Oh I have SO done this!! But baggies are a pain. I discovered when my kids were infants that those little formula measuring plastic containers were perfect for holding the right serving of protein powder and they’re made for pouring into bottles!
Clandestine labs. Secret testing. Underground smuggling rings. But this crystalline powder wasn’t being sold on a street corner but rather at Wal-Mart, GNC and other mainstream retailers. And yet Craze – deemed supplement of the year by BodyBuilding.com – may have more in common with street-corner meth than with the protein powders and vitamins it currently shares a shelf with. At the end of last year Japanese scientists announced the discovery of a “methamphetamine-like compound”, N,alpha-diethylphenylethylamine (NADEP), in the hugely popular workout supplement and scientists in four other countries confirmed it in their own tests. (And now we know why it’s so highly rated! Speeeeeeed! Whee!) The company has temporarily stopped production to look into the claims.
It gets worse: Craze isn’t the only supplement to come under recent fire for taking advantage of the lack of FDA oversight – the FDA’s current policy is they don’t police supplements, only drugs – and adding a variety of potent stimulants to their formulas under the guise of “herbs” or “proprietary blends.” OxyElite Pro was also recently taken off store shelves when concerns over its active ingredient, DMAA, a stimulant also described as being chemically similar to meth, was blamed for heart attacks, several deaths and a slew of various other problems. On the bottle it was listed as “geranium extract” – how adorably healthy does that sound?? – but it turns out that it was synthetic and not found in any geraniums on this planet, causing the FDA to investigate. In a Dickensian twist, in the absence of the real Oxy, people started scooping up black market versions and the counterfeits caused an outbreak of hepatitis in Hawaii. Oops.
Unfortunately, while Craze and OxyElite Pro are the most recent examples, they certainly aren’t the only offenders. They’re just the ones who’ve been caught. Remember all the drama when ephedra got pulled from the market? People were enraged that they finally found a supplement that worked and now it was gone. And yeah it worked. It also caused heart attacks. Bad news bears. But to this day you’ll still find a significant amount of people bemoaning it’s loss on weight-lifting boards and in weight-loss chat rooms.
In addition to these, more general supplements are getting called out for fraud and deceptive marketing. The Federal Trade Commission made big news a few days ago when it fined Sensa, L’Occtaine, LeanSpa and HCG Diet Direct $34 million for false advertising. While some of these products were clearly in the “duh for dubious” category, Sensa achieved some serious legitimacy both online and in bricks and mortar stores. But it turns out the makers of the powder which you were supposed to sprinkle on your food to enhance your sense of smell which would in turn satiate your appetite faster, used “bogus clinical studies and paid endorsements” to push their ineffective product.
The New York Times recently featured an article “Spike in harm to liver is tied to dietary aids” about the sudden uptick in severe liver failure. Doctors pinpointed the cause to dietary supplements, mainly fat burners and workout boosters. Up from 7% a decade ago, now a full 20% of acute liver cases are caused by supplements. And the interesting part (to me anyhow) was that while bodybuilders and young men were represented, 2/3 (TWO THIRDS) of the cases were “middle aged women trying to lose weight.” Of those surveyed, nearly a dozen women required liver transplants and three died. I know that some people may say that three deaths isn’t much considering the thousands of people who use these products but considering that the supplements are purely optional I think any deaths at all are too many. They wanted to lose a few pounds – that shouldn’t be punishable by death.
Full disclosure: There was a time in my life I was ALL about whatever little “help” or boost I could get. I wanted to be the fastest, most energetic, thinnest, smartest, strongest girl on the block. (Perfectionist much?) I’ve tried every single one of the supplements mentioned in this post (plus a lot more not mentioned) and while some of them made me really really sick, none of them killed me. And a lot of the time they did give me more energy, help me lift more, and even helped lose some weight – but all of the effects were temporary. I never found anything that lasted in the long run and the side effects (dizziness, sweating, nausea, panic attacks, heart palpitations, insomnia) got progressively worse. And I always gained back every pound lost and then some. So while they might have worked in the short term, they sure didn’t in the long run.
Yet every time I write about the shady crap that permeates the supplement industry I get a lot of comments/e-mail reaming me for being a fear-monger or an alarmist or just a plain ol’ idiot that has her science on bass-ackwards. People get mighty protective of their favorite supplements. Usually they get cranky because they think a few people who can’t follow the directions on the label (or are just weaker?) are ruining it for the rest of us. As long as they can take it and feel fine then why should they worry about others who can’t?
When I interviewed Dr. Shawn Talbott, PhD, a nutritional biochemist and author of The Vigor Diet, The New Science of Feeling Your Best, about this for a magazine he put it bluntly: “These supplements are risky for everyone but are more risky for certain people who are more sensitive to stimulants. Unfortunately, there is no way to tell who those people are – or who may have dangerous reactions – until they try it.” He says that because these stimulants (like Craze and OxyElite Pro) will boost energy while suppressing appetite they are often used by people before exercise to pump them up but he cautions that the subsequent jump in heart rate and blood pressure can be very dangerous for some people.
Then there’s the argument that if a supplement makes some feel bad then they can always stop taking it. This is true but when companies use such deceptive practices, as outlined above, people may not realize the damage being done to the them. After all, the heart damage from Ephedra appears to have been cumulative – and you didn’t know when yours had hit it’s limit until you had a heart attack. Plus, some of the substances are addicting.
If you are going to use sports supplements, it’s important that consumers take a very proactive approach to stay safe, Talbott warns. “The supplement market is very much a “buyer beware” category – so consumers need to ask questions of the companies that they are considering buying from.” He points out that reputable companies will answer questions, disclose ingredients, and provide safety and research evidence for their products – and not just research funded by their own company. He adds that you can always buy supplements that are “NSF Certified for Sport” which means they have been tested to the highest standard to ensure that they do not contain any illegal substances.
For myself, I finally decided that winning my age group in a race or keeping up with the guys on the weight floor wasn’t worth the risk of leaving my kids motherless and I quit all of them. These days I don’t even use protein powder (mostly because I just don’t like it – I never had a bad reaction to plain-jane, unenhanced protein powders). And as multiple recent studies continue to sound the death knell, all my multi-vitamins are gone. Not only do multi-vitamins not increase your life span but they also don’t prevent heart attacks, cognitive decline or cancer. In fact, in some instances they seem to increase cancer rates. So now the only stuff left in my supplement box is fish oil, vitamin D and magnesium. (Oh and biotin, because I’m still trying to grow back all the hair I lost…)
Talbott gives one final rule of thumb: “When the safety warnings are longer than the benefit statements, people should question whether this is something they really want to put into their bodies.”
For me, in the end, it always comes down to one question: Why exactly are you taking this? No, seriously, why? Is it to lean out for a competition? Gain muscle? Lose a few pounds? Do more work on less sleep? To push harder in your workouts? And then to whichever of those answers you choose, I would ask again: And why do you need to do that? Are any of those things worth risking your liver, your heart or even your life over? Yes, many people that use these drugs are fine but for those goals there should be no acceptable level of risk. Ignore the supplement companies and their slick adverts: They play to your fears and your vanity in order to get your money. If you can’t do it under your own power then maybe you should not be doing it.
But hey there is a silver lining: You’re going to save so much money because those supplements are not cheap!
Have any of you ever had a bad reaction to a supplement? What supps do you consider essential? Anyone else surprised that the “science” behind Sensa was ALL bogus?? (I kinda was, honestly.)