Science of Supplements

by Jianing Liu

If you’ve been at SC for any amount of time, you’ve likely seen the gigantic jars of protein powder that decorate the living spaces of your health conscious classmates. Coming in flavors like strawberry cream and rocky road that remind us more of milkshakes than protein ones, they have become an integral piece of a bodybuilding culture that is already well integrated into the student body.


In recent years, the market of sports-oriented nutritional products, commonly known as “supplements”, has been expanding at an exponential rate. Companies such as Optimum Nutrition and Cytosport, industry leaders known for their “Whey Protein” and “Muscle Milk” products, have been experiencing steady growth over the past decade. Advertised as quick and healthy snacks or meal alternatives, these products are usually sold as ready-to-mix shakes or prepackaged bars. Their largest consumer? Men under 18-25.

Human performance major and amateur bodybuilder Joonwan Joun describes the phenomena: “It’s a SoCal thing and a young people thing: everybody wants to get strong and look good, protein is just a way to do that.”

Yet the effectiveness of these supplements has been heavily debated. Although advertised as containing all the materials “Necessary for Muscle Growth”, almost 99% of the product is simple sugars and proteins, ingredients that can be obtained elsewhere. Furthermore, consistent consumption of supplements can lead to too much protein. USC professor of kinesiology Daniel Farwell expresses concern over the overuse of supplements. Farwell states, “Most people already get more than enough protein in their diets; adding any more to it is usually unnecessary.”

At ~$1.20 per serving of protein, supplements don’t come cheap; the money spent on supplements can potentially be spent elsewhere to garner better results. Additionally, Farwell goes on to say that “Continuous consumption can lead to exposure to heavy metals in the supplements like lead, arsenic, or mercury, which has a negative impact on a host of organ functions.”

Ultimately, Farwell believes that the key to building muscle and staying fit is not supplements, but rather healthy long term lifestyle choices. “No amount of protein can help if one doesn’t make a conscious effort to exercise daily and eat properly,” Farwell believes.

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