More hype than hope in taking daily supplements

The Associated Press
Saturday June 16, 2001

WASHINGTON — Supplements may have some modest benefits, but athletes can’t swallow their way to success and could make themselves sick, experts say. 

“The few good scientific studies available on these ‘dietary’ supplements suggest that they either are ineffective or, at best, produce only slight changes in performance,” analysts at Consumers Union said. 

Supplement users are, in effect, performing uncontrolled medical experiments on their own bodies, the nonprofit group said. 

The Council for Responsible Nutrition, a trade group for the supplements industry, defended the products as helpful to millions of people, although the council also called for more research into their safety and effectiveness. 

Consumers Union reviewed supplements in the June issue of its magazine, Consumer Reports. A medical journal, The Physician and Sportsmedicine, had a similar review. 

The supplements have a huge market. Industry statistics indicate 1.2 million Americans take them regularly, and 4 percent of adults have taken them at least once, the CU study said. Teen-age boys, in their prime muscle-building years, seem to like them even more. A study by the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association found 6 percent to 8 percent of 15-to-18-year olds, primarily boys, had used supplements. 

What users gain ranges from scant benefit through no benefit to health risk, the Consumer Reports article said. 

Ephedra “may be the most hazardous of the major sports supplements,” creating sudden high blood pressure or a racing heartbeat, the report said. Ephedra has been linked to strokes, seizures and deaths. 

Ephedra users can expect little government protection against the product’s dangers, CU said. The Food and Drug Administration’s ability to restrict use of supplements in general was sharply limited by the 1994 supplements regulation law, and even labeling of ingredients can be vague and misleading, it said. 

Ephedra has valuable uses, the Council for Responsible Nutrition countered. Ephedra can provide an energy boost to help athletes keep working out, it said. 

Voluntary labeling can note any cardiovascular risks, the council said. As for an FDA role, the council said the agency has all the power it should have, and simply needs to make any judgments on “sound and unbiased scientific analysis,” it said. 

Creatine is one of the most popular muscle-building aids. This amino acid helps muscles resupply themselves with the energy they use in powerful bursts of activity, such as weight training. 

Some studies have shown that athletes who use creatine can improve their performance, but the benefits are only for explosive activities such as high jumping, not for endurance activities such as running, the CU report said. 

However, creatine has its drawbacks. Some of the bulking-up may be water retention, not muscle gain, the article said. And the consumer group and the industry group agreed that people with existing kidney problems should not use the product. 

Androstenedione is said to increase levels of the muscle-building male hormone testosterone. Andro got big media attention when it came out that home run record holder Mark McGwire had used it during his 70-homer season in 1998. 


The trade group said that Andro’s effect on the body seem to be limited by the body’s “feedback mechanisms which help protect against excess.” And as for health risks, “a comprehensive safety assessment would be helpful.” 

However, McGwire subsequently said he has given up andro. And research has found no evidence andro works, said a review in The Physician and Sportsmedicine. Even though andro may make testosterone levels rise, there is no evidence that the increase lets athletes build more muscle, the article said. 

Andro use comes with health risks — among them, higher cholesterol levels, the article said. And use may make athletes test positive for andro’s chemical cousins, steroids, which are illegal for use in many sports. 

Andro and other drugs are doomed to disappoint users, said the review article’s author, Conrad P. Earnest of the Cooper Institute in Dallas. 

“Unfortunately, the marketing of such products largely depends on emotional appeal and is often loosely based on scientific evidence,” Earnest said. “Sadly, the climate generated from such tactics is one of dashed hopes and seldom-realized dreams.”