof to support the claims that ingredients such as buchu, artichoke and green tea cause weight loss.

The case against Herbex Attack the Fat Syrup, Appetite Control Tablets and Booster Eat-Less Drops was brought before the ASASA by Dr Harris Steinman, a medical doctor, consumer activist and author of a number of evidence-based allergen reference books.

Read: Slimming herbs dissected

Dr Steinman has repeatedly exposed scam slimming and other alternative health products with the help of the ASASA. Dr Steinman’s Website, CAMcheck is “A South African consumers’ guide to scams, pseudoscience and voodoo science”. On the CAMcheck Website you will find many of the most popular OTC slimming products listed as scams, with an ASASA ruling or ban against their blatant adverts.

There are in fact more than 13 CAMcheck posts related to various Herbex products, such as “Herbex ‘admits’ to scam!”, published on 5 March 2014, on Dr Steinman’s website.

Regulatory loopholes

Serious health professionals have been worried for decades about many Complementary and Alternative Medicines (CAMs), particularly in relation to slimming and weight-loss products that can be purchased over the counter without a prescription and thus without any professional guidance or supervision.

Last November, the Medicines Control Council published Regulation R. 716, General Regulations Made in Terms of The Medicines & Related Substances Act, 1965 (Act No. 101 of 1965), which was hailed as the solution to the problem of “quack” slimming products.

Read: More slimming products removed

However, since then a draft Amendment published this month seems to be about to open loopholes for manufacturers of “snake oil” slimming pills and potions. According to this Amendment, a new category of medicines called “health supplements” may allow products that would have been withdrawn, to claim that they are actually “health supplements” and therefore, need not be prohibited (Child, 2014). 

Hopefully the draft will be vigorously opposed by the health profession, so that this loophole can be plugged.

Read: Will your favourite alternative medicines disappear from the shelves?  

Why humans fall for quackery

I have often wondered how intelligent people allow themselves to be duped over and over again by the same scam. It must have something to do with our propensity for chasing dreams of instant solutions to all bodily ills, including obesity.

Just think of the age-old search for the Philosopher’s Stone that supposedly turns base metal into gold, or the belief that the Elixir of Youth could be found somewhere on this earth. Because of the current global problem with overweight and obesity, most modern Elixirs, of course, promise miraculous weight loss.

Read: Supreme Slim is suplremely misleading

All we can do at this stage is to warn the public not to waste their hard-earned money on products that do not deliver the goods and may even cause physical harm. If you insist on chasing after rainbows, no one can stop you, but I fear you will not find the proverbial pot of gold at the end of your journey.

You should instead try to become more active by doing some form of physical activity or reduce your daily energy intake by a modest 500 kcal or 2,250 kJ. You certainly won’t drop 10 kg in a week, but you will lose slowly, feel better and firm up.

Read more: 

The Kardashians and the diet pills
The dodgy ingredients in diet pills
African mango - weight loss wonder fruit?



Child K (1996). Health products’ big fat lies. The News published on 26 September 2014, p. 2

Government Gazette (2013). Regulation R. 716, General Regulations Made in Terms of The Medicines & Related Substances Act, 1965 (Act No. 101 of 1965). Published on 15 September 2014. Government Gazette, Pretoria

Steinman H (2014). CAMcheck - A South African consumers’ guide to scams, pseudoscience and voodoo science.  

Image: Measuring tape and diet pills from Shutterstock

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Dr Ingrid van Heerden is a registered dietician and holds a doctoral degree in Nutrition and Biochemistry. She believes that "we are what we eat" and offers free nutrition and weight loss advice via her DietDoc service on Read more of her articles.


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