A poisonous, and sometimes deadly, yellow plant is increasingly appearing in diet pills and health foods, leaving Americans searching for unregulated alternatives to popular weight loss drugs like Ozempic and Wegoby. This is a worrying trend.
According to findings published Thursday in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, testing at an Oregon lab found that 9 out of 10 products labeled as tejocote root , it turns out, is actually a plant called oleander, which is poisonous to humans. Tejocote Root is a weight loss supplement that is widely considered fake by experts, but is still commonly found on pharmacy shelves and sold by popular online retailers.
Noah Berland, an emergency physician and pharmacotoxicologist in New York, said this is likely “the tip of the iceberg.” Last year, Burland and his team worked with a 2-year-old in Oregon after a 2-year-old was hospitalized with nausea, vomiting, and heart palpitations after ingesting a product labeled “Tejocort Root” that his mother had purchased online. The company requested a laboratory to test the product.
“No one should buy anything over the counter to lose weight,” Berland says.
Since last year, he has connected with colleagues in multiple states who have reported similar hospitalizations due to weight loss supplements, including a 16-year-old in Illinois and a 63-year-old in Minnesota. Berland and the Oregon lab also tested other weight loss products sold online and found the same toxic plant.
For years, the diet industry has sold unproven pills, supplements and foods to Americans looking for quick ways to lose weight. Research shows that one in five women and one in 10 men report using weight loss supplements. Americans spend approximately $2.1 billion annually on weight loss supplements in pill form.
Highly effective and safe weight loss drugs now exist for those who can pick up a prescription. This has also created renewed interest in fake weight loss treatments, as Americans who can’t afford the real thing buy cheaper, unregulated alternatives. These include berberine, a supplement touted as “nature’s Ozempic,” and drug knock-offs from Novo Nordisk A/S and Eli Lilly.
Ingestion of yellow oleander can cause severe effects on the nervous, gastrointestinal, and cardiovascular systems. It doesn’t take long for the poison to take effect. The mother said her 2-year-old child had ingested just one piece of tejocote root, but doctors were unable to confirm that. “Any exposure is potentially life-threatening and dangerous,” Berland said.
Separately, the Food and Drug Administration recently warned consumers about weight loss products and plant foods (candlenuts) labeled as “nues de la India” (yellow oleander). The FDA announced that at least one person in Maryland was hospitalized after eating Nuts Diet Max seeds sold through retailers such as Walmart and eBay, but both companies did not immediately respond to requests for comment. There wasn’t. The FDA said it is working with third-party platforms where the products are sold.
Doctors in Texas published a case report of another young patient who was hospitalized with severe cardiovascular symptoms after eating candlenuts to lose weight. They wrote that her symptoms were consistent with toxicity seen from yellow oleander.
Berland said he doesn’t know why this poisonous plant is being falsely promoted as a weight loss supplement. There’s no evidence it actually helps with weight loss, he said.
An online search for Tejocote Root will show dozens of different products that consumers can still purchase from the most popular online retailers. The social media app TikTok, which is fueling interest in Ozempic and Wegovy, is also filled with videos touting the unproven weight loss benefits of taking Tejocort root. Some products, including those that have tested positive for yellow oleander, are available for purchase directly in the app. TikTok did not immediately respond to a request for comment.