Muscle-building supplements: under-regulated, not essential

They can help you pile on weight but there's no guarantee of purity.

Young people and bodybuilders of all ages are heavily into supplements these days, but are all those great-sounding additives a.) really safe and b.) really necessary? The answers: a.) not always and b.) almost never.

The problem with whey protein, creatine monohydrate, and amino acids is that they're sold as dietary supplements, which means they're not very tightly regulated and there's no guarantee that they're not contaminated with other substances that may be impure or downright harmful.

A Canadian study recently found many loopholes in how muscle-building supplements are produced and marketed.

“We identified many gaps in the current policy that put young people at risk,” said Kyle T. Ganson, PhD, MSW, assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, in a news release. “Namely, there lacks a serious and consistent method of ensuring manufacturing sites and products are safe and unadulterated or contaminated.”

The study underscores the need for greater regulations given their prior research that has documented over 80% of boys and young men in Canada report using whey protein and over 50% report using creatine monohydrate, Ganson said.

If anyone doubts that protein supplements are big business, consider this:

In 2020, Tyson food, Inc. was among the leading protein food companies worldwide. Sales of protein food products of Tyson Foods amounted to about 42.61 billion U.S. dollars that year. - Statista

“These dietary supplements are widely available and easily accessible despite the potential for being adulterated with banned substances,” continued Ganson. “We also know that use of muscle-building dietary supplements is linked with eating disorders, muscle dysmorphia, illicit substance use, and future use of anabolic-androgenic steroids.”

The study authors suggest tightening up public policy for supplements.

“Several strategies may be used to deter use, such as imposing a tax to these supplements, as well as restricting sale to those under 18 years old,” noted Ganson.

They also recommend enhanced testing of manufacturing sites and products, increased ability for government agencies to recall products, and improved monitoring of adverse events.

Like other supplements, muscle-building compounds appeal to people who are trying to improve their health – specifically to increase their muscle size in this case.

But there were strong people long before whey protein shakes and creatine monohydrate bars, for the simple reason that protein occurs in many forms and is easily obtained by eating a well-rounded diet, according to experts in the field.

What makes whey protein so popular is that it is a "complete" protein, meaning that it contains all nine amino acids needed for growth. But plain old food like nuts and legumes contain amino acids too and may be more pleasant than choking down a protein shake.

There's also the little matter of calories. Whey protein and other supplements contain calories and when you add them to a regular diet, it's easy to start piling on pounds that may not wind up in your biceps, dietitians caution.

“Your body can only use 20 to 40 grams of protein at a time,” says Maxine Smith, a Registered Dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic. “Even if you’re trying to bulk up, taking amounts higher than this isn’t helpful. Most people don’t need whey protein to meet their protein requirements if they’re eating a healthy diet.”

Possible drawbacks

Besides possible contaminants and unknown ingredients in supplement packages, there are a few other risks associated with whey protein. For one, it's a dairy product and may cause problems for people with dairy allergies, not to mention vegans. The supplements may also contain sugar, which can add to weight gain. Whey protein can also causes constipation, diarrhea or nausea in some people.

But the biggest worry is possible contaminants and undeclared substances, like those implicated in recent FDA recalls.

“They can have fillers or heavy metal contaminants that aren’t listed on the label,” Smith said. "Choose whey protein products that are NSF Certified for Sport or certified by Informed Choice. These products have been independently tested for purity."