Special edition: Sports nutrition

Booming demand for sports certifications seen as proof industry takes quality seriously

By Hank Schultz contact

- Last updated on GMT

Image © iStockPhoto / tedestudio
Image © iStockPhoto / tedestudio

Related tags: Sports nutrition, Dietary supplement, World anti-doping agency, Nsf

The market for sports certifications continues to boom, with new players entering the market and established brands scrambling to keep up with demand. 

Doing the right thing

The development should be seen as a point of pride for the marketplace, observers say, as there is no formal regulatory requirement that drives the demand for these services. Rather, it is market demand, at first of course driven by professional sports organizations and the individual athletes, but now increasingly by demand from consumers themselves who see the imprimaturs as marks of both safety and quality.

For Lisa Thomas, general manager of sports certification for market leader NSF, it’s a sign that the industry, prodded in part by consumers, is doing the right thing, despite the hot glare of negative publicity coming from the actions of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. And the sports nutrition sector, long considered by the Food and Drug Administration to be one of the dietary supplement business’s problem children, is leading the way toward higher quality, she said.

“There is a reason that all these brands are  choosing NSF Certified for Sport. They know that what is right for the consumer is to get as much of a additional look from a third party on this material as possible from the raw materials stage to the shelf,”​ Thomas told NutraIngredients-USA.

NSF has seen rapid growth for its Certified for Sport program, Thomas said. The testing regimen verifies that a product is free of more than 400 different substances, many of them on WADA’s banned list.  It also looks at a company’s manufacturing and quality control operations.

“Where last year I said the number of products we had covered had doubled in the previous year, now it has tripled,”​ Thomas said.  Thomas said the latest big name to adopt the NSF Certified for Sport regimen is the National Hockey League, which had been sitting on the fence for a number of years.

That demand has encouraged competition, and Thomas said where demand exists its inevitable that organizations will step forward to meet it.

“I think other third parties realize with all the recent press, especially earlier in the year, that there is going to be a push for third party certifications,” ​she said.

Additional players

Another certifier that has recently upped its game is California-based Banned Substances Control Group. BSCG got its start as a laboratory running doping tests to verify that athletes were clean.  That morphed naturally into a program to help the athletes stay clean in the first place and avoid cases of accidentally doping.  While these were rare, it was a plausible enough case to worry international sports bodies and also companies who did not want to be implicated in the loss of a big contract by an athlete.

“We all know there have been quality issues hovering over the dietary supplement arena in general. One way to combat that is to participate in a program like ours or the other ones out there,”​ Catlin said.

BSCG recently expanded its testing protocol to the point where it now includes 392 compounds, of which 185 are prescription or over-the-counter drugs and 207 are drugs banned in sport.  It’s a moving target that requires vigilance to keep on top of, Catlin said.

“We started our company 10 years ago and the focus at that point was on the banned substances so that athletes wouldn’t inadvertently test positive.  We realized recently looking at the FDA statistics that a big part of the problem wasn’t being addressed,” ​Catlin told NutraIngredients-USA.

Catlin said FDA's testing has shown that products may contain harmful compounds falling outside the scope of those banned by the WADA and elite and professional sports leagues including antihistamines, muscle relaxers, pain killers, weight loss drugs, PDE-5 inhibitors like sildenafil, and more dangerous agents. As the FDA warns, "this list only includes a small fraction of the potentially hazardous products with hidden ingredients.”

“We are always doing method development,”​ Catlin said.  “Take the case of phenethylamines.  There are 177 PEAs that have been characterized.  I worry about the ones that are far enough away from the familiar PEAs that they are difficult to detect.”

Another certifier with a prominent position in the market is Informed Choice, which until recently has operated mostly in the European market.  In a recent development that speaks to the booming market demand, LGC, which offers analytical, forensic and diagnostic services and is the home of the Informed Sport and Informed Choice brands, and UL, a leading global safety science organization, have teamed up to offer an enhanced supply chain verification program for the sports and athletic supplements industry in North America.

LGC has more than 50 years' experience in the science of sports anti-doping. As well as testing sports supplements for substances prohibited in sport by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), LGC conducts doping control analysis for animal sports organizations across the world. It also offers a range of drug and alcohol abuse testing services.

"Quality assurance has become increasingly important for consumers of sports nutrition products, and in particular for athletes that are subjected to anti-doping tests,"​ said Terence O'Rorke, director of business development, Sport and Specialized Analytical Services, LGC.  

Analysis for the programs is conducted at LGC's laboratories in Lexington, Kentucky, and in Fordham, United Kingdom. Currently there are approximately 530 products registered on the programs.

"Informed-Sport and Informed-Choice are established marks in the sports nutrition industry and the alliance between UL and LGC will allow supplements companies to further enhance their levels of product testing," ​O'Rorke added.

A further competitor has entered the market. Aegis Sciences, based in Nashville, TN, is branching out from analytical testing into certification.

“We are trying to offer an alternative, because there is plenty of business to go around,” ​said Bob Murray, PhD, scientific director of Aegis.

“Aegis has been around for about 25 years and had a lot of clients sports drug testing market, all of whom had an interest to make sure their athletes stayed clean by not accidentally ingesting a banned substance,”​ Murray said.

Murray said the company’s certification seal is a cost effective alternative to some others, because it’s based on product batch testing alone, and relies on other sources for facility audit information. 

How to judge the certifications

Which brings us to the question that hovers over this subset of the whole certification game and over the whole idea of third party verification. Who certifies the certifiers? Loren Israelsen, president of the United Natural Products Alliance, has tried to put some parameters around the issue for audiences at industry gatherings in recent years. In one presentation he presents slide after slide of certification logos and others that look like certification logos that he and his staff have gleaned from websites of companies in the dietary supplement sphere. The pretty pictures outnumber the actual logos by a factor of more than 10 to 1. And even among the acknowledged above board certifiers, whether its for banned substances, GMP compliance, organic certifications or others, there is competition in the marketplace.  How is a potential customer, much less the end consumer, supposed to judge the relative quality of the various certifications?

In the absence of a metacertifier, an overarching authority that could vet the rigor of the competing systems, potential clients will have to roll up their sleeves and judge for themselves.

“In our case one of the biggest things to consider is we do it all ourselves. We control the whole program. We use NSF trained auditors, we use NSF’s own testing labs. We do the review of the formulation and labels in house.  We have that strong chain of custody that is so important when you are talking about the huge contracts for athletes that could be lost,” ​Thomas said.

Catlin said he encourages potential clients to take a deep dive into his program and the others in order to make an educated decision about which program works best for them.

“I think there needs  to be significant scrutiny put on the components of a certification. Does the certifier offer a label verification and contaminant testing regimen to go with the banned substances testing?”​ he said.

”We are always in support of something that can make this industry look better and be better for the consumer,”​ Thomas said.

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