Doping in sports has secured several headlines in the last few years with major publications such as Sports Illustrated and The Wall Street Journal questioning the integrity of dietary supplements and other sports nutrition products and their potential for causing harm to users. International athletes must be vigilant when consuming over-the-counter (OTC) products to avoid consumption of compounds that are prohibited by professional sports organizations. More recently, there have been concerns about excessive amounts of stimulants in consumer products, including dietary supplements and food/beverage items. Warnings have spread to school-age athletes. Parents and coaches are being warned about the dangers that lurk in the sports nutrition products young athletes consume in an attempt to improve their athletic performance.
FDA has issued warnings about more than 70 weight-loss supplements that include potentially dangerous ingredients. Steroids, steroid-like ingredients, stimulants and prescription drugs found in contaminated products have been reported to cause serious side effects including liver damage, stroke and kidney failure.
With so much at stake, it is clear why the nutraceutical industry has responded with a renewed fervor for demonstrating the quality and safety of dietary supplements. Third-party testing and certification of dietary supplements and sports nutrition products has remained the champion for manufacturers that seek a reliable method for verifying the integrity and safety of their products. But as new designer drugs and steroid-mimicking compounds evolve, so must the technology used to test for these substances. Much of the success of screening for banned athletic substances lies on staying one step ahead of the culprits.
This means laboratories are faced with the challenge of relentlessly developing new testing methodologies and utilizing the most cutting-edge equipment around. Fortunately, the technology used to screen supplements and sports nutrition products has advanced for even the most complex of banned substances.
The Issues and Methods
The World Anti-Doping Agency's (WADA) list of prohibited substances is not short. It covers a veritable cornucopia of stimulants, narcotics, diuretics, beta-2 agonists and, of course, steroids. But even with so many of these performance-boosting compounds identified for testing, more are being developed. There have been several cases of dietary supplements that are laced with untested or undetectable banned substances. Clever chemistry can be deceiving by: 1) creating new compounds that act the same as banned substances, hence mimicking the same performance-boosting effect, and 2) masking banned substances by making them look like the other compounds in the product or influencing the expected natural ratios between chemicals in the body.
So how do testing and certification organizations test for these banned substances? Certified dietary supplement products go through several complex and very rigorous testing procedures before they make it to store shelves. But the main method for identifying and measuring potential banned substances in a supplement is by using liquid chromatography and gas chromatography, coupled with mass spectrometry detection (LCMS and GCMS).