Rabin, the organization’s science director, gave a talk during the 15th Annual Oxford International Conference on the Science of Botanicals. Dietary supplements are a major concern for the organization, Rabin said, because they are both heavily used by athletes seeking an edge and heavily cited as a reason for those same athletes having failed doping tests.
Athletes as trend setters
WADA is a international non-governmental agency dedicated to fighting doping in all its forms, Rabin said. WADA cooperates in investigations with Interpol and with the World Customs Organization, and unfortunately tainted products lumped in with the world of dietary supplements turn up on this radar more often than people within the industry would like.
“Athletes are heavy consumers of dietary supplements,” Rabin said. “Why are we concerned about supplements? Serious athletes express concern about the supplements they are consuming. We expect athletes to be responsible for what they put into their bodies and for what shows up in their body fluids when they are tested. If they have been sanctioned for doping, they can reduce their sanction if they can prove their test result came from an inadvertent doping via a dietary supplement.”
“With athletes we have a risk taking population. They are population where we first see trends that then show up in the general population,” he said.
Rabin made no secret that WADA is no friend to the concept of supplementation. The organization has a policy of encouraging athletes to consider foods as their first source of proper nutrition.
“We believe that food should be the answer. We are concerned about athletes viewing supplementation as a magic bullet,” Rabin said.
Even with his call for more stringent regulation of finished products and ingredients, Rabin was willing to admit that the situation has improved from the first days that WADA began monitoring these space. Certifications such as Informed Choice and NSF Certified for Sport seem to be having an effect on how often products identified as supplements can legitimately be blamed for failures on doping tests.
“The proportion of dietary supplements containing prohibited substances has dropped from about 15% to 22% to less than 1% today. We have seen a lot of improvement in the market. We see an overall reduction of inadvertent contamination,” he said.
As was discussed elsewhere during the conference, Rabin cited the low barriers to entry in the industry as a weakness, one that presents a risk to the uninformed athlete and one that damages the reputation of the entire category.
“Just because they are taking something that looks like a supplement, they shouldn’t assume it is safe,” Rabin said. “Products with merely vitamins and minerals present little risk, but with claims of performance enhancement, those products are more likely to contain substances that are prohibited.”
“There is almost no case of doping related to reputable manufacturers. But with the dirty players, we see manufacturers inserting banned substances extremely quickly into their products. These can be designer drugs or unknown fusion proteins,” he said.
“I am a very strong supporter of having control before these substances enter the market. To me the need for a premarket approval of some sort is self evident. There should be strong legal and financial sanctions for dirty manufacturers. We have seen much progress in the composition of dietary supplements over the years but there are manufacturers out there who are not playing the game and in fact are getting worse,” Rabin said.