In September 1992 Anthony Almada was doing his customary search of the recent medical literature at the University of California, San Francisco, Medical Library when he came across a study that immediately aroused his interest. Almada had studied under legendary scientists and researchers Lester Packer and George Brooks at the University of California, Berkeley, where he’d observed the depletion of ATP and creatine phosphate in working muscle. He was intrigued when he saw that the new study reported on the effects of creatine as an ergogenic aid to athletes. Finding it that day led him to start a revolution in sports nutrition that continues to this day.
Almada, who holds degrees in physiology and nutritional biochemistry, had been working in the supplement industry since 1975, specializing in product development. In 1989 he identified and introduced vanadyl sulfate to the nutrition industry, and in 1991 he introduced the first “fat-burning” supplement to use the word thermogenic. Almada contacted a former associate named Ed Byrd and discussed the possibility of marketing creatine. The two had previously supplied raw nutrient materials to food supplement companies and tried to offer creatine, at the time a rare and expensive product, to them. All the companies rejected creatine because it was not well known at the time.
Almada and Byrd started their own company, initially named California Body Club and later Experimental and Applied Sciences, a.k.a. EAS. The first product Almada designed was a creatine compound called Phosphagen.
In keeping with Almada’s science background, EAS set a standard of proof by sponsoring two studies during the first year of business, made possible by sales of $6 million. Not long after the company was formed, Almada offered to sell Bill Phillips creatine, but Phillips didn’t seem too interested. In June 1994, however, Phillips joined EAS, and the company was moved from California to Phillips’ home state of Colorado in 1995. In April of that year Phillips offered to buy EAS for $1 million, despite the company profits of $40 million. By October, however, Almada no longer wanted to make the weekly trek from California to EAS headquarters in Colorado, so he sold out to Phillips.
While at EAS, Almada created the “cell volumizer” concept, pioneered the use of taurine in dietary supplements and created the first low-calorie weight gain/lean mass supplement—Phosphagain. After leaving EAS, he founded a medical food company that produced a product used to offset HIV-induced wasting.
Almada has been an active researcher in more than 50 published studies, many of which examined the effects of popular dietary supplements. Currently, he is a founding partner in GENr8, which produces a product called Vitargo SG. Clearly he’s qualified to discuss performance and sports nutrition, so let’s get to it.
JB: One of the reasons you opted to sell EAS to Bill Phillips was your growing disenchantment with the supplement industry. Has that opinion changed over the years?
AA: I’m an outspoken critic of the industry because most of the major supplement companies have the funds to sponsor research yet don’t. The first question is, Why don’t they support such research? Some companies do sponsor research, but the findings are never made public, often because the studies found no beneficial effects associated with the tested products.
The current trend is to have studies done by independent sources, where the results can be tightly controlled and not released if the findings aren’t favorable. In contrast, studies done by university labs aren’t subject to such stringent gag orders.
Another relevant question is, How many companies are owned by people trained in nutrition science? If you look at pharmaceutical companies, many are run by people who hold science doctorates or medical degrees.
JB: Are medical doctors good sources of information about nutrition?
AA: Medical doctors are among the worst sources of information relevant to nutrition. The medical-school curriculum offers nutrition as an elective, or voluntary, course, and most med students feel they are already overburdened with the study of traditional medical courses, so few future doctors have even the minimal training in nutrition science.
Registered dietitians are also often considered a good source of nutrition information, but this, too, isn’t true. While RDs are experts at designing diets, their knowledge of supplements is surprisingly minor. In fact, they are indoctrinated during their training to believe that all required nutrients should be obtained solely through food, thus making any supplements superfluous and even dangerous in some instances. You’ll even find that most people in the sports supplement industry who have advanced degrees, such as doctorates, have them in physiology, not nutrition.
JB: What’s your general philosophy in designing nutritional supplements?
AA: My philosophy is to create products that work and foster persistent consumer confidence, which leads to lasting brand allegiance. That creates a consumer base that is loyal to the particular product, not only because the product is based on science rather than speculation, but also because the product consistently works. Consumers often switch to other products, or search for the next “miracle” product, because past products simply have not produced the promised gains in muscle size, strength or bodyfat loss. It’s comparable to a marriage: If you’re fulfilled and satisfied with your current partner, you have no desire to seek a replacement.
