Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Let the buyer beware

Nowhere in the triathlon world is this warning more appropriate than in the area of sports nutritional supplements, foods, and drinks. There is very little government regulation of these products in the U.S., and the manufacturers have a highly profitable business with a strong anti-regulation lobby.

When looking at these products with a critical eye - the incredible markups and total nonsense one sees!!!! "Sports" jelly beans at triple the price of regular jellybeans, just with a little extra salt in them. Jelly blocks at $2/bag which are practically the same thing as Chuckles candy for 50 cents but taste worse. "Sports protein" drinks which aren't nearly as balanced proteins as plain old milk.

In marketing their products, many vendors resort to making far-reaching claims and justify their products through the use of pseudoscientific babble. Monthly newsletters are put out by the companies selling these products which are filled with pseudoscientific nonsense which is intended to sound fairly plausible if you don't read it with a very critical eye for some actual objective evidence of efficacy.

In my opinion, one of the prominent examples is Hammer Nutrition, which targets the endurance athlete niche. Their resident "expert" and "Director of Research and Product Development" is "Dr." Bill Misner, who authors their "scientific" articles promoting their products. Let's take a look at his so-called "doctorate" credentials with a critical eye: He claims a "Ph.D." in 1996 (with high honors) and an "M.S." (with honors) in the same year from American Holistic College of Nutrition, Birmingham, Alabama. It seems this was changed to "Clayton College of Natural Health" in 1997. It's a non-accredited mail-order diploma mill, apparently (and they also market their own line of supplements and remedies). "Degrees" are available for $3500 to $9900. In the words of Quackwatch, "CCNH does have one potentially valuable aspect. Its credentials are a reliable sign of someone not to consult for advice."

You too can have a PhD, for less than you might spend on a new bike!! With high honors, even! Then you too can become a Director of Research and Product Development for a nutritional products company!

I should have gotten into the business of marketing sports nutrition products long ago - I'd be a lot wealthier now. Unfortunately I must be ethically-impaired, at least in the marketplace, because I just couldn't bring myself to BS people shamelessly into buying products that are at best, needlessly expensive and worse, often totally ineffective.


TriFeist said...

If only I had known! Think of all the money I could have saved by simply sending a check to CCNH!

BWAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!! OK, I'm done. Let me get back to my samples in the lab.

Not that this surprises me, because supplements are a HUGE industry. You don't see too many double blind studies from the supplement industry published in big journals, do ya? :)

jbmmommy said...

Much of the sports/health/supplements industry is a bunch of crap, I'm sure. Even "scientific studies" can be used to say whatever the author/seller wants.

Ellie said...

The only advantage I could come up with for buying Sport Beans was that I didn't snack on them. Too expensive.

21st Century Mom said...

I have always wanted to go back to school, finish my graduate degree in physiology and spend the rest of my life debunking health food myths. Now I could add sports supplements.

nancytoby said...

Heh, unfortunately there's no money in it.

Charles said...

I am actually studying sport nutrition right now and feel the need to state that there is a real benefit to be gained by looking at your nutritional intake of both micro and macro nutrients. That being said, the bulk of the benefits come from changing your diet. Educating yourself before you go to the grocery store will return a much larger improvement for a much smaller cost then 99% of the overpriced and overvalued supplements on the market.

Steve J said...

So Nancinator,

If we come with a product called "Sports Chuckles" and price it more than "chuckles" but less than "sports beans", we should be able to capture market share?
(oh the wheels are turnin' now)

Seriously, that was a good (and helpful) post

Skillsy said...

I have two questions: 1. Did you actually talk to the people at Hammer Nutrition? And 2. How thoroughly did you research the Hammer Nutrition/ECaps product lines before making your remarks?

You don't know me, so let me tell you a little about my background.
I have a sports science degree from Loughborough in the UK, which means roughly the same to sports there as Yale means to law here. I graduated and published two books in the early '90s, one of which became a seminal work in mountain bike race training.

