Thursday, September 07, 2017

Health Alert: Your Protein Shake Could Be Harming Your Fitness

Fake supplements dominate the market. When my father first started working out and weight training he did so at home. I used to sit on the couch and laugh (not something I'm proud of). He would then challenge me to do an exercise and I would be able to do it quite easily. I would then promptly go back to the couch. Then I went to college in Kochi, and while I was there, he continued to work out and even joined a gym.

One day, when I'd come back to Mumbai for my semester break, I decided to tag along when he went to the gym. I fully expected to easily match the weights he was capable of lifting. I have never been more wrong about anything! My almost 50-year-old father was easily thrice as strong as 22-year-old me! That was enough motivation (or humiliation, I'm not sure) for me to start working out and, like almost everyone else who works out, I also started taking protein and other dietary supplements.

After starting foodnetindia, I wrote a lot of articles about trans-fat, sugar, and other food safety issues, but when I came across reports of widespread adulteration of dietary supplements, I realised that this is a pretty big food safety issue, especially since more and more people, especially teenagers and young adults, are working out and trying to get fit. According to a report by the Associated Chambers of Commerce & Industry of India (ASSOCHAM), about 78% of adolescents in urban India daily consume dietary supplements of some kind. This has led to a huge rise in the demand for these supplements. According to a report in the Economic Times, the whey protein industry will grow by 22% between 2014 and 2020. The ASSOCHAM report estimates that the supplement industry as a whole will double in size in the same period. Unfortunately, along with the rise in demand, comes a rise in adulteration and counterfeiting.

According to the ASSOCHAM report, a whopping 60-70% of the dietary supplements sold in India are fake, counterfeit, unregistered and unapproved. That means that if you buy 10 boxes of whey protein powder in a year, six or seven of them are fake!

In 2014, the Hindustan Times published a report about the supplement adulteration problem in Punjab. The report quoted a food safety officer who said that as the government has not fixed parameters for many food items, people take advantage of the loopholes. The report also noted that some of the counterfeit products so closely resemble the originals that it is almost impossible to distinguish between the two. I have come across some articles that give out some pointers on how to identify fake protein powders, but I can't vouch for their accuracy. One blog on Healthkart recommends tests such as checking the labels and manufacturing dates for errors, checking to see if the seal has been tampered with, checking the hologram sticker, etc. Unfortunately, none of these are foolproof ways to identify fake supplements.

Fake supplements are a serious food safety issue, not least because they affect adolescents and young adults the most. Given the fact that the supplement industry is relatively young in India, the long-term side effects of these products may not be known for a long time. The government and supplement manufacturers need to come up with a regulatory framework to deal with this problem. If they don't, a lot of young people may get very sick!

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