Expert Opinion

Buyer beware: Supplement false claims and contamination

Dr Susan Backhouse is an expert in the field of doping in sport and nutritional supplement use. In this blog she looks at the false claims of dietary supplements and contamination within the industry.

The use of dietary supplements is widespread at all levels of sport, as indeed it is in the general population. It’s a lucrative industry and the world-wide market is estimated to be worth more than US$ 207 billion by 2016.

As the supplement industry has grown exponentially over the years, so too have the number of unscrupulous manufacturers that make bold product claims and exploit the desire of consumers of all ages and athletic ability to improve their physical and athletic performance by promising a ‘quick fix’ or that all-important ‘edge’.

Alongside the traditional vitamin and mineral products, exotic supplements continue to crop up on the market with promotional material to match. Some products make very extravagant claims such as ‘repairing the damage caused by hard training’, ‘building bigger, stronger and faster muscles’, and ‘burning fat through natural modes of action’.

Typically, these effects are promoted to occur within weeks of commencing the supplementation regime. However, whilst the products boast impressive results and the images depict body and performance enhancement ideals, the endorsements are often unsubstantiated. Furthermore, supplements are usually defined by a notable price tag that does not always represent value for money.

So, if you are considering supplements in the future it is important that you do your research and assess your need for the product, alongside its efficacy. Don’t believe all that you read... I say this because there is a lack of regulation in the supplement industry and manufacturers are not required by law to prove a product’s safety and efficacy prior to being sold to consumers.

When considering the use of supplements you should also assess the risk. Counterfeiting poses a risk as analytical studies have noted the presence of black market products within the industry and products with ingredients not listed on the labels have been found. For example, supplements can include things like chalk and talc, or prohormones and stimulants.

If an athlete consumes this product, they could find themselves falling foul of the doping regulations and this could bring about a ban from their sport. The most reputable manufacturers are now taking part in product testing programmes in order to ensure the contents of their product is exactly as listed on the label. So, in the UK, keep an eye out for the Informed Sport logo.

Athletes also need to make sure they do their homework prior to using a supplement because some supplements do contain prohibited substances, even though they are sold over the counter in gyms or in health food stores. The boxer Dillian Whyte has learned the hard way – he used the controversial Jack3D supplement prior to a fight and his urine sample returned a positive test for the banned stimulant Methylhexaneamine.

He has now received a two year ban from his sport as the principle of ‘strict liability’ means that athletes are ultimately responsible for anything found in their samples, and if a substance turns up that should not be there, they must demonstrate they took every possible measure to prevent it happening. The panel felt that Dillian Whyte had not taken reasonable steps to check the contents of Jack3D.

At this point, it should also be noted that the supplement Dillian Whyte used is also the supplement linked to the death of recreational runner Claire Squires in the 2012 London Marathon. The 2013 London Marathon will soon be upon us and it is possible that a number of the runners will be using Jack3D or other supplements without appreciating the risks associated with their use. Importantly, the original Jack3D has been withdrawn from the UK market and a less potent alternative offered.

However, the original supplement containing the dangerous and illegal stimulant is still available over the internet. Thus, the risk is not only related to inadvertent doping. Serious health risks are also posed by consumption of certain supplements, owing to the lack of regulation of this industry.

At the end of the day, improvements in your performance, health and well-being take time and effort. Put simply, a diet of good food and carefully planned training is the best pill you can take. It’s a simple formula and one that has been around for centuries. Ultimately, given the potential pitfalls associated with supplement use, this could be the best advice that an athlete could heed.

Professor Susan Backhouse

Director of Research / Carnegie School Of Sport

Sue is the Director of Research for Sport and Exercise Science, Leisure and Tourism, leading our REF2021 submission. Sue is an interdisciplinary academic serving as a Professor of Psychology and Behavioural Nutrition in the Carnegie School of Sport.

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