Don't Buy Phony "Ergogenic" Aids

Written by Stephen Barrett, M.D.

More than a hundred companies are marketing phony "ergogenic aids," combinations of various vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and other "dietary supplements" claimed to build muscles and/or enhance athletic performance. In 1991, researchers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention surveyed twelve popular health and bodybuilding magazines (one issue each) and found ads for 89 brands and 311 products with a total of 235 unique ingredients. Health Foods Business estimates that in 1996, total sales of such products through health-food stores exceeded $204 million. They are also sold through pharmacies and superstores.

Roots of "Ergogenic" Mythology

The notion that massive amounts of protein are necessary during training have evolved from the ancient beliefs that great strength could be obtained by eating the raw meat of lions, tigers, or other animals that displayed great fighting strength. Today, although few athletes consume raw meat, the idea that "you are what you eat" is still widely promoted by food faddists.

During the early 1900s, when muscles were discovered to contain protein, athletes and coaches mistakenly concluded that protein was the principal component. (Actually, it is water.) These protein beliefs were further reinforced during the 1930s by Bob Hoffman (1899-1985) and later by Joe Weider (1923-), both of whom published magazines that catered to bodybuilders and weightlifters. They asserted that athletes have special protein needs, that protein supplements have special muscle-building and health-giving powers, and that the most efficient way to get enough protein is by using supplements. The scientific facts are otherwise. Muscle-building is not caused by eating extra protein. It is stimulated by increased muscular work. Once basic protein needs have been met, the small additional amount needed during intense training is easily obtainable from a balanced diet. Few Americans fail to consume adequate amounts of protein.

Hoffman marketed supplement products and bodybuilding equipment through his York Barbell Company, of York, Pennsylvania. A prolific writer, he published two magazines and more than thirty books on fitness and nutrition. For many years, York Barbell's nutritional products were promoted with false and misleading claims. In 1960, the company was charged with misbranding its Energol Germ Oil Concentrate because literature accompanying the oil claimed falsely that it could prevent or treat more than 120 diseases and conditions, including epilepsy, gallstones, and arthritis. In 1961, fifteen other York Barbell products were seized as misbranded. In 1968, a larger number of products came under attack by the government for similar reasons. In 1972, the FDA seized three types of York Barbell protein supplements, charging that they were misbranded with false and misleading bodybuilding claims. In 1974, the company was again charged with misbranding Energol and protein supplements. The oil had been claimed to be of special source of vigor and energy. False bodybuilding claims had been made for the protein supplements.

Despite his many brushes with the law, Hoffman achieved considerable professional prominence. During his athletic career, first as an oarsman and then as a weightlifter, he received over six hundred trophies, certificates, and awards. He was the Olympic weightlifting coach from 1936 to 1968 and was a founding member of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.

Weider began bodybuilding as a teenager and was sixteen when he launched a newsletter called Your Physique. A few years later, he started a company that sold bodybuilding equipment and instructional booklets through the mail. In 1946, Joe's brother Ben joined the business and they set up the International Federation of Bodybuilders, which promotes the sport worldwide and sponsors competitions. According to press reports, their business empire now grosses over $500 million annually.

Weider Health & Fitness is the dominant player in the sports-supplement marketplace. It publishes seven magazines, sells bodybuilding equipment, broadcasts "Muscle Magazine" on ESPN, and sponsors many athletic and aerobic events throughout the year. The magazines are Muscle & Fitness, Shape, Flex, Living Fit, Prime Health & Fitness, Men's Fitness., and Senior Golfer. The supplements include Anabolic Mega-Pak, Dynamic Life Essence, Dynamic Super Stress-End, Dynamic Power Source, Dynamic Driving Force, Dynamic Fat Burners, Dynamic Liver Concentrate Energizer, Dynamic Sustained Endurance, Dynamic Recupe, Dynamic Body Shaper, and Dynamic Muscle Builder. None of these products appears capable of doing what its name suggests, and none contains any nutrients not readily obtainable from a balanced diet.

In 1984, the FTC charged that ads for Anabolic Mega-Pak (containing amino acids, minerals, vitamins, and herbs) and Dynamic Life Essence (an amino acid product) had been misleading. The FTC complaint was settled in 1985 when Weider and the company agreed not to falsely claim that these products can help build muscles or are effective substitutes for anabolic steroids. They also agreed to pay a minimum of $400,000 in refunds or (if refunds did not reach this figure) to fund research on the relationship of nutrition to muscle development. Although the forbidden claims no longer appear in Weider ads, similar messages appear in articles in the magazines and are implied by endorsements and pictures of muscular athletes as well as by names of the products themselves. False and misleading claims also appear in a series of eighteen booklets published in 1990 by Weider Health & Fitness and marketed through GNC stores.

The Marketplace Expands

During the 1970s, in addition to protein supplements and assorted vitamins, the main products touted to athletes were wheat germ oil and bee pollen (falsely claimed to boost energy and endurance). In the early 1980s, Weider Health & Fitness introduced an "Olympians" line said to have been developed by working closely with "Olympians and nutritional researchers." Most were sustained-release vitamin concoctions that included an exotic ingredient or two. As public interest in fitness grew, several drug companies began falsely claiming that multivitamin or "stress" supplements were just what active people needed.

