Updated 01 July 2013

Illegal substances in OTC diet pills

Slimming pills sold in South Africa have been found to contain dangerous and illegal substances that could lead to heart problems and potentially increase your risk for cancer.


Popular over-the-counter slimming pills sold in South Africa have been found to contain dangerous and illegal substances that could lead to serious heart problems and potentially increase your risk for cancer.

Lean Genie’s JS Slim slimming capsules and Lifestyle Tradelink’s Fruits & Vegetables capsules, sold countrywide as "100% natural" Chinese herbal preparations with a promise of "advanced weight loss", have been found to contain sibutramine and phenolphthalein.

According to a report by Beeld newspaper, tests conducted by the University of Pretoria’s forensic toxicology laboratory found both these substances in product samples.

Sibutramine is a schedule-five drug which means it is only available on prescription. It assists weight loss by suppressing the appetite and increasing the metabolic rate, but can only be used legally under the supervision of a doctor.

Sibutramine can cause serious side effects such as heart palpitations and high blood pressure and increase the chances of a heart attack or stroke in people with a history of cardiovascular disease. It was in the news two years ago when it was found in popular slimming product Simply Slim and the company was ordered to remove their product from the South African market. (It has since been relaunched without the sibutramine ingredient.)

Cancerous tumours

Phenolphthalein is a laxative that has been popular for many years to aid weight loss until it was found that it could potentially cause cancer in humans. It had been withdrawn from the market more than 10 years ago after studies showed it caused cancerous tumours in mice and rats. 

Beeld recently also investigated the Chinese Kangmei slimming capsules, which are commonly sold with the JS Slim slimming capsules, and being marketed as "possibly the most effortless, affordable way to melt away the excess weight". Four containers of Kangmei, bought from four different sources across South Africa, have so far been tested positive for sibutramine.

As the Kangmei, JS Slim and Fruit & Vegetables capsules are often sold in combo deals, consumers who use two or more of these products run the risk of ingesting a double dose of sibutramine and/or phenolphthalein.

'No control over ingredients'

Says Dr Ingrid van Heerden, registered dietician and Health24’s DietDoc: "The current exposé does not come as a surprise. The public in South Africa are exposed to a variety of potentially dangerous ingredients in over-the-counter slimming pills and products. I have repeatedly warned the public if they want or need to lose weight, that they should not use such products.

“We have no control over the ingredients that are slipped into such products and not declared on the label and if you use these products you expose yourself and your health to the risk of serious harm. This is not the first ‘slimming pill scandal’ due to the presence of dangerous, but unlisted ingredients, and it will probably not be the last either.

"Until our regulatory bodies such as the Medicines Control Council, take responsibility for these pills and potions, our population remains at risk. Such products should not even enter the country, much less be sold to people who use them in good faith for slimming purposes."


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