Special edition: Sports nutrition

The curious case of sports nutrition regulation

By Shane Starling

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Dietary supplements Sports nutrition World anti-doping agency

In the fourth part of NutraIngredients’ sports nutrition series, we scan a category as reliant on its elite sports roots as it is at times reviled by them and the rules that can lead to perfectly good products being called foul.

As an earlier article in this series noted, the term sports nutrition is somewhat of an anomaly due to the growing popularity of sports nutrition drinks, supplements, powders and the like among the non-sporty.

Energy and endurance boosting. Recovery. Calorie burning. Such attributes have earned the category a billion dollar-plus health and lifestyle halo that places sports nutrition products into the non-sweaty hands of the non-sporty the world over.

But the fact these products are also consumed to varying degrees by elite athletes lends the category a certain regulatory duality because a group of essentially mainstream products can find themselves subject to the stringent drug testing rules that govern many sports.

So a product that meets Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) and other ‘civilian’ product requirements may find itself accused of containing substances such as steroids, hormones and herbal stimulants that appear on the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) prohibited list.

It’s at this point things get a little murky as despite the fact most dietary supplements products are utterly ‘clean’, fringe players have engaged in activities such as Economically Motivated Adulteration (EMA), which has provoked busts by WADA, and more recently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Not that it has stopped athletes using dietary supplements – the European Specialist Sports Nutrition Alliance (ESSNA) estimated some 90 per cent of the 11,000 athletes at the 2008 Beijing Olympics used dietary supplements. There was not a single supplement contamination case.


But product variability – however marginal and marginalised – has led to a situation where professional athletes ultimately found to have doped, have made scapegoats of dietary supplements they may or may not have used, and which may or may not have been contaminated with said substance.

The situation has become highly politicised, in the US at least, where Arizona Senator John McCain this year attempted to introduce legislation aimed at tightening control of the dietary supplements industry and backed by the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) and several professional sporting bodies like the National Baseball League and National Football League.

Industry said the measures were unnecessary and wondered if the problem did not in fact lie with the sporting associations that fail to implement uniform and rigorous drug testing measures. McCain promptly withdrew the bill.

Despite the immaculate performance of sports supplements at events such as Beijing that has coincided with professional sporting bodies like UK Sport telling elite athletes for the fist time that select dietary supplements from a third-party tested and verified list are ok to use, USADA retains a puzzling stance.

It has said it will name and shame contaminated supplements but will not produce a positive list of tested supplements like the one that exists in the UK and other European countries despite a stated ambition to ‘empower athletes’. Officially, USADA warns elite athletes and sportspeople off supplements.


“All of this is just a divergence from the main problem which is that there is rampant drug use in many pro sports and that needs to be addressed,”​ said Dan Fabricant, PhD, the vice president of scientific and global government affairs at the Natural Products Association (NPA) recently.

Rising to the problem, third party tester NSF International in March became the first US certification body approved by the Standards Council of Canada (SCC) to offer dietary and sports supplement testing for all nutritional products.

The SCC backing came after NSF submitted to a field audit and quality systems audit to evaluate its ability to, “perform specialized testing for banned substances”​. NSF’s Certified for Sport programme contains 74 approved products while the Major League Players Association has a ‘Dangerous Contaminated Supplements’ list of 104 products.

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