Eric Seeberger carefully wrapped his hands around the bar, his eyes squinting with determination. He exhaled, pursed his lips and began to bench-press 315 pounds. His arms strained, and his chest expanded. With a mighty heave, he hoisted the iron load.
At 5 feet 6 inches and 210 pounds, Seeberger, 17, is a fireplug. He’s a senior at Columbia High School, where he’s a running back and linebacker. He bears little resemblance to the once somewhat pudgy 160-pounder who hardly looked suited for football as a freshman.
Seeberger is not unlike scores of teens across the country who are building better bodies by entering the world of sports nutritional supplements. It’s a $1.6 billion-a-year industry that sells products that can be harmful, even deadly.
One million American youths between the ages of 12 and 17 are estimated to have used nutritional supplements, according to a survey conducted last year by the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association’s Healthy Competition Foundation. The survey found that 96 percent of the youths who used supplements were aware of the associated health risks.
Supporters tout nutritional supplements as safe and effective when used properly, even though the long-term effects aren’t known. Sales of one popular supplement, creatine have grown by 730 percent since 1995.
Nutritional supplements include everything from protein shakes and bars to products that contain harder-edged substances such as androstenedione and ephedra.
“It’s not just the athletes,” said Ron Annis, Columbia High’s trainer. “The ones walking around the halls take [supplements] for self-esteem and body image.”
No FDA regulation
Nutritional supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and are available to anyone at nutrition stores, supermarkets, drug stores and on the Internet.
Supplements can vary widely in purity and in the amount of active ingredients they contain. Moreover, manufacturers can make health claims that aren’t supported by studies proving the products safe or effective.
If anabolic steroids are the biggest danger in a young athlete’s development, then supplements are the red alert.
FDA spokeswoman Monica Revelle said supplements can pose dangerous health risks if taken by someone with a pre-existing condition such as heart disease.
“Our general advice to all consumers is that they consult with their healthcare professional before taking any nutritional supplements,” Revelle said.
Despite being in a school weight lifting program that discourages the use of supplements, Seeberger said he said he likes using them and hasn’t been hurt by them.
“The program helps, but I’m into lifting so much, it makes me feel a lot better when I do that stuff,” Seeberger said of supplements. “I mean, you could be driving and get killed by a drunk driver. It’s not a factor to me. I’ve had no ill effects from it.”
For Seeberger, the decision to use supplements was simple: He wanted to get bigger. He started lifting in the ninth grade and gained 55 pounds by the beginning of this school year. His favorite supplement is Cell-Tech, a creatine powder that claims to help build muscle. It comes in one-gallon vats that last about a month and sell for $63.
Seeberger mixes a couple of spoonfuls with water and drinks the concoction before he hits the weight room.
“I’ve used powder, the pills, the liquids. It gets me fired up,” said Seeberger, who wants to play college football.
Creatine is a substance Mark McGwire and fellow power-hitters Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa have acknowledged using. It is a naturally occurring amino acid taken in concentrated form, and is reputed to briefly increase strength and power.
The New York State Public High School Athletic Association has no written policy on the use of nutritional supplements, but in the past five years the subject has been included in its annual chemical health program for coaches. Previously, the program was limited to tobacco, alcohol and illegal drugs.
The National Federation of State High School Associations does not ban supplements, but acknowledged last month the “continued widespread use” of them and reiterated its 1998 stance against the improper use of the products. The organization said physicians should be consulted first and that “coaches and school staff should not recommend or supply any supplement product to student-athletes.”
Walter Eaton, assistant director of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association, agreed supplements are a national issue.
“To what extent it is being used we can’t be certain, but we know it’s a problem and do fear the worst,” Eaton said.
Androstenedione, commonly known as “andro,” gained national prominence in 1998 when the Cardinals’ McGwire acknowledged using the over-the-counter substance when he hit a then-major league record 70 home runs.
Andro, which many athletes believe increases the body’s production of muscle-building hormones such as testosterone and human growth hormone, is sold under brand names like 3-Andro Xtreme, Andro-Gen, Andro-Stack and Animal Stak.
Considered a precursor to steroids, which are illegal in the United States unless prescribed by a physician, andro is banned by the International Olympic Committee, the National Football League and the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
Ephedra, meanwhile, can be deadly. Two years ago, an analysis in the New England Journal of Medicine attributed at least 54 deaths to the substance since the mid-1990s.
The FDA leaves the policing of supplements up to manufacturers, and has received 1,400 ephedra-related complaints since 1984. The NFL, NCAA and IOC also have banned ephedra.
Wes Siegner, a lawyer for the Ephedra Education Council in Washington, D.C., said manufacturers would support laws prohibiting the sale of ephedra to minors and would welcome an independent government study into its safety.
Siegner said that though no negative effects have shown up in studies conducted by manufacturers involving hundreds of ephedra users, consumer groups doubt the validity of such research.
Ephedra, a Chinese herb, is a stimulant that supporters claim boosts energy, although it is marketed mainly for weight loss.
“Our studies show there are no problems if it is taken as directed for overweight problems by otherwise healthy adults,” Siegner said. “Minors shouldn’t be taking it or making decisions about losing weight without the supervision of their doctor and their parents.”
A watershed moment for the supplement industry, which has a powerful lobby in Washington, came in 1994 when Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act. The law differentiated nutritional supplements from food and drugs.
While the law set rules about what can be said about supplements in promotional materials and established standards for labeling, it meant the products could not be regulated by the FDA.
“Nutritional supplements can make all the claims they want with no backing of scientific studies,” said Dr. Bruce Dick, an orthopedic surgeon and specialist in sports medicine at Albany Medical Center.
Dick has a blunt warning about ephedra in particular.
“It kills people,” he said. “It has an association with cardiac problems.”