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The Explainer – Getting that ol’ EPO boost

By Charles Pelkey

It's safe! It's legal! It's ... <em>59 bucks?</em>

It’s safe! It’s legal! It’s … 59 bucks?


Dear VeloNews,
Could you please forward this to your ombudsman? I find it rather disturbing, perhaps even ironic, that a cycling news publication such as yours has an advertisement for a forbidden doping product – but there it is:

EPO-Boost Supplement $59

Enhanced Cycling Results. Buy Now! Increase EPO levels over 90%
(URL removed – Editor)

I realize that you have little control over what advertisements Google chooses to place within your “Ads by Google” box, but you did choose to place and keep the ad box on all of your pages. At a minimum, this makes you complicit until you remove Google’s advertisement stream.

You’ve supported clean, fair cycling thus far … please don’t stand quietly and count the revenue dollars.
Matthew Cole
Bainbridge Island, Washington

Dear Mathew,
We actually don’t have an ombudsman, but we do have a cranky old editor who writes this column every week, so your letter ended up in my in-box, instead.

First off, let me say I think agree with you on this one. As you probably know, Google ads are generated by key words that appear on a given page, so you often get strange results. My favorite examples were the ads that suddenly appeared in our “Ads by Google” box after we started covering the Landis case a few years back. As you might imagine, we received several letters complaining about the fact that our reporting on doping in cycling looked kinda weird next to ads for mail-order steroids. Our advertising department made that adjustment to the Google filters and the steroid ads disappeared. Maybe they will make this change, too.

I say “maybe” because while I might think the ad is not within the spirit of what the editorial department would like to see on our site, we try to maintain a clear line of separation between the department that produces the content and the one that oversees advertising. It’s their call. But we’ve let them know how you feel.

Is this EPO?

So offensive as the ad appears to be, there may be another question at issue — namely, is the product itself a violation of the rules? Well, that’s actually a little less than clear. The advertiser certainly wants you to believe that its product is an effective way to boost “EPO,” but just what are they going to give you for your $59?

First, a little background. (Most of you know this stuff by now, so you can skip over the EPO primer that follows.) Produced by the kidneys, natural erythropoietin stimulates the bone marrow’s production of red blood cells, those magical little discs that bring oxygen to working muscles. When the kidneys’ production of erythropoietin is somehow impeded, synthetic EPO can be a life-saver. Of course, if you have had even a passing interest in cycling over the past decade or two, you’ll know that synthetic EPO has also become the scourge of the sport ever since somebody figured out that a drug designed for severely anemic cancer and kidney patients could act as a turbo-charger when injected into otherwise healthy bike racers.

Okay, so what does the manufacturer mean by the “EPO” part of the product it calls EPO-BOOST™? By now we all recognized that “EPO” is a widely accepted shorthand for the Amgen product EPOGEN™, the first commercially available synthetic version of erythropoietin, which gained FDA approval in 1989. The problem is that, unlike EPOGEN™ (or the commercial names used for other similar products), “EPO” is not a registered trademark. In the case of EPO-BOOST™, it appears that element of the name is being used to describe the naturally occurring hormone, erythropoietin.

The manufacturer implies that you can “naturally” increase “EPO” levels, because its product will encourage your body to increase its own production of the hormone erythropoietin. As they say:

All-natural EPO-BOOST™ safely gives you the extra edge to train harder, push farther and increase your endurance. We only use what you need for performance without artificial ingredients.

That’s pretty nifty, eh?

What’s more, the manufacturer points out that:

EPO-BOOST™ is legal to use in any sporting event governed by the World Anti-Doping Association (WADA) or the US anti-doping association (USADA).

So relax. You can laugh all the way to the doping trailer to fill up your plastic sample cup. You’re not only faster, you’re legal, too!

The magic “boost?”

So how does this legal performance-enhancing miracle occur? The makers of EPO-BOOST™ suggest that your own erythropoietin production will increase when you consume their “all-natural herbal” mixture.

And what, pray tell, is in that “all-natural herbal” mixture? According to the manufacturer, those

Active compounds in the patent-pending EPO-BOOST™ and Body Endurance Complex™ formula are supported by medical research and have been cited in over 5,575 clinical studies.

A “patent-pending” formula supported by “over 5,575 clinical studies.” Man, that stuff must pack quite a punch. Well, let’s take a look at the manufacturer’s own list of ingredients. Along the way, we’ll try to offer some explanation as to what each of them might be. According to the manufacturer, EPO-BOOST™ contains:

  • • Ascorbic acid – vitamin C.
  • • Niacinamide – niacin, also known as vitamin B3.
  • • Pyridoxine HCl – vitamin B6.
  • • Folic Acid – vitamin B9.
  • • Cobalamin – vitamin B12.
  • • Iron – A dietary mineral often found in a variety of sources, including leafy vegetables, meat, beans and lentils.
  • • Alpha-lipoic acid – An antioxidant often found in kidney, heart, liver, spinach, broccoli, and yeast extract.

