Chicago Tribune journalists Julie Deardorff and Geoff Dougherty this week questioned the flexible regulations surrounding the dietary supplement trade and the potential danger posed to athletes. Here we present the highlights. The high-voltage mixture of ephedra and caffeine was once considered such a dangerous combination that products containing both ingredients were pulled from store shelves in the early 1980s. Today, athletes are regularly gulping down the ancient Chinese herb ephedra and caffeine in the form of legal dietary supplements, hoping to find a new springboard to glory. Changes in federal law and an increasingly competitive sports culture have combined to fuel a boom in dietary supplements that many consider dangerous. Studies have found that some people who take ephedrine experience effects that can lead to a heart attack or stroke, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been trying to get it restricted for the last five years. Makers of the supplements maintain the products are safe if used properly, and some manufacturers include voluntary warning labels about the potential health risks. The popularity of the products is soaring. Changes in the laws in the mid-1990s made it nearly impossible for the FDA to regulate supplements such as ephedrine, androstenedione and creatine, and ever since, the industry has experienced an upsurge. Unlike over-the-counter cold medicines, nutritional supplements, whether it's an herb or amino acid, do not have to be tested for safety before they go into stores. In 1994 Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, creating a new category of products called dietary supplements. Before the law was passed, manufacturers and suppliers of nutritional supplements had to prove their safety claim to the FDA before it could be marketed. But the new category left the FDA with virtually no control over supplements. Under the law the FDA can only intervene after a product has been shown to be harmful. Critics say lax standards put consumers in an extremely dangerous situation, especially in the American sports culture, where athletes and coaches will try almost anything to gain a competitive advantage, even if it's at the expense of their own safety. Ephedrine, found in some supplements widely available in health food stores, has been linked to at least 80 deaths since 1994, according to the FDA, and has been targeted in numerous lawsuits against manufacturers. The International Olympic Committee and the National Collegiate Athletic Association have restricted use of supplements containing ephedrine, and the National Football League and its players union recently agreed to prohibit players from endorsing many of the products. The International Olympic Committee and the National Collegiate Athletic Association have restricted use of supplements containing ephedrine, and the National Football League and its players union recently agreed to prohibit players from endorsing many of the products. Yet in a world where athletes are willing to take illegal substances such as steroids to boost performance, many believe the rising popularity of supplements is not surprising. "It's a double-edged sword," commented Jonathan F. Katz, a clinical sports psychologist, "Athletes hear a mixed message: Get better, get stronger but don't abuse your body. ... It's a little difficult for someone in his or her late teens or early 20s to know where that line is."