Hydroxycut: What You Need to Know

fork with measuring tape
Dietary supplements and weight-loss aids are big business. See more weight loss tips pictures.

Take a pill. Lose weight. Watch the jaws drop at your high school reunion. If only it were that easy.

With Hydroxycut it is! Take two capsules three times a day and you'll be sporting ripped abs and bulging biceps in no time -- well, at least, that's what the ads used to say. As of May 1, 2009, following a warning from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Hydroxycut manufacturer Iovate Health Sciences Inc. and its U.S. distributor opted for a voluntary recall of more than a dozen products from their Hydroxycut line [source: Singer]


Prior to the FDA warning and recall, for years, bodybuilders like 2008 Arnold Classic champ Dexter "the Blade" Jackson have popped the popular pills to get shredded (attain lots of muscle with very little fat) [source: Hydroxycut]. And, reportedly, professional athletes like Roger Clemens have used them to boost strength and endurance [source: CNN]. In fact, until recently, Hydroxycut was the second most popular over-the-counter diet drug in America, behind Alli, the only FDA-approved weight loss drug available without a prescription. Based on market share, the top-selling, non-prescription diet pills are Alli, which accounts for 37 percent of sales and Hydroxycut with 10 percent, followed by Slimquick, Zantrex and Relacore [source: Nutrition Business Journal]

Like most weight-loss supplements, Hydroxycut supposedly burns fat, boosts your metabolism and suppresses your appetite. What are the magic ingredients responsible for this? One is caffeine -- lots and lots of caffeine. In the height of its popularity, Hydroxycut contained ephedra, a Chinese herb called ma huang that boosts thermogenisis -- the process by which your body generates heat (energy) by raising your metabolism above your normal rate. That's why Hydroxycut is often called a thermogenic.

But in 2004, the FDA banned the use of ephedra after 155 deaths from heart attack and stroke were attributed to the supplements, including the collapse of Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Belcher during baseball practice in February 2003 [source: Hamilton]. It was the first time the FDA had ever banned a dietary supplement -- and a big bummer for the weight-loss industry, which had to scramble to find a replacement for the mother of all stimulants.

Once again, the contents (and resulting side effects) of Hydroxycut have been called into question.


Hydroxycut Explained

No independent studies have proven that Hydroxycut is an effective weight-loss drug. On blogs about Hydroxycut, user reviews range from "it didn't do anything" to "I lost seven pounds in one week" to complaints about heart palpitations, sweating, headaches and excessive thirst [source: Diets in Review]. So without ephedra, what could be boosting thermogenisis?

Hydroxycut may no longer contain ephedra but its secret still lies in stimulants. In the list of ingredients, you'll find a long line of them, including green tea extract, guarana extract and Garcinia cambogia. Green tea, made from the dried leaves of an evergreen shrub, contains high levels of caffeine and has been used for centuries in China during ceremonies and to stay awake during long meditations [source: Mayo Clinic].


Guarana is a shrub native to Venezuela that has seeds containing double the amount of caffeine in coffee beans. In Brazil, guarana is commonly found in cola-based soda. Large amounts of caffeine like this raise your blood pressure and body temperature, causing you to burn more calories, in theory, and resemble [insert svelte movie or music star here] in just eight weeks. But wait, there's more.

Garcinia cambogia is a fruit indigenous to India that looks like a small pumpkin. Extract from the fruit's rind contains hydroxycitric acid (HCA), which supposedly inhibits an enzyme that turns extra carbohydrates into fat [source:NTP, Wise Geek]. And it might be this ingredient that's behind the recent FDA warning and product recalls. According to a press release issued by the FDA, the agency received 23 reports of serious liver-related health problems, including the need for a liver transplant and one fatality due to liver failure. Ano Lobb, a public health researcher who has studied dietary supplements -- including Hydroxycut -- for Consumer reports, thinks HCA could be the culprit, since at least one medical journal has linked it to liver-related health problems [source: Alonso-Zaldivar]

Elevated blood pressure, heart palpitations and liver problems aren't the only negative health issues related to Hydroxycut usage. Read on to find out more about its side effects.


