Athletes beware: What you read on a supplement's label isn't always what you put in your body.
Last year, the British laboratory HFL studied popular supplements available in the U.S. to determine whether they were contaminated with steroids or stimulants. Out of 52 products analyzed, 13 contained steroids and six had stimulants, none of which were listed on the labels. The highest incidence of contamination came from testosterone boosters and stacks, followed by weight loss supplements, and then muscle-building products. These findings follow the International Olympic Committee's 2002 study, which found that 19 percent of 240 supplements tested contained steroids.
The FDA regulates food and drugs, but not supplements, which is why, according to nutrition experts, there are often discrepancies between what's in a product and what's on the label. Therefore, athletes have to be extra careful. Besides being subject to random drug tests, athletes taking such unlabeled ingredients could hurt their performance.
Supplement contamination has led the NCAA to take a stand on distribution in colleges. According to Mary Wilfert, associate director of education services, the NCAA's position is to use food first and supplements at your own risk. The NCAA prohibits colleges from providing athletes with muscle-builders, added amino acids, weight gainers, creatine, ginseng, glucosamine, or protein powders. However, NCAA schools may offer products that are considered "permissible supplements," including energy bars, calorie replacement drinks [e.g., Ensure, Boost], electrolyte replacement drinks [e.g., Gatorade, Powerade], and a general vitamin and mineral.
These products are permitted, according to Wilfert, because they "do not create a competitive advantage [through strength or muscle-building]. They only provide hydration and calorie replacement."
To be classified as permissible, no more than 30 percent of a product's total calories can come from a whole protein source. Wilfert explains that athletes generally require about 15 percent of their daily caloric intake from protein. She says, "The NCAA provides a generous allowance, partly in recognition of the market, while still limiting protein in compliance with the intent of the rules."
Supplementing on your own
Wilfert points out that NCAA guidelines on permissible supplement provision regulate what schools can give their athletes, and not what athletes can take on their own, which is regulated by the NCAA list of banned drug classes. Her warning: "The potential that a product could have a banned substance in it, [or] be contaminated with something the NCAA bans for student-athletes—and which could result in a positive drug test—is greater for supplement products. It's up to athletes to check out any product with their athletics department before they use it."
So when supplementing on your own, know what you're buying and from where.
Mike King, manager of consumer products and events for GNC, says his company has a consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission, ensuring that athletes buying GNC products know exactly what they're taking just by reading the label. "We abide by [the decree] and its truth in labeling," King says. "We go through about 150 quality tests for each of our products, so student-athletes coming into the store can be positive that what they see on the GNC brand label is what they're getting."
Chris Kildow, director of sports marketing for CytoSport and Muscle Milk, recommends finding, choosing and using collegiate-compliant products before you get to college. He says, "You'll find a great benefit in using [collegiate-compliant products] before college, because it's probably what you're going to use [while you're there.]"
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