Increasingly, amateur and professional athletes are turning to nutritional supplements to build an edge. And, as supplement companies all try to build an edge in marketing, the products are raising questions as to where the line between legitimate nutritional additives and performance-enhancing drugs lies.
The debate heated up after the St. Louis Cardinal's star batter Mark McGwire defended his use of a supplement called androstenedione. The substance has been shown to briefly boost the body's production of testosterone, which is essential for building muscle and strength.
"It's just a supplement. It's not a drug," McGwire said earlier this month.
"In all honesty, it is jumping off the shelves," said Steve Goldberg of Great Earth Vitamins, a health food store.
Publicity generated by the McGwire controversy has been good for sales of androstenedione, which is legally sold over the counter in nutrition stores. That worries some health experts, because there are few studies on its effects and safety in humans.
Dr. Gary Wadler of the Food and Drug Administration considers androstenedione to be a dietary supplement. The FDA considers testosterone to be a controlled substance requiring narcotic type prescriptions.
Wadler is a consultant for the International Olympic Committee on performance enhancing drugs. He says the government has erred in classifying androstenedione and other testosterone boosters like the popular anti-aging compound DHEA as mere supplements and not as anabolic steroids, which are controlled substances.
"This stuff, because it is converted to testosterone, has to be viewed with the same caution as we view testosterone itself, and all the side effects that can be resulting from the abuse or even the legitimate use of testosterone."
Side effects from prescription anabolic steroids can include liver and heart disease, impotence, masculinization in women, and increase risk for prostate and breast cancer. But makers of the supplement, such as Met-Rx's Dr. Scott Connelly, insist androstenedione is safe because the body just gets rid of any excess.
"The reaction that takes androstenedione to testosterone has an upper limit of activity, and giving more androstenedione once that upper limit of activity has been reached will not further your testosterone product," Connelly said.
That argument falls on deaf ears at the NFL, the Men's Tennis Association, the NCAA, and the U.S. Olympic Committee, which all classify androstenedione as a banned substance and forbid their athletes to use it.
"You'd be surprised how many kids come u and ask us about them," said Mike Pizzi, coach at West Orange High School in New Jersey.
High school sports associations ban the supplement, too. Coach Pizzi treats androstenedione use just like drug use: it's not allowed. But his young players are vulnerable to the appeal of claims to make you bigger and stronger, regardless of unknown risks.
"It's obvious when you see a kid maybe bench press 150 one week and 350 the next week," said 16-year-old Aaron Wellborn, who plays on Pizzi's football team. "But then you see all the side effects -- maybe short tempers, a whole lot of pimples on their face -- stuff like that. I'm not really interested in that type of stuff."
His teammate, 17-year-old Tim Lentine, agrees.
"It can help you now, but in the future it can hurt you and I don't want anything like that happening to my body," Lentine said.
The alternative to supplements for these teams: lessons about the value of good old fashioned hard work in the weight room and on the field.
"I looked at them a couple of times, but I mean, I think I'm already self-confident about how I am," said high school football player Troy Biggs, 17. "I don't need to look no bigger."
Reported by John Roberts