IN YOUR CORNER
Weight loss at how heavy a cost?
A fat burner has been revealed to contain a banned substance that has led to some consumers experiencing heart and thyroid complications
“Anyone who knows me would be amazed that I took that product.”
Durban-based insurance broker consultant Chantel Gaillard, 47, is one of the many who’ve had serious adverse reactions to the “wonder” weight-loss product Secret Fat Burner.
“I’m usually very sceptical about those ‘Lose 3kg in a week without dieting or going to the gym’ type products, believing in the eat less, exercise more approach, but this time my resistance crumbled and I thought I’d give it a try.”It was a combination of being desperate to lose weight for a wedding she and her husband were planning to attend in Poland, seeing others losing weight on the product, and being assured it was “totally natural”, that saw Gaillard pay a colleague more than R600 for a month’s supply of “The Secret” – as it’s called – at the end of July last year.“I had read up on all the claimed ingredients – things like bitter orange extract, cassia seed, green tea extract, guarana and aloe – and was confident that it was a totally natural product,” she says.
But within a month Gaillard started to experience severe heart palpitations. “It felt like my heart was beating out of my chest,” she recalls. “And I was having trouble sleeping.”
Her doctor sent her for blood tests which confirmed a hyperactive thyroid.
“He asked me what medications I was taking and I didn’t think to mention The Secret because to me it was a herbal product, like taking vitamins,” she says.
She was prescribed a drug to control her thyroid and a beta blocker to slow down her heart, which she took during her three-week overseas trip – along with her “Secret”.
Her symptoms lessened but didn’t stop.On her return to Durban, Gaillard was referred to an endocrinologist, and during that consultation she did share her Secret habit. “Immediately she said: ‘That’s the problem, I’ve heard about this from colleagues ...’”
At that point Gaillard stopped taking everything – her “natural” Secret and both medications.
Her thyroid returned to normal function as a result, but not her heart.“My heart was still racing and I felt like I couldn’t catch my breath. It was so scary; at one point I truly thought I was going to die.”
She was referred to a cardiologist and who prescribed medication to regulate her heartbeat. “I have tried to wean myself off it, but the problem re-occurs, so I may well have to take these meds for the rest of my life.”
Gaillard chose to speak to me in a bid to spare others from her experience. “But the really scary thing is that I know of people taking it, and having adverse effects, but refusing to stop because they’re losing weight.”
It turns out – surprise! – that the big secret of the Secret – apart from the identity of those supplying it in South Africa – is that it contains some pretty serious ingredients, one of them banned.
On receiving reports from a number of endocrinologists who had had patients come to them with overactive thyroids after using The Secret, the Society for Endocrinology, Metabolism and Diabetes of South Africa – SEMDSA – recently had the product tested by an independent accredited laboratory which revealed the reason for those side-effects – the presence of Hydrochloro-thiazide, Sibutramine, Levo-thryroxine and Triio-dothy-ronine.For starters, Sibutramine has been banned in many countries and is no longer registered as an ingredient which can be sold in SA because the appetite suppressant was found to increase the risk of irregular heart rhythms and stroke.
The others are scheduled ingredients, and products that contain them should only be sold with a prescription.
SEMDSA said people taking the product could get palpitations, anxiety, heat intolerance, aggravation of hypertension and cardiac complications such as atrial fibrillation and cardiac failure.
And this bit, from the society’s warning, particularly resonates with Gaillard.
“If you stop taking it, your thyroid function will return to normal within a few weeks but those with cardiac complications may require specific therapy by a specialist.”
SEMDSA head Dr Nazeer Mohamed told my colleague Katharine Child that the society had twice contacted the Medicines Control Council, now called the SA Health Product Regulatory Authority‚ asking them to take action, with no response.As the organisation says, that banned Sibutramine aside, this product should be registered as a medicine, and it’s not.
So it’s being sold illegally in terms of the Health Professions Act.
Under the Consumer Protection Act, products have to be labelled correctly, and everyone in the supply chain is liable for any harm caused to a consumer, as in South Africa’s listeriosis outbreak.
The colleague who sold Gaillard the Secret had left her workplace by the time Gaillard established what was causing her symptoms, so she never told her.When I contacted that sales agent this week, she said Gaillard’s was the first adverse report she knew of. Asked who she sourced her Secret stock from, she said “from Johannesburg”, and confirmed the suppliers called themselves “The Secret Team”.
When I asked for their names, she abruptly ended the call, saying she had to attend a meeting.It was the same with two other Secret agents I contacted – both dodged my questions about the product and went silent when I asked for the contact details of their suppliers.
There have been claims and counter claims of fake versions of Secret Fat Burner products being sold in near identical packaging – a convenient counter to claims of users suffering adverse effects.
Here’s the thing: if a weight loss product is proving to be wildly effective – in the absence of any changes to diet or lifestyle – you can be sure it contains some hard-core drugs with potentially dire health implications.
And it should definitely not be peddled without a prescription by a sales structure shrouded in secrecy.#SHELFIE
Process this: At a World Consumer Rights Day event in Durban last week, SPAR customer care employees told me that in the wake of the March 4 press conference revealing Enterprise products to be the source of the listeriosis outbreak, and urging consumers to return Enterprise ready-to-eat “cold meat” products to stores for a refund, several people called SPAR, demanding that they be reimbursed for the entire contents of their fridges – and that they be bought replacement fridges.
• Contact Wendy Knowler at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @wendyknowler