And a boost for the boost

The company also includes a proprietary item known as BodyEndurance™ Complex on its list of ingredients. Digging down a little further we find that BodyEndurance™ Complex is made from the following:

  • • Choline bitartrate – A micronutrient usually grouped within the vitamin B complex.
  • • Inositol – Another micronutrient usually grouped within the vitamin B complex.
  • • PABA – Para-aminobenzoic acid, a micronutrient usually grouped within the vitamin B complex.
  • • Lutein – A naturally occurring carotenoid found in green leafy vegetables, like spinach and kale.
  • • Lycopene – A naturally occurring carotenoid found in watermelon, certain types of carrots and papaya.
  • • Boron – A naturally occurring mineral with unconfirmed dietary benefits.
  • • Nickel – A dietary mineral.
  • • Silicon – A dietary mineral found in a variety of plants, in which silicic acid plays an important role in metabolism.
  • • Tin – Well, it’s … tin.
  • • Vanadium – A naturally occurring mineral, with no demonstrated dietary benefits, but one that can be toxic at high levels.
  • • Yellow dock extract – An astringent derived from a variety of the sorrel plant, also known as “garden patience.” It’s often used as a laxative.
  • • Echinacea purpurea (aerial) – Purple coneflower, commonly believed to stimulate the immune system, but studies remain inconclusive.
  • • Dandelion extract – Yeah, it’s from that flower your neighbors complain about when you get too many on your lawn. It is a good source of vitamins and minerals, including vitamins A, C and K.

Hey, it’s safe!

So, the patent-pending formula is a combination of “natural” ingredients that the manufacturer happily points out are classified by the Food and Drug Administration as GRAS (Generally Regarded As Safe).

What does the FDA’s “GRAS” standard actually mean? Well, it might help to think about in human terms. Let’s say you’re a dad and a young fellow just showed up at your front door, hoping to take your college-age daughter out on a date. He’s a pleasant enough 24-year-old drop-out, who still lives in his parents’ basement and works a job that largely involves the wearing of a paper hat and asking folks if they might like fries with their orders. He cleans up nice, has neither a criminal background nor any loathsome diseases . . . in other words, he’s generally regarded as safe. But does that mean he will grow up to be a brain surgeon?

Like your daughter’s suitor, this EPO-BOOST™ stuff might be regarded as safe, but it doesn’t mean that it’s all that effective.

I’m sure it’s pretty obvious by now that the “5,575 clinical studies” to which the ad copy refers pretty much includes any study that ever mentioned even one of the ingredients we just reviewed. (Although, I will be gracious and concede that my neighbor’s doctoral thesis on Tin Pan Alley’s contribution to the evolution of the modern popular music industry may not have made the list.)

As for the pending patent, that pretty much means what it implies: pending, meaning someone has filed the paperwork. What it doesn’t mean is that anyone at the patent office has found that formula to be “new, inventive and useful or industrially applicable.”

Essentially, what you’re getting for your $59 (plus shipping) is the same stuff you would normally get in a healthy diet. If you’re missing any of those key nutrients, you might be able to look through the vitamin aisle at the local grocery store and come up with the same thing for five bucks.

As promised, the “all-natural herbal” mixture does not include anything that is named on the banned substances list, revised each year by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). That’s probably another indication that the product isn’t effective enough to raise alarm bells at WADA headquarters. You might suspect that anything that actually does “increase EPO levels over 90%” might just work its way on to the banned substances list.

My advice? Save your money and buy a tire … or better yet, take your significant other out to dinner or a movie and make up for all that time you spend away from home, beating yourself silly on your bike.

One word of warning

There have been a significant number of “tainted supplement” cases involving food and dietary products that have subsequently proven to be tainted with substances that actually are banned by anti-doping authorities (USADA v. Moninger and USADA v. Neben being the two most prominent in American cycling). The “all-natural herbal” ingredients in EPO-BOOST™ and Body Endurance Complex™ appear to be pretty standard fare. Nonetheless, if you don’t trust a company’s advertising, maybe it would be advisable to distrust that same company’s manufacturing processes and just take a pass.

Meanwhile, I better wrap this up. I need to run out and buy a few dozen bottles of acai berry pills so that extra weight I gained over the winter will just melt away like magic. That stuff works, right?

Email Charles Pelkey

“The Explainer” is a regular feature on VeloNews.com. If you have a question related to the sport of cycling that our editors might be able to answer, feel free to send your query to WebLetters@CompetitorGroup.com and we’ll take a stab at answering. Not all letters will be published and some questions may be combined with those of other readers. Please include your full name and hometown.

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