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Supplements, steroids and unsuspecting customers

Performance-enhancing drugs come in all shapes and sizes

September 10, 2014 6:00AM ET

Last month, a U.S. District Court ruled that the NCAA violated antitrust statutes by not letting UCLA athletes profit from use of their likenesses in commercial products. As college athletes reap more gains, kids in high school will be enticed to use any means necessary to join the student-athlete elite.

For many, that means anabolic steroids: chemical derivatives of testosterone that are the go-to drugs for enhancing athletic performance and body image. More than 10 million Americans a year are estimated to take these drugs; 4 percent of them are adolescents (girls as well as boys). Anabolic steroids are Schedule III controlled substances, and those who take them outside of prescribed medical uses do so illegally.

The litany of negative physiological and behavioral effects associated with use of anabolic steroids is legend. Illicit regimens used for performance enhancement result in levels of androgens and their metabolites that are estimated to be 10 to 100 times normal levels for men and over 1,000 times for women and adolescents. As with caffeine, androgens can be beneficial but not when taken to excess. Use of these steroids has been associated with cardiovascular, renal and hepatic toxicity, increases in depression and anxiety and increased use of alcohol and illicit substances. And while there may be legitimate arguments for and against the use of these compounds for adult elite athletes, few people believe that everyday adult gym rats or adolescents, no matter what their athletic prospects, should be taking these drugs. 

Train harder

It isn’t just the illegal stuff that consumers need to worry about, though. Shady supplements are all around us. The media and the message urge kids as well as coaches and parents to head off to the nearest GNC to buy supplements that will help turn them into the next LeBron James or Diana Taurasi. Americans love their supplements, spending upward of $32.5 billion on these products. They’re safe! They’re natural!

Except they’re not. Fifteen percent of supposedly natural supplements sold in the U.S. in 2001 and 2002 were laced with anabolic steroids. Marketing urging us to build better bodies through supplements has increased dramatically since 2002, raising the specter that supplements are even more adulterated with illicit anabolics than they were a decade ago. While supplements are not free from oversight (a common misperception), the oversight is far from ideal.

Better oversight and actually knowing what is in that canister of MusclePharm® Arnold Schwarzenegger Series Arnold Iron Whey™ Chocolate are two different things.

Dietary supplements are subject to regulation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission. The FDA’s authority was codified in 1994 by the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), which says that those who manufacture and distribute supplements cannot sell products that are adulterated or falsely labeled. However, the DSHEA gave supplement makers responsibility for policing themselves. Aside from the obvious foxes-guarding-the-henhouse problems that presents, it is important to recognize that even for companies with the best intentions, detection of anabolic steroids is complex and costly, necessitating sophisticated approaches (such as gas or liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry). In part, these approaches are expensive because they are designed to identify known and specific compounds by chemical fingerprints. As important, each new designer drug is different enough to slip under the radar.

Designer drugs

In the face of this challenge, the House of Representatives subcommittee on health unanimously voted in June to forward a bill (H.R. 4771) that will not only add 27 new designer drugs to the list of regulated anabolic steroids but will make it easier for the attorney general to identify legally sold commercial products that contain illicit anabolic steroids. The bill is important in providing much needed flexibility for the federal government to help beef up oversight of the contents of dietary supplements. The bill received unanimous support from both parties in the House and from five major dietary supplement industry associations, including the United Natural Products Alliance and the Council for Responsible Nutrition.

Better regulations to facilitate oversight and actually knowing what is in that canister of MusclePharm® Arnold Schwarzenegger Series Arnold Iron Whey™ Chocolate are two different things. Despite new federal laws, testing for anabolic steroids in supplements will continue to be expensive, and new and undetectable designer drugs will continue to be developed at a rate that outpaces scientists’ ability to detect them. With that in mind, when you pick up that bottle of multivitamins, the best advice is still caveat emptor: It may contain stanozolol.

Better yet, buy an apple.

Leslie Henderson, Ph.D., is the senior associate dean for faculty affairs and a professor of physiology and neurobiology at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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