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Slim and potent - with side effects

15/2012, 04.04.2012

Food supplements for weight loss or enhancing sexual performance can contain illegal active ingredients

"Purely plant-based" and "free of side effects". That is how food supplements for enhancing sexual performance or for weight loss are often advertised. Europe-wide, consumers are advised against using a number of drugs in this product category via the European Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF). Several studies conducted by supervisory authorities have shown that some of these products contain illegal pharmaceutical substances which are not declared. "We advise consumers to exercise caution with drugs which are marketed as food supplements for enhancing sexual pleasure or for losing weight", says BfR President Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel. "In some cases, consumers are misled about the true contents of the products and their properties, including their health risks." Classified as food, food supplements are not subject to government approval.

Drugs labelled as food supplements to increase sexual performance are predominantly marketed on the Internet and in sex shops under a variety of different labels. According to the providers, many of these products contain only purely plant-based and natural active ingredients. For a host of such drugs, analyses performed indicated, however, that they contained prescription-only pharmaceutical substances (Sildenafil, Tadalafil) which were not declared and / or Sildenafil analoges  (hydroxyhomosildenafil, hydroxythiohomosildenafil, sulfoaildenafil) which are not approved, and these substances were present in pharmacologically active concentrations. When drugs containing these active substances are taken, it is to be assumed that even if the indication is present and the recommended dosage is observed, severe unwanted effects (e.g. stroke, heart attack) may occur in rare cases.

Even in drugs marketed as food supplements for weight loss, pharmacologically active substances have repeatedly been detected in the past, for example the substance Sibutramine which is no longer permitted in pharmaceuticals in Germany. Such products too are mainly distributed via the Internet and are often advertised as “natural” or “100% plant-based” food supplements. Sibutramine is a pharmacologically effective substance from the group of appetite suppressants which have been banned in Germany since February 2010. Due to in some cases considerable side effect, especially in overweight persons suffering from cardiovascular disease, the European Medicines Agency recommended in January 2010 that the approval of drugs containing Sibutramine be revoked.

As a food supplement, the BfR does not consider products containing the mentioned substances as safe. Drugs offered via the Internet in particular are difficult to trace for the official supervisory authorities. There is a danger of consumers being misled regarding the true contents of these products and their properties, including their risks.

The consumption of products sold as food supplements for enhancing sexual pleasure or for weight loss can entail a high health risk, if they contain pharmacologically active substances. The BfR therefore advises consumers to exercise caution and to obtain information on their precise contents from the manufacturer. In case of doubts or if the information provided is unclear, consumers should refrain from taking such products.

About the BfR

The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) is a scientific institution within the portfolio of the Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection (BMELV). It advises the Federal Government and Federal Laender on questions of food, chemical and product safety. The BfR conducts its own research on topics that are closely linked to its assessment tasks.

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