Sports nutrition products widely used, but risky for athletes and warfighters, experts say

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

Getty Images / Jacob Lund
Getty Images / Jacob Lund
The uncertain nature of ingredients in some sports supplements and the florid claims on some of these products creates risk for athletes and warfighters, attendees at a recent conference were told.

Amy Eichner, PhD, of the US Anti Doping Agency (USADA) and Patty Deuster, PhD, of the Uniformed Services University, said the freewheeling market created by the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act might have been a good thing for the industry, but greatly complicates their work. Too many products of dubious quality are on the market, and too many of these products can, under the current regulatory regime, make weakly substantiated claims.

Eichner and Deuster took part in a panel on sports nutrition at the recently concluded International Conference on the Science of Botanicals​ that was held in Oxford, MS. The conference was put on by National Center for Natural Products Research at the University of Mississippi. This year, the conference, which concluded on April 11, had a theme of looking back on the market created by DSHEA as the law nears its 25th anniversary.

DSHEA opened Pandora’s box on claims

“DSHEA set the stage for a lot of the marketing claims that dietary supplement companies are allowed to make on products,” ​Eichner told the audience. “From the athlete side of things, they are just a susceptible as a lot of us are to something that’s shiny and promises to deliver big benefits.”

USADA and its allied group, the World Anti Doping Agency, have been involved with adjudicating claims and charges about dietary supplements for a number of years. WADA and USADA were both created in 1999, at a time when the questions of doping in sport were becoming ever more prevalent. 

Riding tide of doping

The issues of chemical enhancement of athletes, and testing for doping, started with some of the athletes from former Warsaw Pact countries, such as the Soviet Union and East Germany. Then came the high profile case of Ben Johnson, a Jamaican-born Canadian sprinter whose 1988 Olympic gold medal was expunged because he failed a post-race drug test.

Then followed the high profile problems of doping in cycling, which culminated in the Festina scandal in 1998, when it became apparent that many of the riders on the Tour de France were doping in one way or another. Drugs were part of cycling for a number of years before that, and of course the Lance Armstrong scandal came after.

Many of these affairs involved outright drug ingredients, such as anabolic steroids or EPO. In the years after DHSEA, though, a weak quality control regime has allowed some of these ingredients to start turning up in products marketed as dietary supplements, Eichner and Deuster said.

Tainted supplements lend credence to athletes’ claims

Now that testing for doping is almost universal in most sports and competitions, many athletes claim to have failed these tests because of hidden ingredients in the supplements they use. While some in the dietary supplement industry are inclined to view those claims as an excuse for an athlete who chose to cheat, the experience of product testing can lend some credence to these claims.

Steroids, pro hormones and synthetic stimulants and active pharmaceutical ingredients have all been found in products marketed as supplements.

Among Deuster’s responsibilities is helping to vet the products that are sold to active duty personnel in on-base commissaries. When reviewing dozens of products a week, she sometimes has to rely on the stated list of ingredients when making a recommendation, something that doesn’t fill her with confidence.  

DMAA seen as cautionary episode

A particular problem is sports products with long lists of ingredients that claim to be from botanical sources but are in fact synthetic stimulants. The episode with DMAA, a synthetic stimulant that at one time was claimed to have come from geraniums, was a case in point. 

The stimulant was linked to the death of a soldier who collapsed and died after a workout. Although a causal link in that case was questioned, the Department of Defense banned the ingredient from products sold on bases, and FDA soon followed suit and took the ingredient off the market.

“We have analyzed a lot of products that claim to have botanicals that aren’t in there,”​ she said. “In my opinion the adverse events reporting on these kind of products is abysmal. What I’ve learned is that it is really hard to get a product like this off the market.”

“The regulations are there, but in practice that doesn’t mean that you can execute on that,” ​Eichner said. “The whole DMAA thing comes back to this unclear boundary about where a dietary ingredient begins and ends. That episode was a real bogeyman to put in front of athletes.”

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