Every four years (or in this case 5 years), the Summer Olympics premiere, displaying the finest of athleticism and sportsmanship across the globe. Not only do the Olympics highlight the world’s top athletes, but they also often bring heightened attention to the products athletes use to support their performance, including dietary supplements. The extra attention often shines a light on issues of adulteration in the dietary supplement industry.
According to data from the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority, an estimated 50% of all reported doping violations are related to supplements, as reported by Paul Klinger of LGC Science and Informed Choice during a CRN Sports Nutrition Working Group expert panel discussion held earlier this summer.
The panel session, which looked at the highest risk supplement categories for adulteration, also featured Amy Eichner, Ph.D., special advisor, U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), Oliver Catlin, president and co-founder, BSCG (Banned Substances Control Group), and John Travis, who leads NSF’s Certified for Sport program. The discussion was moderated by Jim Komorowski, MS, CNS, chief science officer at JDS Therapeutics, LLC and chair of CRN’s Sports Nutrition Working Group. During the session, the panel discussed current trends in adulteration, the emergence of “research only” products, and the need to educate consumers about safe sports nutrition supplement use.
Contamination and adulteration continue to be notable concerns for dietary supplements, specifically sports nutrition products that are at risk of triggering doping violations in athletes. Researchers and government agencies have identified muscle-building and weight loss supplements as “high risk” areas where adulteration is most prevalent. (JAMA Netw Open. 2018 Oct 5;1(6):e183337) Additionally, data from the 2020 CRN Consumer Survey report that consumers have the lowest confidence levels in the safety and quality of sports nutrition and weight management dietary supplements compared to other categories.
[Additional resources: FDA presentation on tainted products sold as dietary supplements; FDA consumer warning]
Despite lower levels of confidence, many consumers rely on dietary supplements to help support athletic performance. Athletes of various levels may have different nutritional requirements than the average person to meet energy requirements, support recovery and maintain optimal nutritional status. A variety of products can help replenish fluid and electrolytes, provide extra energy, improve or reduce recovery time between training sessions, and help support athletic performance overall, including those containing vitamins, minerals, botanicals, protein/amino acids, fatty acids and other macro and micronutrients.
However, it is critical that consumers who are taking or seeking sports nutrition products understand the difference between a safe, high-quality dietary supplement and a potentially adulterated product.
During the panel discussion, Eichner pointed to ingredients included on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) high-risk ingredient list that continue to be prevalent in the athletic community, including anabolic agents, peptide hormones/growth factors, hormones and metabolic modulators, diuretics and masking agents, stimulants, and cannabinoids. She also pointed to supplements and adulterated products that have been associated with athlete sanctions, such as DHEA, DMHA, DMBA, higenamine, ostarine or other selective androgen receptor modulators (SARMs), among other ingredients.
A newer challenge also discussed during the panel session was the topic of “for research only” compounds, which are products that masquerade as dietary supplements but contain ingredients that have been found in adulterated products. Panelists explained that companies sourcing performance enhancement drugs may attempt to sell them as “research only” compounds. These companies offer products that may look like a dietary supplement but put “research compound – not for human use” on their label and with no supplement facts panel. Oliver Catlin described it as a “giant loophole to sell illegal drugs in or around the dietary supplement sphere.”
When a product states “for research only”, “research chemical,” or a similar descriptor on the label, it is a clear signal that the product is not a dietary supplement. This distinction makes it easier for industry to educate athletes to avoid these products, as they do not have a nutrition facts or supplement facts panel and fall outside the purview of FDA.
As this year’s Olympic Games come to a close, it serves as a reminder for both athletes and consumers to be mindful of the products they take to support their health and wellness and for industry to invest in educational resources to ensure that athletes of all levels have the information they need to make smart decisions around sports nutrition.
Athletes should always consult with a team trainer, dietitian, nutritionist, or other healthcare practitioner to help determine which dietary supplements are right for them. Consumers can be smart supplement shoppers by looking for nationally recognized brands or products from a trusted retailer; looking for quality seals or third-party certifications; and being careful where they purchase products online.
Luke Huber, N.D., MBA, is vice president, scientific & regulatory affairs of the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), the leading trade association for the dietary supplement and functional food industry.
Jim Komorowski, MS, CNS, is Chief Science Officer of JDS Therapeutics LLC and Chair of CRN’s Sports Nutrition Working Group.