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A Worrying Substance Hidden in Nutritional Supplements

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Photo:adamjackson/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Nutritional labels are flawed. Rather than clearly spelling out which ingredients are good for you, and which should be avoided -- which, granted, is pretty darn difficult to assess -- labels contain confusing-sounding words listed one after the other. It should not take 45 minutes and an advanced degree to decode.

The labeling on nutritional supplements is even worse. Scanning those nearly uncountable multi-hyphenate ingredients is like reading stream-of-consciousness poetry written by an emo chemist. And according to a new study, at least one potentially dangerous item isn't listed on nutritional supplements at all.

The ingredient in question is beta-methylphenethylamine, or BMPEA. It's a synthetically-created substance that is a "chemical cousin" to amphetamine, which, as this list of side effects shows, can be quite serious. And if that wasn't enough to give you pause, BMPEA has also never been tested on humans. That means that no one's entirely sure how BMPEA affects human health.

Yet during an examination of 21 nutritional supplements, researchers at Harvard found that 11 of them contained the substance and in quite big doses too:

The stimulant was present at quantities such that consumers following recommended maximum daily servings would consume a maximum of 93.7 mg of BMPEA per day.

One of the oddest parts of the finding is that the labels for the supplements hint that they contain BMPEA. You just have to know what to look for it.

See, many of the labels that tested positive for BMPEA contain the plant Acacia rigidula, a shrub or small tree grown in Texas. It's used in some supplements because it decreases appetite while increasing a person's lean muscle mass. But, while studies have shown that Acacia rigidula does not produce BMPEA on its own, somehow the natural-sounding listing for the plant has been mixed up with the synthetic amphetamine-like substance that's never been tested.

So how did that happen?

"In the 1990s, a study was published purporting to find a few stimulants -- even trace amounts of amphetamine -- in Acacia rigidula," wrote Dr. Pieter Cohen, the study's lead researcher, in an email. "This led the industry to start using this bush as code for the synthetic stimulants they were placing in products. They got a bit mixed up and ended up using a stimulant, BMPEA, that wasn't found in the original paper -- but that didn't stop them from sticking with the same plant."

It's all kind of like a game of telephone, except instead of "purple monkey dishwasher" we may be irreparably damaging our bodies.

Perhaps even worse is the other aspect of the study. While this information came out last week, the FDA had known about the presence of BMPEA in supplements for about two years:

The study [...] said the Food and Drug Administration discovered the presence of BMPEA in dietary supplements in 2013 but failed to warn consumers or order its removal.

As Cohen put it in a different interview:

"It's mind boggling. [...] The companies think they have complete impunity. They assume the FDA will do nothing about it. And they're right."

Various manufacturers have already voluntarily taken BMPEA-laced supplements off their shelves while additional testing is conducted. But all that seems backwards. Companies aren't going to self-police themselves. That's what the FDA, or some other organization, is there to do. If they aren't, then what's the point spending all that time trying to read those complicated labels?

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