Myth 1: Sports Supplements Are Not Safe.

Nearly every major media outlet has run pieces suggesting sports supplements are unsafe. Perhaps the most recent high-profile story was HBO’s May 20 airing of Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, which characterized sports supplements as dangerous and unregulated. The messages are having an impact on consumers.

The myth that sports supplements are dangerous is one most people either believe or do not. On the surface, there does not seem to be much room for a middle ground on this issue. But actually, there is, and defining it is important for natural products retailers.

The reality is some fly-by-night companies make unattainable promises and may formulate with illegal ingredients. Says Trisha Sugarek MacDonald, B.S., M.S., senior director of research and development and national educator for Bluebonnet Nutrition, Sugar Land, TX, “Yes, there are dangers in the sports nutrition category,” citing anabolic steroids and DMAA as examples.

Since 2008, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has identified more than 300 illegal products masquerading as supplements that contain hidden drugs, questionable stimulants and other undeclared substances, according to Sugarek MacDonald. Some of these items included steroid-spiked sports nutrition products that could cause liver injury, heart attack and stroke (2). In late 2014, Congress passed the Designer Anabolic Steroid Control Act (DASCA), which gives the Drug Enforcement Agency new tools to take aim at these unscrupulous companies. But, it will take some time to see all these products disappear from the marketplace (especially through e-tailers).

“Some products do have potentially unsafe ingredients, so caution should be taken, and athletes should do their research to make sure the supplement being used is right for them,” says John Urban, sports category brand manager at NOW Foods, Bloomingdale, IL.

The good news, and the news to share with shoppers, is that these companies are on the fringe of the supplements industry. Legitimate companies comply with the law, and formulate with vitamins, minerals, herbs, amino acids, protein and other health-promoting ingredients.

“Well, protein powder is 40% of the sports nutrition market, tough to make the claim that protein powder is unsafe,” states Tom Richardson, chief executive officer of Top Secret Nutrition, Miramar, FL. Richardson also mentions branched chain amino acids, or BCAAs, stating that there is nothing unsafe about the building blocks of muscle.

For example, regular supplementation with BCAAs can aid in reducing muscle soreness and inflammation during and after physical activity (3). In one study, 12 distance runners participated in a double-blind crossover study over the course of two three-day training sessions. The participants who consumed beverages containing BCAAs recorded much lower muscle soreness and fatigue after training that those who consumed a placebo (3). 

Urban believes that BCAAs are “a clean and natural sports product that can help every athlete” because they “are free of stimulants and other potentially unsafe ingredients.”

So, how can shoppers tell the good from the bad? Clean labels are a start. “Consumer skepticism and safety concerns go hand in hand with the daunting ingredients list on sports nutrition products that are often lengthy and widely unknown,” says Jackson Zapp, vice president of innovation at Applied Food Sciences, Inc., Austin, TX.

You can advise shoppers to look for certifications like NSF’s Certified for Sport seal, which certifies that the products have met the group’s high standards for ensuring ingredients are not adulterated, banned from sports or do not appear in the amounts appearing on labels. According to the company’s website, “This specially designed NSF program is a focused solution designed to minimize the risk that a dietary supplement or sports nutrition product contains banned substances.”

Also, choose products made by responsible manufacturers that fully test for adulteration, contamination and ingredient substitution. Retailers can also check with manufacturers about the latest research behind supplement ingredients supporting their safety and efficacy. According to Matthew Titlow, chief executive officer of Compound Solutions Inc., Carlsbad, CA, the idea that sports supplements could be unsafe is an idea that started in the early 1990s. “Sports nutrition is many, many years past this idea,” he states.

This idea is seconded by Elyse Lovett, MBA, MS, marketing manager at Kyowa Hakko USA, New York, NY, who believes that sports nutrition “could be extremely beneficial for athletes, especially those ingredients and formulations that are well researched and backed by science.”

A big concept that shoppers need to be aware of, according to Dallas Clouatre, Ph.D., consultant for research and development at Jarrow Formulas, Los Angeles, CA, is that “there is no one-size-fits-all in supplementation.” And, consumers should check with a physician before beginning or altering a supplements regimen.

Different supplements aid in supporting an athlete’s health in different ways, and this varies from person to person. But one fact is certain: most exercise enthusiasts can benefit from balanced supplementation with safe products.

“Without proper nutrition and supplementation over time, our bodies would be unable to recover and would exist in a state of depletion, increasing the risk of injury and disease,” says Timothy Mount, CN, CCHA, director of education for NeoCell Corporation, Irvine, CA.


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Published in WholeFoods Magazine, September 2015