There’s nothing like a common enemy to bring people together. We see it in politics, in international relations, even in our own families. Unfortunately, the dietary supplement industry has external threats too, but it is demonstrating that it can collaborate to solve them.
The common enemy is SARMs (selective androgen receptor modulators), synthetic substances that are being introduced into sports nutrition products and marketed as dietary supplements.
They are not supplements.
SARMs are the next generation of designer anabolic compounds—illicit drugs with risky side effects. With names like “ostarine” and “andarine,” these ingredients are sometimes disclosed on the label, sometimes not. But either way, SARMS peddlers are passing off dangerous, illicit drugs as if they are “all-natural” bodybuilding ingredients. And they put users of these products at risk for potentially life-threatening conditions, such as heart attack, stroke and liver damage, as well as potential infertility.
Like their anabolic steroid predecessors, SARMs also have the potential to ruin athletic careers. SARMs are classified as banned substances by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) and many professional sports organizations, and USADA is reporting a disturbing uptick in the number of athletes testing positive for these substances and losing their eligibility. FDA has also sounded an alert to consumers about the dangers of these products and taken initial enforcement to get them off the market. Of course, when the athlete points to a product labeled as a dietary supplement as the culprit, the entire industry gets a black eye. These incidences feed the false notion that sports nutrition supplements can’t be trusted and that the industry is a reckless bunch of rogues who will sell anything to make a buck.
Fortunately, the industry is working on solutions. Trade associations are united in their commitment to get SARMs out of products labeled as supplements and alert consumers to the dangers of these substances so they will be savvier about avoiding them. The associations have jointly condemned SARMs, sounded industry support for FDA’s crackdown on companies using SARMs, and urged consumers to educate themselves on the risks that SARMs pose.
But the industry isn’t done. Analyzing the problem, it has striking similarities to the problem of designer anabolic steroids that plagued sports supplements five years ago. In that case, the solution came by conferring new authority on the DEA to place those substances on the Controlled Substances List on an emergency basis, which allowed DEA to move quickly to declare these dangerous ingredients illegal. By expressing strong support to Congress for the Designer Anabolic Steroid Control Act of 2014 (DASCA), the associations gave DEA new tools to crack down on these products and demonstrate to customers they were part of a solution to protect their health.
In addition to condemning companies that insert SARMs into their bodybuilding products and urging FDA to move quickly, the trade associations are now encouraging Congress to introduce legislation that will give DEA authority over SARMs, as it does over anabolic steroids. It will recognize SARMs as Schedule III restricted substances and allow DEA to identify this class of drugs and seize them. Collectively, the strength of this industry can help enact this legislation, and individual companies can likewise urge their members of Congress to support the efforts.
But as with any illicit drug, the solution requires reducing demand as well as supply. Industry also needs to educate the bodybuilding and fitness communities about the dangers of SARMs and how to become smarter purchasers of sports nutrition products to avoid them. This audience includes soccer moms, gym rats, high school and professional athletes, weekend warriors, trainers and coaches. Many legitimate sports nutrition supplements are available to sports enthusiasts of all ages and provide safe, efficacious and beneficial results. The trick is to educate these consumers on how to avoid potentially SARM-containing products, while not scaring them away from the category altogether.
As an example of further collaboration, CRN has created a #SARMsCanHarm toolkit for fitness organizations that includes customizable flyers, newsletter material, and social media content featuring educational information on SARMs and how athletes can protect themselves from products containing these illicit ingredients. Working with the leading associations representing fitness organizations and sports clubs, CRN is circulating the toolkit among its members and encouraging them to disseminate the educational information to their consumer clientele. When products promise steroid-like results, consumers should know these claims are too good to be true for legitimate sports nutrition products.
What brings us together makes us stronger. As the industry takes down the outlier companies using SARMs and risking the reputation of this industry for their own profits, the industry also demonstrates that it will unite to protect its consumers.
Steve Mister is the president/CEO of the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN, crnusa.org), a trade association for the dietary supplement and functional food industry.