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Considering Fat-Loss Supplements? New Military Study Finds Many Are Not What They Seem.

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A majority of weight-loss supplements sold online at a discount to service members and tested by Defense Department researchers are mislabeled — and some contain substances banned for consumption by troops, a new analysis has found.

The researchers, who looked into whether service members are at risk for ingesting unsafe products, tested 30 weight-loss supplements available online and in stores to determine whether they contained the ingredients listed on their labels or had any hidden additives.

They found that 24 listed ingredients that weren’t actually in them, seven had additives that weren’t listed as ingredients, and one-third had substances found on the Defense Department’s Prohibited Dietary Supplement Ingredients List, according to the study, published online Wednesday by the journal JAMA Network Open.

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All the products were also rated as “risky” when assessed against the Defense Department’s Operation Supplement Safety scorecard, according to the report. The research was done by the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences and the Henry M. Jackson Foundation for the Advancement of Military Medicine.

Service members must maintain their weight and fitness levels as a professional requirement, making them a lucrative target for the $43.9 billion U.S. weight-loss supplement industry.

Mislabeled or dangerous supplements, however, can pose a risk to troops, endangering their health, careers and financial well-being, the researchers noted.

“The predatory marketing to service members and low quality of dietary supplements promoted for weight loss pose a threat to military members and the public,” wrote the authors, led by Cindy Crawford, a senior research associate with the Henry M. Jackson Foundation.

The rate of obesity among U.S. troops rose by 13.3% from 2020 to 2021, while diagnoses of pre-diabetes and Type 2 diabetes among service members also increased — the latter, the risk of which increases greatly with poor dietary habits, was up 25% since 2018, according to data published in March 2023 by the Defense Health Agency.

Given the pressure troops face to maintain fitness, they may be more likely to turn to dietary supplements, “mistakenly believing that dietary supplements have been declared safe and effective by the Food and Drug Administration if they are available for purchase in stores and online,” according to the study.

The Food and Drug Administration requires supplements to have labels listing them as dietary supplements; the name and place of the manufacturer; ingredients; and the contents of the product.

By analyzing the chemical makeup of the products via liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry, the researchers found that many were adulterated or did not contain ingredients that were listed on their labels, such as raspberry ketones, hoodia or other extracts that claim to promote weight loss.

A few even contained DMAA, a synthetic ingredient banned by the FDA in 2013. Touted as a fat-burner, DMAA is known to elevate blood pressure and can cause health problems such as shortness of breath or heart attacks.

The Defense Department launched Operation Supplement Safety in 2012 to educate the military community about dietary supplements and the potential health risks of ingredients. The program’s website provides extensive resources on supplements and contains a list of substances banned by the Defense Department.

The researchers noted that more education is needed among health professionals and service members to address supplement safety. According to the authors, the results of their study
“require solutions.”

“These issues present clear health risks for all consumers,” they wrote.

Related: Ask Stew: Navigating Performance Nutrition/Supplements — Yes or No?

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