Detox teas are flooding social media feeds, as A-list celebrities advertise these “revolutionary” beverages to young audiences. Advertisements claim that detox tea can quickly rid the body of fat and toxins (Auguste et al. 2019). However, detox teas are the twenty-first-century epitome of “too-good-to-be-true.” Since the FDA is not required to approve detox tea, tea manufacturers can slip harmful drugs into their products (FDA 2015). A drug commonly found in detox tea is sibutramine, an appetite suppressant known to cause strokes. Unfortunately, not enough methods exist to detect sibutramine in teas; methods that do exist can be costly and time-consuming. However, a recent study by researchers at Universidade Federal dos Vales do Jequitinhonha e Mucuriand (UFVJM) and Oxford University discovered a quick, low-cost method to detect sibutramine in detox tea samples: a “carbon graphite screen-printed electrode with adsorptive stripping pulse differential voltammetry” (Lima et al. 2019, 975). This inexpensive technology could lead to an outburst of new research that could expose tea manufacturers’ wrongdoings and protect consumers.
While detox teas are supposed to make you feel healthier, consuming them can lead to severe side effects—such as acute liver failure (Kesavarapu et al. 2017). Where do these side effects stem from? None other than the unethical insertion of harmful drugs, such as sibutramine, into detox teas (FDA 2015). When consumers drink detox teas that are secretly filled with dangerous substances, they unknowingly subject themselves to the risk of having those substances mix with other prescription drugs they are taking, resulting in an influx of unexpected severe side effects. This health hazard is why more research on detox tea must be conducted.
Unfortunately, very little research on detecting drugs in detox teas exists. Previous studies that have tested low-cost methods to analyze detox teas were based on “the voltammetric detection at a boron‐doped diamond electrode (BDDE) or a hanging mercury drop electrode (HMDE)” (Lima et al. 2019, 975). Such studies are what inspired Dr. Amanda Lima, Dr. Wallans dos Santos, and Dr. Richard Compton to conduct their own research. Their study took place in late 2018 at UFVJM in Diamantina, Brazil. Eager to find a way to analyze detox tea that is more affordable than methods tested in previous studies, they hypothesized that disposable electrochemical sensors would provide a more cost-efficient and simple method to detect sibutramine. Thus, they proposed the method of using a carbon screen-printed electrode (SPE-Gr) with adsorptive stripping pulse differential voltammetry (AdSDPV) to detect sibutramine in detox tea samples.
To better understand this study, it is imperative to know basic definitions of the terminology used to explain electroanalysis: A buffer is a product used in experiments to keep the pH of a solution constant when adding acids or bases to it. Buffers lessen the likelihood of errors when experimenting (Pietri and Land 2020). An electrode is a conductor that carries electric currents and is useful for electrochemical analysis (Devengenzo 2020). A screen-printed electrode is a low-cost disposable version that can measure substances of small volumes (Taleat et al. 2014). Voltammetry is a technique used to detect small traces of chemicals that undergo oxidation reactions (Carter and Shieh 2010). Adsorptive stripping and differential pulse are different forms of voltammetry that aid in the electrochemical analysis of sibutramine (Costa-Rama and Abedul 2019; Kurbanoglu et al. 2017), but you do not need to know the specifics of each form to understand the findings of this study.
To conduct this study, researchers first purchased tea beverages labeled as “detox tea” from two different brands. Each tea bag (1.0 g) from each sample was boiled in 200 mL of water for five minutes. Then, each tea sample was analyzed by dilating an “aliquot of the tea beverage” (Lima et al. 2019, p. 976) ten times in 0.1 molar Britton-Robinson Buffer (M BRB) with a pH of 7.0. Using a micropipette, researchers drop-casted 100 microliters of the resulting solution on a carbon graphite screen‐printed electrode (SPE-Gr). The SPE-Gr was then used to investigate the electrochemical behavior of sibutramine. Once sibutramine’s electrochemical oxidation was recognized, the “optimum amplitude, scan rate, and accumulation time for the determination of sibutramine” (p. 976) by AdSDPV were inspected. Then, the scientists analyzed the efficiency of using the SPE-Gr with the AdSDPV to detect sibutramine in detox tea.
After comparing the performance of the SPE-Gr with AdSDPV to other electroanalytical methods for sibutramine determination, the researchers concluded that their proposed method was the easiest and most inexpensive way to accurately detect sibutramine in detox tea samples. The researchers used the limit of detection (LOD) value, the lowest concentration of sibutramine that can be reliably detected, to formulate this conclusion. The study’s proposed method resulted in a LOD of 0.30 μmol L−1, the lowest reliable LOD value among six different electroanalytical methods.
While this study is largely ethical, I am concerned with the environmental impact an increased use of screen-printed electrodes, such as the SPE-Gr used in this study, could produce. Screen-printed electrodes are disposable and can be easily mass-produced. Therefore, if this study inspires similar research studies, an influx of waste could result. This influx could pollute natural landscapes if disposed of improperly. Moreover, the researchers found that the ability to replicate their methods is reasonable. This replicability is a double-edged sword. Yes, it will allow for an increase in research on detox tea, but it will also lead to an increased use of these disposable electrodes, and thus an increase in waste.
While the researchers did not explicitly state that their study had any flaws, there are some limitations in their methods and results. Firstly, the researchers mentioned that they dilated an “aliquot of the tea beverages” (p. 976). While the researchers put 200 mL in parentheses after that statement, it is hard to tell whether that measure is referring to the entire volume of the tea or just the “aliquot” that they dilated. To improve the study, the researchers should be specific when explaining the measurements that they use. Secondly, because the researchers only tested detox tea, they are unaware of how the SPE-Gr with AdSDPV performs on regular tea. Gathering data from both types of tea would allow the researchers to draw a better conclusion for how efficiently their method analyzes detox tea. The researchers could discover how their technology detects no sibutramine in regular tea while detecting low sibutramine levels in detox tea, proving how precise the SPE-Gr with AdSDPV is. Lastly, while the researchers compared different methods and concluded that theirs gave the most realistic lowest LOD, they mentioned that another method had a lower estimated LOD. This discrepancy means that a different method could theoretically detect lower levels of sibutramine.
Regardless of the limitations, the findings of this study mark a step in the right direction towards increasing affordable research on detox teas. With scientific research being underfunded worldwide, this study’s emphasis on affordability can inspire other organizations to use SPE-Gr technology to conduct further research on detox tea. Further research could include detecting other drugs in detox teas, such as antidepressants or laxatives. If others conduct such research, they will alleviate the burden that the lack of detox tea research has on consumers worldwide, exposing the evils of tea manufacturers in the process.
When manufacturers realize that they will not be able to get away with putting sibutramine in their products without running the risk of researchers detecting it, they will likely move away from including this harmful drug in their drinks. Instead, they will be pressured into creating healthier products for their consumers—ones that do not include appetite suppressants. The whole point of drinking detox tea is to rid your body of toxins after all, not consume them. In other words, you can sleep well at night knowing that researchers can now easily be equipped with the tools to defeat the money-hungry CEOs of FitTea and SkinnyFit.
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Featured Image Source:
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