With this as a background, it might surprise you to know that I have a healthy skepticism of double blind studies, as I do of highly regarded institutions. Loughborough is a great school, but a lot of the students coming out of that place are just looking for a meal ticket (at an expensive restaurant if you please). The hadn't opened their minds in the lectures, they had no aspirations of changing the world for the better. And more often than not they were rather conceited about their position in an elite educational program.

My view is that intelligent people can and do make a valid contribution regardless of their credentials.

On the other hand, even those with impeccable credentials can be stupid and very defensive.

For example, the Royal College of Physicians in the U.K. spent years vehemently opposing Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) before finally, very grudgingly it was compelled (mainly by US influence) to accept that TCM has some value. The problem always was, that TCM doesn't fit neatly into the corseted thinking of the western scientific process.

The Chinese, on the other hand, have long respected western medicine and adopted it in the areas that TCM is weak.

I don't see much evidence that western nutritionists really know a lot about nutrition - particularly in the area of endurance sports. But if you really want a scare, look at the labels of Ensure and Boost, which are routinely fed to hospital patients who are too ill for solid foods. I have used these products in ultra cycling races, and believe me, compared to a diet of Hammer Nutrition products, Boost and Ensure feel like poison in my system.

Having experimented a lot as an athlete over the past couple of decades, I now know what clean fuel feels like in the system

Possibly due to other factors, but I have noted significantly stronger performances in races when using Hammer products, and not Boost, than when I have used a lot of Boost.

But Boost is given by hospital nutritionists to elderly and sick people who are so weak they cannot digest solid foods. What's up with that? I'd think these people would need nutrition that minimally stressed the system.

Ultimately, I don't buy your hatchet job on Bill Meisner. I don't accept that his dubious degree renders his opinions invalid.

Bill Meisner's argument that the 'healthy balanced diet' lacks sufficient nutrients for the endurance athlete seems reasonable to me. And in periods of high training when I have taken large doses of supplements as suggested by Meisner, I find that my recovery rate increases and in general I am not so fatigued as when ingesting only the 'healthy balance diet' as suggested by certified nutritionists.

Perhaps Meisner's school encourared him to 'think outside the box' - as the innovators say. If so, it would have been better in that regard than my elite college.

I agree with you that the sports nutrition/supplements industry is a minefield, with many unscrupulous companies out to make a buck by selling products that are not necessarily healthy to people who need the cleanest fuel they can get.

But I think that in Hammer Nutrition you have picked on one company that genuinely does care. For example, they permit no artificial colors or flavors in any of their products. They have no simple sugars in any of their products, except some that contain fructose from fruit content (NOT HFCS). Hammer observes strict rules about the shelf life of the ingredients they use. Although generally not organic, because of price, they source their ingredients from high quality vendors.

You see, I researched all this when deciding which nutritional products I would use.

So, yes: caveat emptor; but Hammer's OK. And Meisner's arguments might just be a lot more valid than you realize.

Ashley said...

First, what company is not out to earn a buck? I mean I agree this stuff gets really stupid in price and is way out of bounds in some cases. If you were running a company ethically, you would charge what the market place/competitors are charging so that you could be competitive and make money. It is free market working at its best. Honestly, the stuff is proven to work and to help people succed in endurance events and people will pay a premimum for that.

I believe you could insert GU and other companies in place of Hammer, but I believe CLIF and Hammer are two of the best nutritional companies out there. They try to use organics and high quality supplements for their products. I have to agree with Paul on that point. For instance, when you become a Hammer/E-Caps member they call and help you layout a plan for your nutrition and training regime. So to me that shows they have interest in the average joe competitor just like they would their elites.

Just something to think about.

nancytoby said...

I don't believe I made any statements directly about any of the Hammer product line, did I?

I don't see any "hatchet job", either. I see someone claiming some fairly misleading "credentials". As someone who worked hard for years and years of my life to attain a real PhD, I dislike false claimants.

Anyway, SteveJ, I think we could all use a few Sport Chuckles.

nancytoby said...

