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Supplements Gaining Muscle

Pills, energy bars, powders and drinks are increasingly popular, but the products are largely unregulated and untested.

April 12, 1999|SHARI ROAN | TIMES HEALTH WRITER

After bashing a home run in his first game of the season, all eyes are once again on slugger Mark McGwire.

Now, if you're wondering what that has to do with health, the answer is: lots.

After breaking baseball's home-run record last season, McGwire became the reluctant poster boy for the booming sports supplements business. If he goes on another home-run tear this year, just watch the sales of androstenedione and creatine--supplements he says he takes--continue to rise.

Of course, McGwire isn't the sole reason for the wild popularity of pills, powders, energy bars and drinks that make up the field of sports supplements--a business that has grown to an estimated $1.27 billion a year, according to the Nutrition Business Journal. Millions of Americans are interested in methods that will give them more effective workouts, regardless of whether they are competitive athletes.

Helping to spark that interest is a handful of research studies that show supplements might be effective in treating certain diseases.

"Three or four years ago, you'd have to go to specialty stores to find sports supplements. Now, they're everywhere," says Edmund Burke, director of exercise science at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

"They're no longer being used just by the strength athlete or bodybuilder. It's the aerobic and endurance athlete and the aging population that wants to keep exercising, that is the next big wave in sports supplements." SportPharma, a Concord, Calif., company that makes the ProMax energy bar, reports that 80% of its product sales are through South Pasadena-based Trader Joe's, a chain of specialty grocery stores popular with health-conscious baby boomers.

"Weekend athletes are now using products that we've shipped to the Olympic Village for years," says SportPharma President Mike Walls, who adds that the industry has grown 40% to 50% annually in recent years.

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Sports supplements can be nutrition products, such as vitamins, minerals and protein, as well as natural substances like herbs, amino acids and hormones.

According to the American College of Sports Medicine, the majority of elite male athletes and half of all elite female athletes consume one or more supplements. The college estimates that more than half of all male high school athletes and about one-third of female high school athletes take supplements to enhance performance.

But as more sports supplements appear on grocery store shelves, to be purchased by everyone from your 12-year-old son to your 80-year-old grandmother, some sports medicine experts are questioning how healthy this "health trend" actually is.

Much of the concern centers on the fact that, like other dietary supplements, sports supplements are largely unregulated. The federal government does not require manufacturers to prove that their products are either safe or effective before bringing them to market. And, under federal law, manufacturers can make fairly broad advertising claims about what their products do--short of making an actual health claim.

For instance, a glossy two-page advertisement in a fitness magazine boasts that a combination of creatine and a substance called HMB can lead to "huge muscle gains" and "faster recovery" after physical workouts. And an ad for androstenedione proclaims: "The supplement helped boost testosterone levels in test subjects a phenomenal 98%!"

The situation has many sports medicine experts crying foul. They say there is very little scientific data to support the enthusiasm around sports supplements. And, even more important, there is scant safety information about many of the most popular products.

"There is an absolute paucity of scientific literature on these supplements," says Dr. Gary I. Wadler, an associate professor of medicine at New York University School of Medicine. "The field is built on narcissism, not on science."

Several factors have probably led to Americans embracing sports supplements, says Peter J. Ambrose, an associate clinical professor of pharmacy at UC San Francisco, and a drug-testing crew chief for the National Collegiate Athletic Assn.

"If you're an athlete, and a supplement can potentially help you run faster by a fraction of a second, and it means the difference between silver and gold and being a national hero, athletes will try it," he says. "There have been some very popular and successful athletes who have acknowledged use of these supplements. People hear that and are willing to give [supplements] a try. And, because they are sold in the United States, people believe they must be safe. That's a fallacy."

Ads on the Internet and in fitness and bodybuilding magazines give the impression that there is ample research to support the claims of effectiveness, Wadler adds. While there is some legitimate, independent research on a few popular supplements, there is also less-reliable research, such as that done by manufacturers on their own products.

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