Athletes complain

Last reviewed: July 2010

Protein powders have been under scrutiny before. In 2005, National Football League running back Michael Cloud filed a lawsuit against MuscleTech. He claimed that after he temporarily substituted MuscleTech Nitro-Tech powder for the protein powder he normally used, he tested positive for the banned steroid nandrolone, because of the presence of ingredients in Nitro-Tech that were not disclosed on the product's label.

According to Cloud's legal complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Rhode Island, an independent laboratory analysis of the Nitro-Tech powder he used revealed the undisclosed ingredients norandrostenedione and androstenediol, steroid precursors that would cause the positive test results. A similar complaint was filed by Olympic bobsledder Pavle Jovanovic.

Both cases were settled out of court. Jamie Moss, a spokeswoman for Iovate, the company behind Nitro-Tech and other MuscleTech dietary supplements, says, "At no time have banned substances been confirmed to be found in any Nitro-Tech branded product."

In the U.S., supplements aren't generally required to undergo a pre-market review, as are prescription drugs; health claims are not assessed for validity; and a requirement that makers comply with good manufacturing practices is just being fully phased in as of June. In Canada, supplements undergo pre-market testing.

Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, believes that the FDA's oversight under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act is inadequate to ensure that protein drinks and other dietary supplements are consistently low in heavy metals and other contaminants. Legislation pending in Congress to strengthen the FDA's oversight of food safety could incorporate language from another bill sponsored by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., to improve regulation of dietary supplements. Those moves are steps in the right direction, but more must be done to ensure that those products are properly evaluated for safety and effectiveness before they are sold to consumers.

"It is foolish to have these and other dietary supplements being sold with practically no regulation," says David Carpenter, M.D., head of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany.