The unfettered marketplace for dietary supplements in the United States has created a risky situation for teenagers, especially younger athletes, dietitians at a recent conference were told. Tavis Piattoly, RD, told attendees that younger athletes were prone to substitute supplements for proper diet and sleep, in part because of the messages they received about them from a variety of sources, including untrained retail store staff.
Piattoly was presenting at the SCAN meeting in Huron, Ohio that took place over this past weekend. The dietitian group is the Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrtion subset of the American Academy of Nutriton, and this was the 30th annual gathering of the group.
Good advice is hard to find
Piattoly has long experience in advising athletes on nutrition, both as a consultant and in his private practice. He said what he has seen is that the magic bullet approach openly communicated or implied by the manufacturers of many products creates unrealistic expectations in the minds of many younger consumers. And good, truthful advice about supplements is hard to find, in his opinion.
“The supplement store sales staff, those are the dangerous people,” Piattoly said.
In his practice in New Orleans, Piattoly has delved into the question of where younger athletes get their supplement information. Based on surveys he has administered to his clientele, a lot of them made decisions based on what friends told them, and a smaller but still significant group relied on information passed on from store staff, including people working the aisles in Walmart.
“Would you go to a pharmacist who was unlicensed for advice on what drug to take?” Piattoly asked. “Why should it be different for supplements?”
Piattoly told of one young athlete with whom he had consulted who was sold a stimulant-laden preworkout product at a store even after the teenager and his parents had told the clerk of his history of heart trouble. Fortunately, Piattoly said, the youth and his parents consulted with him before using the product. And it’s not just brick-and-mortar stores that can put younger users at risk, he said.
“MLMs recruit people who know nothing about nutrition to sell products to people who nothing about nutrition,” he said.
Piattoly had particular criticism for the way many labels are put together on products aimed at users seeking to build strength and muscle mass in the gym. He showed example after example of labels littered with “proprietary blends” with sometimes dozens of ingredients, but only specifying an overall amount for the blend. It is impossible to know from these labels what the actual effect of the overall formula might be. Piattoly maintained that this practice, fully compliant with current US label law, allowed manufacturers to hide the fact that their (sometimes pricey) products were made up of mostly low-cost fillers.
“That is typical of the industry. No one knows if this stuff really works. They don’t want you to know how much of each ingredient is in there. They don’t want you to know that it cost them $5 to put together and they are selling it for $40,” he said.
More inisdious than the question of whether a product is inefficacious or merely low quality is the question of what undeclared ingredients it might contain, or what potentially risky ingredients are on the label camouflaged under complex chemical names. How many average consumers, after all, know that any of the variety of phenylethylamines that can be found in some preworkout products are in the stimulant family, for example?
“I think the biggest concern is the amount of poor formulas that are scamming consumers. They tend to underformulate with ingredients that could have a real effect and overformulate with stimulants,” Piattoly said.
These products find their way into the hands of teenagers whose decision making capabilities don’t match those of adults, Piattoly said. So it makes it hard to control the dosages of potentially risky ingredients.
“You look at these pre workouts, they are in the hands of 14- to 18-year-old kids. Their mindset is more is better. You say two scoops and they think five,” he said.
Piatolly, who in the past was a nutrition consultant with the New Orleans Saints of the NFL and now consults with Smoothie King, said he has seen the industry slowly get better. As GMPs ramp up and more negative mainstream media reports circulate, responsible manufacturers are waking up to their potential liablity.
“Companies are starting to realize that if they are going to be big time players they have to do what is right,” he said. “But you are also seeing new players coming into the industry that are not concerned about quality or safety. There are so many products on the shelf it makes it hard to keep up.”
In absence of any third-party, unbiased verification of supplement quality, Piatolly avised dietitians to only recommend those supplements that have a sports certification, either from NSF Certified for Sport or from Informed Choice. Such a supplement could still be poorly formulated, but it is a place to start, he said.