The illegalization of steroids has contributed to a boom in the steroid supplement market even though many professional bodybuilders and personal trainers consider supplements expensive placebos that can potentially harm one’s health. There are dozens of brands to choose from supplied by thousands of nutrition retailers, making steroid supplements one of the most difficult products about which to be an informed consumer.
These products have in the past and currently may contain illegal substances, toxic (but not illegal) substances, or illegal and toxic substances banned by professional sports leagues, amateur athletic organizations, the FDA, the International Olympics Committee, or even the United States military.
In 2001, a study featured in October’s Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine found that most widely available over-the-counter steroid supplements were mislabeled. Dr. Gary A. Green and colleagues of his representing UCLA concluded that the labels of the dietary steroid supplements studied “cannot be trusted for content and purity information.” They used a sophisticated high-pressure liquid chromatography test to verify the presence and dosages of different steroids in twelve OTC supplement brands.
Mislabeled substances often included ingredients that weren’t even listed on the packaging, such as real, illegal anabolic steroids. In fact, five of the twelve brands, or 42% of the samples, included unlisted ingredients. Of those five brands, one contained testosterone, a level III controlled substance as defined by the Controlled Substances Act. Other ingredients that were listed were found in doses much higher or lower than what was claimed on the label making the supplements either hazardous (too much of one thing led to severe side effects) or ineffective. Ten out of the twelve samples contained ingredients that were listed, but in substantially lower amounts than what the labels claimed rendering them moot.
Despite this uncertainty, the market remains a multi-billion-dollar business today simply because supplements are not banned by the Anabolic Steroid Control Act of 1990 and 2004. The errors discovered by the study violated the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act and held the potential to cause urine tests to turn up “positive” for illegal steroid use in the unsuspecting athlete. This situation is not unheard of in the world of sports.
In 2008, an American swimmer on the path to perform in the Beijing Olympics was deprived of her chance when she tested positive for clenbuterol, a substance in asthma medication that increases muscle growth, at the Olympic trials. Jessica Hardy had taken a supplement by the name of Arginine Extreme that did not list clenbuterol in the ingredients but was tainted with it. She is just one example out of a growing number of dedicated athletes who have traced a positive doping test back to a tainted supplement.
Runners, baseball players, football players…athletes involved in every sport from high school varsity teams to the big leagues have fallen victim to mislabeled supplements. In the end, the best advice is to quit paying for a substance that does not significantly enhance performance and could lead to unwanted test results.