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California and the West

Study Calls 'Fat Trappers' Useless

Diets: Chitosan products have no effect, UC Davis scientists find, but makers say the research is biased.

March 16, 2001|MARLENE CIMONS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Those dietary supplements that are supposed to gobble up fat before it shows up on your waistline--so-called fat trappers--don't work, according to a study released Thursday.

Judith Stern, a nutrition researcher at UC Davis, reported to government officials that she and a team of scientists at Davis' departments of nutrition and internal medicine studied the impact on male patients of chitosan dietary supplements, which are made from the protein chitin, found in the shells of invertebrates such as shrimp and crabs.

The unregulated products, often heavily promoted, are touted as ways to trap fat and keep it from being absorbed by the body.

Chitosan products have proliferated in the weight loss market in recent years, according to the Federal Trade Commission. It has sued at least two companies for deceptive advertising. The FTC also sued former Dodger Steve Garvey, who hosted an infomercial for one of the products.

"It's been a growing market, and its popularity is clear," said Darren Bowie, assistant director of the FTC's division of advertising practices.

Consumers spent about $6 million on fat trappers last year, according to Stern, who said the estimate is a conservative one.

Stern briefed Department of Agriculture consumer and nutrition officials Thursday on her findings.

But an attorney for one company sued by the FTC complained that Stern's study was flawed, and pointed out that it was funded in part by the Napa County district attorney, who also has sued a chitosan supplement company.

That makes it "biased to the extent that it purports to be an impartial scientific study," said Edward Glynn, who is representing Enforma Natural Products, an Encino company, which ultimately settled a suit by the FTC.

"The public should understand that it was paid for by a government entity that is in litigation with the seller of the product," he said.

Americans have always longed for effortless ways to lose weight, but most experts maintain that there aren't any. The study adds to the growing body of evidence that there are no quick paths to weight loss, which the experts say is best achieved through sensible eating and exercise.

Obesity is regarded as a serious problem in the United States, contributing to the development of diabetes, heart disease and other serious conditions.

Between 1994 and 1999, there was a 5% increase in the number of overweight or obese adults, according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

The UC Davis researchers studied seven healthy men who consumed more than 120 grams of fat daily. Researchers analyzed the fat content of their feces, comparing a four-day baseline period without the supplements to a four-day period during which chitosan supplements were consumed.

"The bottom line is that chitosan made zero difference," Stern said.

Stern said several earlier studies showed similar results, but described hers as the "most definitive," because "we absolutely controlled what they ate."

The study, to which Matthew D. Gades and Charles H. Halsted at UC Davis also contributed, is scheduled for May publication in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

As Glynn noted, it was funded in part by the Napa County district attorney's office. But, said Napa County Assistant Dist. Atty. Daryl Roberts, "You can't expect researchers to do studies for free. She's a respected university professor who does not work for us."

Stern is a member of an obesity task force of the National Institutes of Health and has worked with the FTC in helping to establish a coalition of government, industry and nonprofit groups trying to draft voluntary standards for the weight control industry.

She also is a co-founder of the American Obesity Assn., a Washington-based advocacy group,

Dietary supplements are not subject to the same efficacy standards as drugs under Food and Drug Administration regulation. Their effectiveness does not have to be proved, and the FDA can remove them from the market only if they are found to be dangerous. The FDA has no evidence so far that chitosan products are harmful, the agency said.

Supplement makers are, however, banned from making false claims about health benefits. They can claim to promote weight loss, for example, but cannot claim that the product prevents or cures a specific condition.

And the FTC can take action against them when it believes their ads are deceptive. Enforma agreed last spring to return $10 million to customers who had purchased its products. In an earlier case, which went to trial in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., another company, SlimAmerica, was ordered to pay $8.3 million.

Garvey has been sued in separate actions by the FTC and by Napa County for his role as the host of an infomercial promoting Enforma products. He settled with Napa County for $300,000, but is contesting the FTC suit, which is expected to go to trial.

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