[Paleopsych] NYT: For Sale: 'Muscles' in a Bottle
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Tue Jan 18 15:33:02 UTC 2005
For Sale: 'Muscles' in a Bottle
NYT January 18, 2005
By DAVID TULLER
Grant Deans is 5-foot-10 and weighs 190 pounds, but he
wants to be bigger.
Mr. Deans, 20, a martial arts practitioner and bodybuilder
who can bench-press 215 pounds, has scoured the vast array
of sports dietary supplements and settled on a few he hopes
will advance his goal.
He takes whey, a protein derived from milk, to bolster his
daily caloric intake; branched-chain amino acids, said to
help muscles recover from workouts; and creatine, a
compound promoted as boosting energy levels and increasing
the intensity of workouts.
"The supplements are a really useful tool," said Mr. Deans,
a college student in Norcross, Ga., who has been taking
them on and off for five years. "It would just take too
much time and energy to prepare six or seven meals a day to
get the right amount of protein to build muscles."
Ten or 20 years ago, sports enthusiasts like Mr. Deans
might have taken a few basic vitamins and minerals. But in
recent years, the fitness marketplace has been flooded with
products bearing short, catchy names like Adenergy, Lean
Stack and Cell-Tech or intimidating, pseudoscientific ones
like Sterobol Suspension Muscle Mass Enhancer, Vaso XP
Xtreme Vasodilator & Growth Promoter and Xenadrine-NRG.
Sports-related supplements accounted for $1.9 billion of
the $19 billion Americans spent on dietary supplements in
2003, according to Nutrition Business Journal, a trade
publication, up 6 percent from the previous year. The
supplements are different from the anabolic steroids that
have been controversial in professional sports, most
In advertisements, often accompanied by molecular diagrams
and before-and-after photos illustrating a metamorphosis
from saggy sack to bulging Hercules, supplement makers
claim benefits that are nothing short of miraculous.
A product called Aftermath, for example, boasts that it can
help "swell your muscles to grotesque size" and eliminate
the chance of "dooming yourself to girlyman status." Xpand
Nitric Oxide Reactor, a drink mix that comes in tropical
berry and piña colada flavors, offers bodybuilders "the
most unbelievable muscular and vascular pumps you have ever
But scientists say that for many supplements, there are few
reliable studies to demonstrate their safety and
effectiveness. And with hundreds of different ingredients
available to manufacturers, it can be difficult for even
those who specialize in the field to keep track of products
and to assess the scientific basis for manufacturers'
"It used to be that if a coach or athlete called and said,
'What do you think about product X,' you had a pretty good
idea," said Dr. Ann Grandjean, executive director of the
Center for Human Nutrition, a research and education
organization in Omaha. "Now there are so many out there, so
if an athlete calls and asks about elk antler velvet, you
have to go out and do a lot of research."
Many supplements are touted as muscle builders. Others
claim to increase the ability of muscle tissue to recover
quickly from workouts. Still others boast that they have
thermogenic - or heat-producing - properties that help
speed up the metabolism and melt away fat, enhancing
Among the most common products are protein supplements,
often sold as powders, and supplements containing amino
acids, the building blocks of protein, which many athletes
believe can help muscles grow and repair themselves.
Experts recommend that athletes consume about twice as much
protein as sedentary people. And many bodybuilders and
others say that supplements are necessary because it takes
too much time to prepare and eat enough high-protein meals.
But Dr. Grandjean and other sports nutrition experts say
that a well-balanced diet should provide sufficient
quantities of proteins and amino acids for even the most
Creatine, a chemical found in meat, is also popular as a
supplement, and some studies support claims that creatine
can benefit athletes engaged in sports that demand short
bursts of energy. Another ingredient, glucosamine sulfate,
is promoted as helping to lubricate and repair joints.
Nitric oxide is said to increase the blood flow to muscles
and to reduce inflammation. But data to support many such
claims are mixed, at best.
The federal government has recently taken a more active
interest in sports supplements. A new federal law that
criminalizes nonprescription use of prohormones -
substances that act like steroids once they are in the body
- takes effect this week.
The law, which has prompted a last-minute buying spree of
supplements containing these ingredients, also includes
money for programs that educate young athletes, who are
major consumers of sports supplements, about the potential
dangers of these products.
Passage of that law followed a decision by the Food and
Drug Administration to crack down on two ingredients that
were widely used in fitness supplements: ephedra, a
plant-based stimulant that many athletes have used to burn
off fat but that has been linked to cardiovascular and
other health problems, and androstenedione, a prohormone
that gained fame when it was revealed that the baseball
slugger Mark McGwire was taking it.
Many supplement makers and trade groups have supported
these steps, saying that they prove that the government has
enough authority to act when it deems a product unsafe.
But critics say that regulation of supplements remains so
lax that many products are of unknown purity, and studies
show that what is in the products does not always conform
to what the label says. Accidental contamination is not the
only possible explanation, said Dr. Linn Goldberg, a
professor of medicine at Oregon Health & Science
"If I said I was selling Dr. Goldberg's Gogo Juice and you
took it and didn't have any results, you'd go, 'This is a
bunch of junk,' " he said. "But if I put something in it
that actually enhanced your ability, you'd go, "This stuff
Supplement companies say they take strenuous efforts to
maintain strict quality control. But some consumers have
still noticed major differences in their responses when
they switch brands.
James Hopkins, a business writer in San Francisco who
regularly cycles and lifts weights, said he began taking
creatine in 1998 and believed it helped him bulk up. But
when he tried another brand, he began experiencing painful
leg cramps, one of the potential side effects of creatine.
"I thought, My body's telling me something; taking this
stuff is stupid, too much of an investment in vanity," said
Mr. Hopkins, 47.
Some critics also fear that the industry will find ways
around the new restrictions by promoting legal substitutes
for the banned substances. The new prohormone law, for
example, does not restrict the use of a substance called
DHEA, which many experts say has similar effects.
"We've made such a big deal about getting things off the
market that the public is now lulled into a false sense of
security," said Dr. Mike Perko, chairman of health science
at the University of Alabama.
The F.D.A. has some authority to regulate dietary
supplements under a 1994 law. But manufacturers of these
items, unlike pharmaceutical companies, are not required to
prove that their products are safe or effective, and
policing the industry can be an extremely hard task.
For their part, many people who use sports supplements view
the government's actions as an encroachment on their
autonomy. They point out, accurately, that far more deaths
are attributed every year to overdoses of aspirin than to
ephedra or other restricted substances.
"People can make other choices that are deleterious to
their health, but nobody's standing up to pass laws banning
triple cheeseburgers and Twinkies," said Rick Collins, a
lawyer who represents supplement makers and the United
Supplement Freedom Association.
"The irony is that most of these people are following
healthy diets that are far superior to the average
American's diet, and they are infinitely more concerned
about their health from the nutritional standpoint," Mr.
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