If the nutritional supplements sector is to ever cast off its reputation for ‘dangerous’ and unlabelled contaminants then big online retails must embrace and enforce stricter anti-doping policies, argues Luca Bucchini, PhD.
The recent Winter Olympics again showed how ‘doping scandals’ can cause the international news media associate all food supplements with doping, or at least sports nutrition, with doping. The often repeated message is clear: all supplements are dangerous, and that they are useless anyhow.
This association between food supplements and doping is inevitable because it is the athletes themselves who blame supplements. Writing in his Editor’s Blog recently, NutraIngredient’s own Shane Starling illustrated this ‘repeated cycle’ very well .
But, with three out of six cases in Sochi due to DMAA, the claims of the athletes may not be absurd; getting World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) prohibited substances, including DMAA, out of products has been a long and difficult process.
Some supplements with DMAA are still around; young consumers and athletes crave stimulants, and the economic gains for a few – at the expense of the entire food supplement sector - have been immense.
There is no question that athletes have been at least careless in buying products the composition of which was not clearly DMMA or doping- free, and had not been tested for these substances.
The problem is that these products have been available through major online retailers and e-commerce websites; websites that are so large and well known that they give the products they sell a halo of safety and legitimacy.
While DMAA is now gone from the leading websites, serious questions still remain over what is actually contained in some supplements that are sold on by major online retailers.
To many doping is connected with dark gym backrooms, shady money-hungry doctors, or a group of people around a quickly opened and closed car’s trunk. But now ‘bought on the internet’ has started to sound the same to many.
The future of food supplement retailing is on the Internet, through big e-commerce retailers; can they be as trusted by consumers as pharmacies or mainstream health shops currently are if they also sell products with doping substances?
They should declare clearly that they don’t accept supplements with WADA-listed substances, and do the minimum amount of verification this requires.
Athletes vs consumers?
Some people, particularly in the US, argue that doping is a problem for athletes but isn’t an issue for general consumers. Why restrict the supply to those who don’t care about WADA? Freedom of choice is a key concept in a free society, after all.
There is freedom to, however, and freedom from. And with dozens on names under which DMAA has been sold, some may question how easy it is for a consumer or athlete to decide if they are doping or not.
With a large sticker or banner stating “Product contains doping substance” the argument would be more convincing.
It is also hard to explain why a product is not fit for athletes, but could be ok for other young sportsmen. Doping does not belong to sports nutrition.
Major e-commerce websites, from Amazon to Google Products, and specialist websites, as they expand to Europe, should declare and enforce straightforward no doping policies. Some already do, but many don't.
Big sports nutrition suppliers should tell these retailers that they can’t make money by selling their legitimate blockbusters while at the same time selling risky, untested, doping-laced concoctions.
It does mean less revenue, but it should not be seen as a cost: it is an investment.