Life Extension, by Durk Pearson and Sandy Shaw, was published in 1982 and followed by appearances by the authors on hundreds of radio and television talk shows. The book claimed that supplements of certain amino acids would cause the body to release growth hormone, which would produce muscle growth and fat loss with little or no effort. These claims were based on faulty extrapolations of experiments in which animals were given large doses of these amino acids by injection. Swallowing amino acids does not cause humans to release growth hormone. But the massive publicity garnered by Pearson and Shaw inspired the health-food industry to market hundreds of new products for athletes and would-be dieters. Many of these products are falsely claimed to be "natural steroids" or "steroid substitutes." In the ensuing years, scores of other useless ingredients have been added to "ergogenic aids."

Some manufacturers make no claims in their ads but imply them in product names. Many use pictures of athletes to convey their messages. Some make explicit claims in their ads or product literature, while other use simple puffery. Several have published charts suggesting which products are good for specific purposes. Some even market products for specific sports.

Simple Truths

Athletes who eat a balanced diet don't need extra protein or vitamins. In The Complete Sports Medicine Book for Women, sportsmedicine specialist Gabe Mirkin, M.D., and gynecologist Mona Shangold, M.D., explain why:

You don't need much extra protein even to enlarge your muscles. For example, 1 pound of muscle contains only about 100 grams of protein, since it is composed of more than 72% water. So if you are gaining 1 pound of muscle every week in an excellent strength training program, you are adding only about 100 grams of protein each week, or about 15 grams of protein each day. Two cups of corn and beans will meet this need -- far less than you would expect. . . .

Requirements for only four vitamins increase with exercise: thiamin, niacin, riboflavin, and pantothenic acid. These vitamins are used up minimally in the breakdown of carbohydrates and, to a small degree, protein for energy. But you will find them abundantly in food. . . . Furthermore, deficiencies of these vitamins have never been reported in athletes.

What about other products? The most thorough investigation has been conducted by David Lightsey, an exercise physiologist and nutritionist who coordinates the National Council Against Health Fraud's Task Force on Ergogenic Aids. During the past four years, he has telephoned more than 80 companies that market "ergogenic aids." In a recent interview, Lightsey told me:

In each case, I told a company representative that I had been asked to collect data on the company's product(s) and issue a formal report. After they described the alleged benefits, I would ask how data supporting these claims were collected. As my questions became more specific, their responses became more vague. Some said they could not be more specific because they did not wish to reveal trade secrets.

I ended each interview with a request for written documentation. Fewer than half sent anything. Most of the studies they sent were poorly designed and proved nothing. The few that were well designed did not support product claims but were taken out of context.

Some companies claimed that one team or another was using their products. In each such case, I contacted the team management and learned that although one or more players used the company's products, the management had neither endorsed the products nor encouraged their use.

Lightsey believes there are two reasons why many athletes believe that various products have helped them: (1) use of the product often coincides with natural improvement due to training, and (2) increased self-confidence or a placebo effect inspires greater performance. Any such "psychological benefit," however, should be weighed against the dangers of misinformation, wasted money, misplaced faith, and adverse physical effects -- both known and unknown -- that can result from megadoses of nutrients. Moreover, how many people who are involved in fitness programs or recreational sports need a placebo for inspiration?

More Enforcement Action Is Needed

Little government effort has been made to protect consumers from wasting money on "sports nutrient" products. The FTC took the action noted above against Weider Health & Fitness, the market leader. In 1986, the agency acted against A.H. Robins and its subsidiary, the Viobin Corporation, which had been making false claims for wheat germ oil products for more than fifteen years. The case was settled with a consent agreement prohibiting representations that the oil could help consumers improve endurance, stamina, vigor, or other aspects of athletic fitness, or that its active ingredient "octacosanol" is related in any way to body reaction time, oxygen uptake, oxygen debt, or athletic performance.

In 1992, the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) published a report called Magic Muscle Pills!! Health and Fitness Quackery in Nutrition Supplements. DCA investigators found that manufacturers they contacted for information about their products were unable to provide a single published report from a scientific journal to back the claims that their products could benefit athletes.

Along with its report, DCA issued "Notices of Violation" to six companies whose products it had investigated. It also warned consumers to beware of terms like "fat burner," "fat fighter," "fat metabolizer," "energy enhancer," " performance booster," "strength booster," " ergogenic aid," "anabolic optimizer," and "genetic optimizer." Calling the bodybuilding supplement industry "an economic hoax with unhealthy consequences," DCA officials urged the FDA and FTC to stop the "blatantly drug-like claims" and false advertising used to promote these products.

In 1994, the FTC reached a consent agreement under which General Nutrition, Inc., paid $2.4 million dollars to settle charges that it had falsely advertised 41 products, most of which had been packaged by other manufacturers. The products included Weider's Super Fat Burners, eleven other "muscle builders," and five other phony "ergogenic aids." No action was taken against the other manufacturers, but the FTC's staff is well aware that the "sports nutrition" marketplace needs cleaning up.

The FDA has the legal right to ban claims that the products stimulate hormone activity or alter the body's metabolism. (Claims of this type enable the agency to classify them as drugs and ban unapproved uses.) In 1994, David Lightsey and I petitioned the FDA to ban all ingredients in these products that had not been proven safe and effective for their intended use and to issue a public warning that the FDA does not recognize them as effective. The agency replied that our petition "did not contain scientific evidence that the claims described in the petition were such that products are . . . unapproved new drugs" and that it "did not provide scientific evidence that would allow the FDA to evaluate the validity of the claims."

Dr. Barrett, a consumer advocate, is board chairman of Quackwatch, Inc. This article was adapted from The Vitamin Pushers: How the "Health Food" Industry Is Selling America a Bill of Goods (Prometheus Books, 1994).

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