Sports Supplements – How Big is the Risk?

We can confidently say that the majority of professional and age group triathletes will include some kind of nutrition supplement in their training regimen and during competition. This isn’t surprising either, sports supplements don’t just include the obvious powders and capsules, but also everyday formulations such as sports gels, bars and even sports drinks.

However, despite the commonality of use, nutrition supplements have often been to blame for inadvertent positive doping results by many athletes. Is this just a case of using this as an excuse, or could the supplements you are using actually contain banned substances?

An investigation released by LGC (an international supplement testing company) tested 67 supplement products from Australian Internet sites and retail stores (all supplements tested were not part of any testing program). What they found was incredibly alarming – one in five supplements showed contamination with a banned substance – with two of the 67 supplements showing such high levels of a banned substance that deliberate adulteration could not be ruled out. The most common items found were banned stimulants and anabolic steroids.

How does this happen?
Unfortunately, the results from this study are not surprising. Supplement manufacturing is often subcontracted to large companies that make a wide range of products and brands. Some of the products made onsite are known to include banned substances and as these are stated clearly on the packets of these products, which is ok – there are many athletes that do not need to keep to the WADA code after all. However, if other ‘safer’ products are made in this same building or with the same manufacturing equipment, traces of these banned substances can carry over to a product that would otherwise be deemed safe. It only takes one part per billion in a supplement to show a positive drug test. To put this in perspective, this is the equivalent of dissolving one teaspoon of a banned substance in a 50-metre swimming pool!

So, what does this mean for you?
The levels in the majority of these products would have been enough to lead to a positive doping result. Now, you may read this thinking: “Why would this matter to me? I am not regularly tested for banned substance use.” However, it should most certainly grab your attention and concern you. The items found in these substances come with a high risk of health issues and side effects, so it pays to really consider the supplements you are using and ensure they are as low in risk as possible. On top of this, Triathlon Australia does now intermittently test age-group athletes for doping.

How can I reduce the risk?
The only way to be 100 per cent sure is to not consume any dietary supplements at all. However, this is not very practical in a sport like triathlon but there are ways to reduce your risk to minimise any adverse outcomes.

Firstly, it is often the capsule and tablet supplements that are deemed the highest risk, as these are often packaged in medicinal areas with prescription products. Although sports foods still bring some risk, these are often packaged with food products, so cross-contamination risk is often reduced. However, even with this said, a positive doping result has occurred in the UK due to contaminated electrolyte sports drink.

Too often I hear the sad story of an athlete, often teenagers, returning a positive test after a taking a supplement with a banned substance clearly stated on the label. Please do not assume that just because a product is in a health food store or supplement shop, it will be safe. Also, never assume that your shop assistant or naturopath know WADA’s banned list. I have personally seen athletes being found doping due to trusting a supplement store’s advice or taking hormone altering herbal supplements that were recommended by a naturopath that then lead to a doping result.

Remember, that what you put in your mouth is your responsibility only – well-meaning health store staff, family or friends will not be the ones held accountable if they recommend a product to you.

Third Party Batch Testing
Lastly, your best bet in reducing the risk is to select products that have undergone third-party batch testing. These companies test each batch created by the supplement company, and the supplement company pays for this service and the certification it provides. It is important to note that not all banned substances are tested for, but the majority and most common ones are – so the risk is definitely lowered! For a list of products that are part of this testing certification, check out the Informed Sport and Informed Choice websites. Hasta is also an Australian company that offers third-party batch testing and you can search on their website for Hasta certified products. Alternatively, you can also keep an eye out for any of these logos on supplement packaging:

Assessing Your Individual Need:
Supplements can provide a critical performance advantage and can be well integrated into any established triathlete’s nutrition intake. However, prior to selecting a supplement, it is important to first assess the need. Before using a supplement, aim to optimise your daily training intake and your training. If unsure, seeing an Accredited Sports Dietitian can help assess any need or benefit in taking a supplement.
If you decide you need it, then assess the risk:

Is it safe?
Is it legal?
Is it effective?
Is it necessary?

If you can not guarantee the answer or yes to either of the first two questions, the product should not be used. If yes, proceed to the third and fourth questions. Is there evidence that the product will actually work in improving performance and is it truly necessary?
To finish up, the use of supplements can be an excellent way to further enhancing performance, training adaptations or recovery if used properly. However, they do not come with a safety guarantee. With this in mind, make nutrition choices that informed and with good scientific evidence of really working.

Useful Websites:

The following are websites that you may find useful in looking further into supplement use are:

World Anti-Doping Agency:
wada-ama.org/
Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority:
asada.gov.au/
Informed Sport:
informed-sport.com/registered-finished-product-brands
Informed Choice:
informed-choice.org/registered-finished-product-brands
Hasta Certified:
hasta.org.au/certified/

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alicia Edge

Alicia is an Advanced Sports Dietitian with an online sports nutrition business, Compeat Nutrition. She is also a mum and triathlete, so advice extends beyond the basics and is instead focused on providing effective and achievable nutrition for both training and racing.

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