Hydroxycut Side Effects

Because it's a stimulant, Hydroxycut can give you heart palpitations, sweaty palms, headaches, dizzy spells and sleepless nights. And if that's not enough fun, you can become dehydrated, restless and develop a mean case of the shakes [Source: Body Building for You].

And, as mentioned on the previous page, the FDA warning for consumers to stop taking Hydroxycut products comes on the heels of more than 20 reports of liver-related health problems, including the death of a 19-year-old boy. The reports included everything from jaundice and elevated liver enzymes to liver damage so advanced it required a liver transplant. In addition to these liver-related issues, other health problems associated with Hydroxycut usage have been reported to the FDA, including cardiovascular disorders, muscle damage known as rhabdomyolosis and seizures [source: U.S. FDA].


Similar to discussions inspired by the ban on ephedra in 2004, talk surrounding this recall brings into question the nature of the FDA's responsibility and authority regarding dietary supplements. In a nutshell, products proven to prevent or cure a disease or illness (think prescription medications such as antibiotics), are closely regulated by the FDA and must have FDA approval before going to market. Dietary supplements, however, are not handled in the same way. The FDA does not look at these products prior to their entering the market. What the FDA can and will do, as in the case of the warning against Hydroxycut, is step in and take action involving a harmful or tainted dietary supplement once it's readily available on store shelves.

But many people -- especially those whose health has been negatively affected by dietary supplements -- think this approach is too little, too late. And some corporations agree, although their impetus might be entirely different.

Last year, drug maker GlaxoSmithKline PLC petitioned the FDA requesting that it require dietary supplement companies, like the one that makes Hydroxycut, to prove their products work before they can go on the market. GlaxoSmithKline, which makes Alli, the top selling non-prescription diet pill that does have FDA approval because it's a medication, argued that weight loss supplements should be regulated like any other drug [source: Cohen].

Supplement manufacturers and other nutritional experts claim this is just a ploy by GlaxoSmithKline to knock its competitors out of the market, since the clinical trials the FDA would require are expensive and would likely put them out of business [source: Cohen].

Nonetheless, the debate represents the growing controversy about government regulation of weight-loss supplements (and other dietary supplements) as they become more popular.

To learn more about dietary supplements, visit the links on the following page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Body Building For You. "Hydroxycut Side Effects and Benefits." (Accessed 3/24/09)http://www.bodybuildingforyou.com/hydroxycut/hydroxycut-sideeffects-benefits.htm
  • CNN. Transcript: "Baseball Star Roger Clemens Testifies in Congressional Probe into Steroid Use." 2/13/08. (Accessed 3/25/09)http://edition.cnn.hu/TRANSCRIPTS/0802/13/se.01.html
  • Cohen, Robert. "Drugmaker seeks more over the counter regulation." The Star-Ledger. 6/29/08. (Accessed 3/24/09)http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2008/06/consumers_face_a_bewildering_a.html
  • Diets in Review. "Hydroxycut." (Accessed 3/24/09)http://www.dietsinreview.com/diets/Hydroxycut
  • Hamilton, Carey. "Ephedra ban weighs heavily on diet pills." The Salt Lake Tribune. 4/26/04. (Accessed 3/24/09)http://www.accessmylibrary.com/coms2/summary_0286-7634515_ITM
  • Hydroxycut. "FAQ." (Accessed 3/24/09)http://www.hydroxycut.com/products/hydroxycut/hydroxycut_faqs.shtml
  • Mayo Clinic. "Green Tea." (Accessed 3/24/09)http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/green-tea/NS_patient-green_tea
  • National Toxicology Program, Department of Health & Human Services "Garcinia cambogia Extract #90045-23-1" http://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/ntp/htdocs/Chem_Background/ExSumPdf/GarciniaCambogiaExt.pdf
  • Nutrition Business Journal. "GSK's Alli Yet to Achieve Blockbuster Status in U.S. Weight-Loss Market." 9/1/08 (Accessed 3/24/09) See screen grab.
  • Sensational. "Hydroxycut." (Accessed 3/24/09)http://www.sensational.com/diet/Hydroxycut.html
  • Wise Geek. "What is Garcinia Cambogia?" (Accessed 3/24/09)http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-garcinia-cambogia.htm