A Which? investigation has found dozens of weight loss supplements containing potentially dangerous ingredients being sold on eBay, Wish and AliExpress, as the consumer champion continues to call for online marketplaces to be given greater legal responsibility for the safety of products sold on their sites.
Which? uncovered listings for the substances despite their potential side-effects including increased blood pressure and heart rate. High doses of the drugs could lead to strokes, heart attacks and kidney damage.
Often marketed to body-conscious people as weight loss supplements and workout enhancers, the two substances – yohimbine and synephrine – are ingredients that the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has said have “considerable potential to cause harm if used without medical supervision or advice.”
However despite these warnings and the fact that yohimbine and synephrine are not meant to be routinely available for sale without medical supervision, Which? was able to purchase and have delivered a sample of three items each from eBay, Wish and AliExpress respectively. Each online marketplace had at least a dozen products listed on their websites that contained yohimbine or synephrine at the time of Which?’s investigation.
Of the nine products Which? purchased, two carried no health warnings or dosage information at all. One had the name of the ingredient – in this case yohimbine – clearly visible on the outer packaging, though it still made its way into the UK and to the address of the recipient.
In response to Which?’s investigation, eBay and AliExpress said they had removed the product listings found by Which?. Wish said it was in the process of removing them, though at the time of writing yohimbine and synephrine products were still available on the site.
Sites have told Which? they will take down listings when they are reported, but it does not appear as though measures to prevent listings appearing in the first place are working, or that the marketplaces are adequately monitoring for those listings to take them down – relying on Which? and others to spot them and report them instead.
Prices on the supplements varied considerably. Some items were priced from as little as £2.39 plus postage, though some capsules were priced at more than £80.
They were available to be shipped from countries including India, the USA, Ukraine and Poland, with many offering free postage.
Discussing the effects of yohimbine and synephrine generally, toxicology expert Dr James Coulson, a member of the UK’s Committee on Toxicology, told Which? that common symptoms could include agitation, aggression, nausea, and increased heart rate and blood pressure. He said: “When it comes to these drugs the critical effects we are concerned about is their effect on the sympathetic nervous system and particularly their effect on blood pressure” and “if you’d taken a lot of it you’d then start to see the effects of secondary organ damage.”
Which? also submitted a Freedom of Information request to the MHRA’s Yellow Card scheme, which tracks reports of adverse drug reactions from healthcare professionals and members of the public. The MHRA confirmed that, in the last decade, it had received six reports of “suspected adverse drug reactions” to yohimbine, and two reports of “suspected adverse drug reactions” to synephrine.
In its response the MHRA said that a report of a reaction “does not necessarily mean that it has been caused by the drug in question” but it also flagged that not every suspected adverse reaction is flagged via the scheme.
Both supplements are popular among some bodybuilders and gym goers but there have been a number of studies that have warned of potential side effects, while some consumers have reported unverified concerns about them on social media and forums.
On one forum, one person claimed to have taken up to 300mg of yohimbine before a workout and said the side effects were so concerning they considered going to hospital. The person said they experienced excessive sweating and “sky high” pulse and blood pressure. One of the yohimbe products Which? purchased recommended a dose of two 300mg capsules per day.
The consumer champion’s latest investigation once again raises serious concerns over the lack of checks and monitoring carried out by online marketplaces and highlights the need for them to have legal responsibility for unsafe products on their sites.
Currently responsibility sits with the third-party sellers on these sites but there does not appear to be adequate enforcement action taken to stop potentially unsafe supplements and medicines being sold to UK consumers. This could leave people worryingly exposed to products that can cause harm.
Sue Davies, Which? Head of Consumer Protection Policy, said:
“It is concerning that our investigation has revealed these slimming supplements containing potentially dangerous ingredients are readily available on online marketplaces. The limited regulation of these sites is not working – and that’s leaving people exposed to substances that can be harmful.
“Online marketplaces must be given greater legal responsibility for the safety of products sold on their sites, so that shoppers are far better protected.
“Regulators also need to be more proactive in policing potentially dangerous products that are offered for sale on these sites, which are becoming increasingly popular places to shop.”