Hidden hazards in bodybuilding products

FDA says some supplements have illegal steroids

By Megan Woolhouse
Globe Staff / October 17, 2009

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Eighteen-year-old Fidah Salem did not know anything about the ingredients listed on the 4 1/2-pound container of Cell-Tech Hardcore, but he liked the nutritional supplement’s promise: “packs on muscle strength.’’

So he persuaded his mother, Paula Smith, to spend $100 on it and other products last week at the GNC store at South Shore Plaza in Braintree.

Smith said she and her son did not know the US Food and Drug Administration recently warned against the use of some bodybuilding supplements - though not Cell-Tech Hardcore specifically - saying they might contain anabolic steroids, which are illegal.

“A bunch of my friends use [supplements], so I thought I’d try,’’ Salem said. “It gives you muscle and gets you bigger without shooting steroids.’’

While much attention has been paid to steroid use among professional athletes, teenagers are often drawn to sports performance products that advertise similarly dramatic results. There are hundreds of over-the-counter items available locally, such as Anabolic Halo, a powder touted as promoting “chilling gains in muscle size and strength,’’ and Jack3d, which is said to induce “ultra-intense muscle-gorging strength.’’ Those and other supplements are sold with virtually no oversight by the FDA.

Earlier this month, a US Senate subcommittee held a hearing on an FDA report that two supplements made by American Cellular Labs Inc. - Tren Xtreme and Mass Xtreme Size Promoter - contained synthetic versions of anabolic steroids. The FDA advised consumers to avoid products that purport to offer steroid-like effects or are advertised with such words as “hardcore’’ and “anabolic.’’ Steroid use has been associated with acute liver injury, heart failure, and side effects such as male infertility, rage, and stunted growth in children.

The FDA’s warning came after it received more than a dozen reports of medical problems linked to the two American Cellular Lab products - which are no longer on the market - including the case of a 37-year-old man diagnosed with kidney failure.

While drug makers must demonstrate that a treatment is safe and effective before the FDA approves it for sale, the nutritional supplement industry is largely self-regulating - the FDA can act only if it receives reports of serious health problems. In Massachusetts, the Department of Education does not mandate steroid testing in schools, nor does it track whether local athletic programs require such tests. The state Department of Public Health does not keep a record of complaints about steroid use in schools.

For athletes, the best source of information about performance enhancers may be coaches - the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association requires them to complete an eight-hour training session on steroids and nutritional supplements.

But Barry Haley, the association’s president, said students often appeal to a higher authority. “They tell their parents, ‘They sell it in stores, so it’s got to be fine,’ ’’ Haley said.

And even discerning parents may have a difficult time sorting out risky supplements from benign ones. The shelves of such stores as GNC and The Vitamin Shoppe are lined with pills and powders with screaming come-ons.

GNC and The Vitamin Shoppe said they do not carry the kind of bodybuilding products that led to the FDA’s warning. Greg Miller, a GNC spokesman, said in an e-mail that everything it sells is legal and safe and vendors are required to certify that ingredient labels are accurate.

“While we rely on manufacturers statements on formulation, we do closely review ingredients as stated on the labels of third-party products,’’ Miller said.

The Vitamin Shoppe did not specifically respond to questions about products’ assertions but said in a statement that it is “very selective in the products we carry.’’

A 2008 survey by the National Institutes for Health and the Health and Human Services department found 1 in 33 high school seniors in the United States admitted using steroids in the preceding year. That number does not take into account inadvertent consumption, through use of supplements.

Michael Levy, director of the Division of New Drugs and Labeling Compliance for the FDA in Washington, D.C., said many supplements boast of results that are “too good to be true’’ or secretly contain steroids to make them more effective. Levy said he could not offer specific advice on Cell-Tech Hardcore, the supplement Salem and his mother bought, but he questioned the label’s “hardcore’’ claim.

“What we’re saying is avoid anything that sounds like it has the equivalent of illegal steroids in it, because quite possibly it does,’’ Levy said.

Jack3d, made by USP Labs, trumpets its ability to give users “the mad aggressive desire and ability to lift more weight, pump more reps, and have crazy lasting energy along with sick muscle-engorging pumps.’’ Rick Quinn, a lawyer for USP Labs, acknowledged that such assertions are common and conceded the supplement industry can be “shady.’’ But despite the hype, Quinn said, the company’s products are made “legally and naturally.’’

Cell-Tech Hardcore is sold under the name MuscleTech, a brand produced by Iovate Health Sciences Inc. in Ontario, Canada. Iovate officials could not be reached by phone and a customer service number went unanswered. The company also makes Anabolic Halo and voluntarily recalled its Hydroxycut dietary supplement earlier this year after the FDA found it posed a “severe potentially life-threatening hazard to some users.’’

Safety questions about bodybuilding supplements have led to the emergence of at-home steroid tests aimed at parents and schools. Phamatech Inc., based in San Diego, began marketing its At Home Steroid Test in the Boston area recently. Phamatech said the $79.99 kit requires a urine sample, which must be sent to its lab for testing. It says the test can identify the “11 most commonly abused steroids’’ with 99 percent accuracy within five to seven days. (The FDA said it has not tested the company’s assertions.)

UriTox LLC, an Ohio-based company, began selling a similar steroid test kit, SteroidConfirm, online in 2008. Spokesman Mike Bailey said schools have been its best customers. Bailey declined to identify customers but said the company has sold 321 test kits in Greater Boston this year.

Gary Wadler, a sports physician at the New York University School of Medicine who has studied nutritional supplements, said steroid tests for student athletes won’t solve the problem. He supports increased federal oversight of the supplement industry but also sees a need for more education.

“The best option is to make parents aware, coaches aware, and the schools aware,’’ Wadler said. “You just don’t put things in your body willy-nilly.’’

That’s what Meghan Cassidy said she preaches to her son, Ed, 17, a linebacker on Brockton High School’s football team. Cassidy said the ingredients on supplements can read like something out of a lab.

“There’s a lot of pressure on [players] to perform,’’ Cassidy said at St. John’s Preparatory School in Danvers on a recent Sunday, where Brockton’s Boxers were playing the Eagles.

But, she added, “These kids need to think about the long-term health implications’’ of what they put in their bodies.

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at

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