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New study finds 11 supplements with amphetamine-like ingredient

"The companies think they have complete impunity," said study author Pieter Cohen. "They assume the FDA will do nothing about it. And they’re right."

By Brooks Hays
New study finds 11 supplements with amphetamine-like ingredient
All 11 of the BMPEA-positive supplements heralded the metabolic effects of Acacia rigidula, a perennial shrub called blackbrush found in south Texas and Mexico. Photo by the U.S. Geological Survey

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., April 7 (UPI) -- Dieters who take weight-loss supplements may be unknowingly consuming a synthetic amphetamine-like chemical called BMPEA. According to a new Harvard study, as many as 11 supplements on the market contain the potentially dangerous ingredient.

All 11 of the supplements are available at popular retail stores and online, and are advertised as "all-natural." The supplements all include an ingredient listed as Acacia rigidula, a shrub found in Texas and Mexico and more commonly known as blackbrush.

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The effects of BMPEA on human consumers is not well-documented, but its chemical structure is very similar to amphetamine, the stimulant commonly used to treat ADHD and other conditions, as well as taken recreationally as an aphrodisiac and euphoriant. The drug affects the central nervous system and can dramatically raise blood pressure and heart rate. Previous research has shown BMPEA to act as a strong stimulant in cats and dogs.

A similar study, carried out by the FDA in 2013, found BMPEA in 9 of 21 tested supplements, but no regulatory action was taken. No public warning was issued. The results of the study were published in a small publication called the Journal of Pharmaceutical and Biomedical Analysis. FDA researchers also determined that blackbrush does not contain BMPEA.

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The new study, published Tuesday in the journal Drug Testing and Analysis, confirms the FDA's original findings -- and also raises questions about why no public warning has been issued by the federal agency.

"It's mind-boggling," lead study author Pieter Cohen, a physician with the Cambridge Health Alliance and researcher at Harvard Medical School, told Consumer Reports. "The companies think they have complete impunity. They assume the FDA will do nothing about it. And they're right."

"The fact that they haven't done anything two years after their own research team sorted this out is completely inexplicable," Cohen told Buzzfeed.

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At least one of the supplement makers identified by Cohen's study, Vitacost, has pledged to stop selling the blackbrush-derived product.

One of the makers, Hi-Tech Pharmaceuticals, issued a press release as recently as last week boasting of the latest BMPEA-containing product.

"The Acacia Rigidula alkaloids produce extreme energy and promote a sense of well-being," the company wrote.

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The FDA's current role in monitoring the marketing claims and safety of supplements is minimal. Public policy experts and politicians have called for stronger oversight, but the FDA has so far declined to take decisive action. After 17 attorneys general last week called on the agency to undertake a thorough investigation of the supplement industry, the FDA issued a statement.

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"The FDA's first priority with regard to dietary supplements is ensuring safety," officials wrote. "While our review of the available information on products containing BMPEA does not identify a specific safety concern at this time, the FDA will consider taking regulatory action, as appropriate, to protect consumers."

In the meantime, health advocates say, buyers should take extra caution.

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