Beware of Imported ‘Natural’ Supplements, FDA Says

Imported dietary supplements and nonprescription drugs sold at nontraditional places may contain harmful ingredients, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warns.

Scammers often target people who prefer to shop at nontraditional places, such as ethnic or international stores, flea markets, swap meets, or online. Those with limited English proficiency and limited access to health care services may be most vulnerable, according to the FDA.

Companies aim to sell their fraudulent products to people who hold certain cultural beliefs. For example, Native Americans, Latinos, Asians, and Africans may have a long tradition of using herbal or so-called “natural” remedies.

However, products marketed as natural are not necessarily safe, and they may be contaminated with potentially harmful chemicals or drug ingredients not listed on the label.

For example, many products marketed for weight loss contain hidden and dangerous prescription drug ingredients like sibutramine.

Sibutramine was an active ingredient of Meridia, a formerly FDA-approved drug that was removed from the market in 2010 after clinical data showed it raised the risk of heart problems and strokes.

Additionally, even ingredients of FDA-approved drugs may be harmful in the dosages or amounts used in these “natural” products.

How do you know a product is fraudulent?

The FDA recommends to watch out for the following claims that are often used to sell nonprescription products:

  • One product does it all. It is unlikely that one product can cure a wide range of diseases.
  • Personal testimonials. Success stories about the product curing diabetes or cancer are easy to make up and do not substitute for scientific evidence.
  • Quick fixes. Even legitimate supplements and medications can rarely treat complex diseases and conditions in a short period, such as helping to lose 30 pounds in 30 days. If claims sound too good to be true, they probably are.
  • “All natural.” Consuming some plants found in nature can make you seriously sick or even kill. Moreover, the FDA has found that products marketed as “all natural” contain hidden and dangerously high doses of prescription drug ingredients.
  • Miracle cure. If a product was truly a “new discovery” or “scientific breakthrough,” it would be all over the media and prescribed by doctors.
  • FDA-approved. Neither domestic nor imported dietary supplements are approved by the FDA. The law does not require supplements to be examined by the FDA before they are introduced in the market.

The products can worsen your condition

Fraudulent products may not only be ineffective in treating your conditions but also make them worse.

For example, scammers seek out ethnic populations who are overweight or have serious conditions such as cancer, HIV/AIDS, diabetes, or heart disease. They offer easy and often less expensive solutions to difficult problems.

However, using these products could mean delayed treatment for serious diseases, resulting in poor health outcomes.

Other scammers illegally sell imported antibiotics. Using them without a prescription and with no physician oversight can easily lead to misuse and overuse, contributing to antibiotic resistance. This means antibiotics may not be as effective against infections when they are truly needed.

Globally, antibiotic resistance makes infections difficult or impossible to treat, increasing the risk of disease spread, severe illness, disability, and death, according to the World Health Organization.

If you’re considering buying a product with questionable claims, discuss it with your doctor or other healthcare professional first.


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