JB: Many sports supplements don’t list specific amounts of contents on their labels, instead listing nonspecific amounts of nutrients as “proprietary formulas.” Is that ethical or, more important, honest?
AA: Consumers often evaluate products based entirely on the label chemistry. Listing a bunch of exotic-sounding ingredients tends to obscure the fact that many such ingredients have no science behind them. To the unwary customer, though, they look impressive. The Food and Drug Administration permits the labeling of nonspecific amounts of substances that don’t have established dietary value, so the practice is legal.
The only FDA requirement is to list the ingredients in descending order of content. So the first listed ingredient comprises 99.9 percent of the product, with the remaining ingredients representing about 00.1 percent of the total ingredients.
The more relevant question is not what’s in the product but what the product will do for me. Another question to consider is, How many products have I purchased over the last decade that I no longer use? If the products matched their advertising claims, users would be getting exceptional results. Are they?
JB: Can the placebo effect play a role in results obtained from any particular food supplement?
AA: It can play a role in the popularity of many supplements, but it’s also short-lived, in contrast to a true biological effect, which consistently lasts. Again, how many products are used year after year by most people? People don’t discard products that work. New products are constantly being introduced to replace products that have fallen out of popularity, mainly because they don’t produce consistent results.
JB: Are there any effective fat-burning supplements?
AA: People don’t buy fat-burning supplements to “burn” fat; they buy them to lose fat. Then the question arises: Who cares if I’m burning fat, if I’m not actually losing fat? It’s analogous to testosterone. Who cares if my testosterone level rises if I don’t get bigger, stronger or both? People tend to get lost in the mechanism rather than the result.
Unfortunately, most of the present ingredients touted as fat-burners have little or no effect in stimulating fat loss in humans. One current popular weight-loss herb, hoodia, has zero published science to support it. A major problem with botanicals, or plant-based products, is that the contents can vary enormously from batch to batch, even if the herb is supposed to contain the same level of active ingredients in each tablet or capsule. That explains the varying results of studies involving botanicals.
JB: What’s the truth about protein requirements for bodybuilders?
AA: Again, you have to look at studies that directly examined the fate of dietary protein in an exercising population. Most bodybuilders, aware of the need for a high protein intake, take in some form of protein about every two to three hours. As a result, bodybuilders get a significant amount of protein from food sources alone. The consensus of studies that have examined protein needs for bodybuilders shows that taking in more than 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight leads to no added muscle or strength gains.
In one study that I was involved in, we compared a popular meal-replacement product with maltodextrin, a carbohydrate source, and found that both supplements produced the same muscle and strength gains in trained football players. People tend to underestimate the amount of protein they are getting from ordinary foods. If you already take in the optimal amount of protein, taking anything above that will not further boost muscle gains. People are indoctrinated to believe that they must eat massive amounts of protein or lose muscle size.
JB: Can too much protein make you fat and damage your kidneys?
AA: You have to view protein as a source of calories. Current studies show that taking in more than 30 grams of protein at a time produces no added benefits. While protein can take various metabolic routes in the body, the more protein you have above actual requirements, the less protein is used for building muscle. Eating small, frequent protein meals won’t produce any greater muscle gains if you exceed the amount of protein your body can use for muscle protein synthesis.
JB: Are some sources of protein superior to others?
AA: Some studies show that soy is as good as whey, meat is as good as whey, and so on. I would say that the primary issues regarding protein intake are palatability and convenience. Soy protein is often said to lower testosterone counts. Yet if that’s true, how do you explain the other studies that show equal muscle gains when soy is compared to whey?
JB: What about the studies showing that whey has the highest biological value of any protein source?
AA: Studies that measured biological values of various protein sources didn’t involve any subjects engaged in resistance training. Again, it’s a matter of what appears on paper compared to what happens in real life.
Editor’s note: Next month Almada discusses branched-chain amino acids, creatine, fat intake, low-carb diets and Vitargo. IM