Rapidity with which banned substances change names, alter chemical guises complicates testing, experts say

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Anabolic steroid

Photo courtesy of Banned Substances Control Group
Photo courtesy of Banned Substances Control Group
The recent coordinated crackdown by federal regulators on the dietary supplement industry shined a harsh light on supply chain vulnerabilities. Finding the sort of fraudulent ingredients mentioned during Tuesday’s news conference is complicated by the many names and guises of these ingredients, experts have said.

Tuesday’s action was split between actions based on fraudulent ingredients and those looking at non compliant disease and weight loss claims. And right up front it should be emphasized that many of the products mentioned in press conference would be labeled by responsible members of industry as not being dietary supplements at all, but as misbranded drugs. The rhetoric from some of the participants in the event seemed to blur that line at times.

Bob Murray is scientific director of Aegis, a Nashville, TN-based testing laboratory that has recently started offering product testing services in addition to the testing of individual athletes that it has done for many years.  Murray said the chameleon-like way in which ingredients change names and present themselves in slightly altered chemical guises greatly complicates the matter of finding them in the first place.

Aliases cloud picture

For example, Murray offered a snapshot of what the spiking landscape looks like from a naming perspective. Murray said that since 2012 Aegis has maintained a database of dietary supplements and their ingredients and aliases, branded as Aegis Shield, that is offered to sports drug testing clients and consumers as a means to quickly decode label ingredients and identify the presence of banned substances. The database, which can be accessed through the Aegis Shield mobile app, is said to contain more than 140,000 products comprised of 5,156 ingredients with more than 37,000 aliases. Delving into that database Murray said he found:

  • 201 known aliases for testosterone  
  • 83 known aliases for DMAA or methylhexanamine
  • 146 known aliases for synephrine
  • 95+ known phenylethylamines.

“From an analytical standpoint it’s always best to know what you’re looking for. We just do a lot of digging in the literature, both the lay literature and the scientific literature, to get an idea of what a name on a label might mean,”​ Murray told NutraIngredients-USA.

Murray said some manufacturers of borderline products, manufacturers who it can be assumed have less respect for the regulations than mainstream companies, use similar sorts of lists for their ingredients, not to avoid them but to find new ones to use.

“I’m assuming the intent is to appeal to a certain kind of customer. Having a tongue-twisting chemical name on a label is a positive because it implies that it is a powerful ingredients,” ​he said.

Rebecca Heltsey, vice president of research and development for Aegis, said the banned lists of substances maintained by WADA and other bodies forms at least a starting point.

“We have a target list. Regardless of what they call it we are still looking for a performance enhancing substance. The WADA list does contain the statement ‘structurally related compounds.’  But we do get complete unknowns for sure,”​ she said.

“With any type of synthetic drugs such as steroids or cannabinoids, in general we as an industry are behind the times in terms of people changing the molecule. You do your best to keep up and to have reference materials to verify that that compound is present. It’s a challenging environment and constantly changing,” ​Heltsey said.

Gaps in the lists

Oliver Catlin, president of the Irvine, CA-based Banned Substances Control Group, another longtime player in the banned substances testing field, said shady players have become adept at exploiting the gaps in current lists, however well intentioned these efforts are. Lists of banned steroids maintained by WADA and included in the Designer Anabolic Steroid Control Act of 2014 fail to include a lot of what’s out there, he said.

“I would say some of these are not even ‘designer’ steroids. There was no designing needed; they just looked them up in the standard reference on the subject,”​ Catlin said.

Catlin was referring to a seminal work on the subject written by Julius Vida in 1969 called Androgens and Anabolic Agents: Chemistry and Pharmacology.​ The book, which characterizes more than 650 substances, can still be found for sale on Amazon.

“Where in the world would you look today to know what a banned steroid is? You’d look to WADA. Superdrol (a WADA banned steroid) is on page 92 of the Vida guide. On the following page there is a drug that I don’t think is on the WADA list,”​ Catlin said.

“I think it’s good that they are finally starting to get a hold of this. But FDA raided bodybuilding.com in 2009 [an action that resulted in a $7 million fine for the company]​. Has it done anything since then? What about all of the other companies selling very similar pro hormone products on other platforms like Amazon? What has the FDA done? Nothing,”​ Catlin said.

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