And Paul, in answer to one of your questions, I have had some interaction online with the CEO of the company. I happened to disagree with his very vehement anti-regulation political stance.

I'm not an investigative reporter, though. I did not telephone their company for comment. I simply took their own information off their own website and looked up a few things about their claimed credentials. You can verify this yourself on the links which I provided.

And convincing the customers that a company "cares" is marketing job number one!

nancytoby said...

And I believe that issues concerning Chinese Medicine and Boost are red herrings, q.v.:

I don't believe my post concerned either one, even tangentially.

Iron Pol said...

The key to nutrition is understanding your body, its needs, and how it reacts to various dietary items. I have used Gu with some success, though I tend to ignore it inside of 90 minutes of the finish. No point.

A training partner took on Hammer gel on a bike and could barely finish the run due to GI distress. Does that make Gu good and Hammer bad? No, it means Gu works for me and Hammer doesn't for him.

Nancy's comments are valid, though. Don't buy a degree and use that degree to support your efforts. You'd be better off saying, "I have no degree. But I have lots of experience, a love of the sport, and a desire to help athletes." If you have a good product, borderline fraudulent claims aren't needed.

His claims don't make Hammer good or bad. They make him look shady and raise questions about other business practices (i.e. what else are we being misled about).

nancytoby said...

Perhaps one might get a better understanding of the meaning of this false "credential" in looking at the Clayton College of Natural Health website: http://www.ccnh.edu/

Note there is no campus information.
Note there are no building addresses listed.
Note there are no faculty listed.

This does not appear to me to be any type of "school" of any description which anyone would recognize as such.

Fe-lady said...

Great article and dispersing of information!
I guess when I was doing long distances back in the 70s and early 80s and we had to pretty much fend for ourselves, we had the right idea with de-fizzed cola drinks, m&ms and hard candy, lemonade mix, etc.
And it was cheap...you make your body work with what is available. It's not that magic.

mipper said...

interesting. i had to wonder all about gels and stuff when i discovered that skittles worked better for me on a long run than a gel. thanks for the red flag Nance... it's good to know these things.

Spokane Al said...


While I am a satisfied user of Hammer Perpetuem, Sustained Energy and Heed, I agree with you on their newsletters.

I am constantly amazed at the stuff those newsletters purport to offer as valid supplements.

For example a recent Hammer newsletter offered a supplement to improve prostate health. I took the list of ingredients in this supplement and researched them at WebMD and the result was that traditional medical tests found no merit in any of the ingredients.

I would like to see Hammer concentrate on endurance products and stay away from the more questionable stuff - which tends to raise questions like you asked in me as well on the rest of their stuff.

tarheeltri said...

Ditto what Iron Pol says.

I'd also like to add that off-the-shelf products such as those Hammer offers helps take a lot of the guesswork out of figuring out raceday nutrition.

If you think about it, how many chances do you really have to test out an IM nutrition plan in a year? I figure 4. Two HIM's and two long bike/run bricks and even then, there's no guaruntee (as I discovered in Florida) that works at those distances will work for a longer race like an IM.

Actually, you really only have 3 chances, since you'd want to have success with the same plan more than once before committing to it.

There's limitless possibilities with your own grocery store nutrition, or you can go the Hammer/CarboPro/Accelerade route.

And by the way, I've always thought that dude was sketcy and not good for Hammer's marketing efforts.

Mr Steve said...

Great Posting Nancy.

Your reply about the Clayton College had me surf into their website. I did find where they had a building.

Mailing Address

Clayton College of Natural Health
2140 11th Avenue South
Suite 305
Birmingham, AL 35205

Must be amazing to have entire "school" crammed into a suite. Must be like the one room schoolhouses from "Little House on the Prairie" ;)

nancytoby said...

Thanks, MrSteve!

From what I can tell, it shares the building with a newspaper on the 2nd floor:
Plus a mortgage company and a publisher on the same floor:

Vickie said...

