From the editor's desk

Data supports notion that supplements are not at root of sports doping problem

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

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Related tags doping Adulteration Sports nutrition Sports nutrition products

Sports nutrition products continue to be a source of concern for regulators, but there are signs the situation is improving. And statistics back the notion that supplements are not the huge risk factor for athletes that they’re sometimes made out to be.

More testing being done

Back in mid December the  US Anti Doping Agency (USADA) posted the figures for the number of doping tests conducted worldwide under the aegis of the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) and with it the number of failed tests.  Out of 344,177 samples from athletes (blood and urine) analyzed in 2018, 4,896 failed the tests in some way, or about 1.42% of all tests.  That’s essentially flat from the previous year (1.43%), and a drop from 2016, when 1.60% of tests failed.

The number of samples tested has been rising steadily over the years.  In 2015, WADA recorded about 300,000 samples having been tested. That number rose to 303,000 the following year and topped 322,000 in 2017.

There are no hard and fast statistics for how many athletes use dietary supplements.  But statistics gathered for the overall population by the Council for Responsible Nutrition shows that dietary supplement use is well entrenched in the US population. CRN’s most recent survey of supplement use showed that 77% of Americans say they consume dietary supplements. That was an all time high for the results of this annual survey.

More supplement use, but no spike in failed tests

There is no reason to believe that the use among athletes would fall below this figure; the presumption would be rather the opposite. Yet with all of this consumption, use of these ‘dangerous,’ ‘unregulated,’ and ‘risky’ products has not produced a spike in the number of test failures. 

 And the trend in recent doping sanctions meted out by USADA does not implicate supplements per se.  There have been a recent spate of suspensions handed down to weightlifting competitors because of the use of anabolic steroids or SARMs (selective androgen receptor modulators).  The proliferation of designer steroids was addressed by the Designer Anabolic Steroid Control Act (DASCA) in 2014​ and a law to add SARMs to that enforcement structure has been introduced into the Senate.  Both measures received vocal support from the dietary supplement industry​.  Neither of these classes of ingredients was ever part of the legitimate supplement industry, observers say.

Data supports effect of certifications

There is also some support for the notion that the move toward certifications in the sports sphere is having an effect. USADA has endorsed the NSF Certified for Sports program.  This ensures that a given finished product is free from a specified (and lengthy) list of banned substances.  The Banned Substances Control Group and Informed Choice also offer similar certifications.

Many sports bodies now require one of these certifications to be on the supplement products that competitors use.  But as the worldwide testing regime expands, WADA is now testing samples from a variety of sports.  The figures in the Olympic sports show a steady, gradual decline, from a 0.98% failure rate in 2008 to a 0.75% rate in 2018.  The picture in the non-Olympic sports looks somewhat different.  There the trend has been a steady increase from 1.35% in 2008 to 2.62% in 2018.

This leads me (and remember, before you skewer my methodology, I’m a journalist, not a data scientist) to conclude the certification structure is having an effect.  We’ve been treated in recent years to the spectacle of 60-year-old grandfathers getting caught doping​ because they wanted to win their age group at the local cycling time trial. Many of these athletes covered by the USADA scheme are competing in sports without as rigid a hierarchy as the Olympic sports, such as local cycling federations and Cross Fit competitions. My presumption here is that the use of 'edgy' sports nutrition supplements that lack any sort of sports certification, and so might be adulterated, or the outright use of a banned substance like a steroid, might be higher in these ‘fringe’ groups.  Athletes with financially remunerative careers to protect have more on the line and so might be more prone to adhere strictly to USADA guidelines.

There are still shrill voices out there that will claim that supplements don’t do much and aren’t worth the risk, however low that might be. But on the purity side, there is good evidence in my view that the industry is stepping up to the plate to make clean products free of banned adulterants and to be transparent about that process.  And the industry is also doing a better job of identifying problems and working on solutions, rather than whistling past the graveyard as might have been the case in decades past.

Sports Nutrition Summit 

Influencers, the microbiome, protein, formulation challenges and opportunities, and female athletic consumers are just some of the topics that will take center stage at the NutraIngredients-USA Sports Nutrition Summit in San Diego, Feb 3-5, 2020. 

For more information and to register, please click HERE​.

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