Athletes taking a powder Creatine: Though the focus has shifted to another substance, this supplement is more widespread -- but still a question mark.

August 31, 1998|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Christian Ewell, Bill Free, Gary Lambrecht -- and Lem Satterfield contributed to this article.

Home run king Mark McGwire may have given new meaning to the term "team chemistry" with his revelation that he uses the testosterone-enhancing pill androstenedione, but the debate over use of muscle-building supplements figures to remain largely one about the powdered form.

Creatine, anyone?

High-profile players from all the major professional sports use it. Many college and high school athletes are trying it. Doctors, trainers and parents wonder about it.

The questions center on the safety and effectiveness of creatine, a compound of three amino acids that are produced naturally in the human body to help build lean muscle mass. The synthesized version has been touted as a healthful, legal alternative to anabolic steroids, and its use is so widespread that it would be hard to find a high school athlete who hasn't heard of it or doesn't know someone who uses it.

Creatine entered the mainstream after the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, when 100-meter gold medalist Linford Christie and 400 hurdles gold medalist Sally Gunnell credited it with helping them prepare for victory. Now, with sales reaching $100 million per year -- and doubts about health temporarily overshadowed by the "andro" controversy -- creatine appears to have the sports world in its muscular grip.

Athletes such as McGwire, Orioles outfielder Brady Anderson, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman and Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway swear by creatine, even as more and more doctors caution that they are working out in uncharted territory.

McGwire, whose chase of Roger Maris' single-season home run record has put him at the center of the nutritional supplement debate, was a proponent of creatine long before anyone outside of the bodybuilding community had heard of androstenedione.

Both supplements are used to magnify the effect of training and help athletes recover faster after workouts. "Andro" does it by triggering hormone production, creatine by fueling increased muscle endurance and -- by some accounts -- assisting in converting fat to lean muscle mass.

Not regulated

Creatine's lack of effect on hormone production has allayed some fears about long-term health risks. But its growing popularity -- particularly among teen-age athletes -- has raised red flags in the medical community. Creatine has hit the market like an avalanche, but because it is a dietary supplement and not a pharmaceutical, it is not subject to federal scrutiny.

"We field reports that come in on supplements, but it's basically a free-for-all. These things are not really regulated," said Don Leggett, a compliance officer in the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research.

He noted that Congress removed most nutritional supplements from government oversight "unless there is a clear cause and effect or we can show imminent danger. The burden of proof is on us, where, in the case of a new drug, it would be on the manufacturer."

Instead, the FDA issues its standard advisory to consult a physician or health professional before beginning a dietary supplement regimen.

The FDA has received only 12 adverse event reports concerning creatine, compared with hundreds of complaints about other products, such as the diet pills popularly known as fen-phen.

"That is a relatively small number, and some of the people making the claims were using multiple products," FDA spokesman Arthur Whitmore said. "If there is a safety problem, it's something that is not yet substantiated."

Baltimore's Anderson, whose well-cut body has become a marketing tool for a major producer of synthesized creatine, said he has read much of the available research on creatine and is convinced it is safe.

He scoffed at comparisons with steroids, which allow bodybuilders to increase muscle mass with less effort. Creatine, he said, simply allows athletes to work out more frequently and effectively.

"Creatine helps muscle endurance," Anderson said. "It makes sense why it works. There's no magic. A guy who works out hard and doesn't use it is still going to do better than a guy who doesn't work out hard and does use it."

Anderson, who obtains his creatine from EAS (Experimental and Applied Sciences), said he began using it regularly three years ago as part of a comprehensive dietary regimen. "I use a multi-vitamin, a multi-mineral, some creatine and a good quality protein powder every day.

"Ideally, you'd like to get all that stuff from regular food, but to get additional creatine, you'd have to eat about 10 pounds of meat and fish a day," he said. "You want to gain lean body mass, but you can't do that with a regular diet."

Anderson's success using creatine has led some of his teammates to try the supplement.

"I didn't know about it until Brady started bringing it in," said catcher Chris Hoiles, who takes creatine to help him recover from the rigors of his position.

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