Nancy, I agree with your logic on this whole supplement thing. I have long been skeptical of the wonders of any supplements, for two main reasons: (1) the lack of money to buy and try just any old thing, and (2) I prefer to use regular food to do the job. And by regular food I mean stuff you buy and eat all the time. And I don't mean something like pot roast and potatoes for pre-race food. :) That is a goal of mine in the next year, to see what I can use nutritionally for races that doesn't require me to go out and spend big bucks to keep my energy levels going in longer races. I know water alone won't cut it, and know that electrolyte balance is important, but anything else is trial and error, so I constantly read others' recommendations about what they do and then decide for myself what I will try. Mainly, if I can't afford it on a regular basis, I need to think of an alternative that will work.

Jeremy said...

The one thing I don't think anyone should disagree on is just how good Chuckles are! And I believe I don't need a PhD to give an expert opinion on this either!

Comm's said...

Nancy I know this is not proper ettiquette but to back up your post I would direct people to a conclusion post I wrote in Sept 2005 about the supplement industy.


I don't have a phD, but have been in the fitness industry for over a decade and spent a several years before that studying supplementation with a passion before it became my job to know about them professionally.

In essense you very right.

Dawn - Pink Chick said...

I often use gummy bears myself and have found they work just fine for me.

I think someone else mentioned it, but most of us through experimentation find out what works for ourselves and that's what counts.

Geek Girl said...

You make a lot of good points...but, I couldn't help but notice that the rest of his credentials seem pretty solid. I don't know anything about this college in b'ham, but I know that a similarly-named school in Albuquerque is regarded as one of the best in the country for alternative and natural healing. I'm not a fan of diploma mills, but it's not 100% apparent to me that this is what this one is.

Having said that, I will say that I find the price of sports nutrition aggravating at worst, and disappointing at best. Most of them are comprised of fairly simple ingredients that are abundant (potassium, long- and short- chained carbs, sodium, calcium) so I'm often very put off by how high their markup is. Almost makes me want to change professions! I've been investigating home-made supplements that I may experiment with this year.

nancytoby said...

Uhhhh.... what would it take to convince you it's a diploma mill in addition to the long piece on Quackwatch and no apparent actual school buildings or faculty, Misty?

nancytoby said...

Do you mean this one:

That looks a *LOT* different to me. They have, up front on their website - an easily-found address, actual school buildings, and an actual faculty.

I didn't look up accreditation for it, although that would be important to me personally.

jeanne said...

You should so be an investigative reporter. this piece is definitely suited to the wash post.

Geek Girl said...

Ah- didn't see the part about quackwatch. But like I said, the rest of his credentials seemed real enough. As I mentioned earlier, I'm going to be investigating ways to handle endurance nutrition at home. i've had terrific luck with Hammer products, but they are so darned expensive.

Grant Hicks said...

I have to admit that I didn't know about the background of the Hammer Products. I do know that the main ingredient in all this stuff is simple sugar. I don't consume large amounts of the stuff except when I'm racing.

I prefer Hammer because it just tastes better than Gu or other gels. Plus I don't need a huge amount of water to get the stuff out of my throat.

Of course I haven't been consuming any of those products lately but when I do, I search for the best tasting, non-throat burning stuff. I also like Hammer's Heed because it doesn't have a strong taste (although the orange flavor has a nasty baby aspirin thing going on).

I have been experimenting with a race ready form of beef, lamb and chicken (made by Gerber) but it's hard to get the cap off the little glass bottles during a bike ride. :)

Overall I'd rather have a Snickers but they melt and get chocolate goodness all over my sporty racing outfits and that's not good when the only pocket is right above my butt!

Ashley C aka Kitten said...

Regarding diploma mills....
I can't even count the number of spam e-mails I received while I was working on my PhD (legitimately!) that said I could buy a PhD. Wow - I could have saved 5 years and $50k!!!! ARGH that some people actually present themselves as legit experts!!!

日月神教-向左使 said...