During the next trip to your local supermarket try to discreetly peek at your fellow customers’ shopping baskets and, chances are, you may well see someone buying a sports nutrition product. And when you look at the person holding the basket you might be surprised to find that they do not always look like elite athletes or fitness enthusiasts.
With an increasingly diverse audience regularly buying these products, from the weekend jogger to the exercising young mother looking to improve health and wellbeing, it is sometimes easy to forget that sport nutrition foods are still considered as dietetic foods (i.e. foods intended for particular nutritional uses). As such, they are effectively regulated by the same legal framework as foods for infants and young children or medical foods, and are defined as foods not intended for the general population.
This restrictive and somewhat dated approach should, however, change with the implementation of the EU Regulation on Food for Specific Groups, which will come into force in July 2016. It is no hyperbole to say that this piece of legislation will bring about a paradigm shift for the sports nutrition sector in Europe, with sports nutrition products to be regulated solely by general food legislation.
Resolving regulatory limbo
You might have noticed that I said this approach ‘should’ change in 2016. Before we get there, however, we will have to wait for a report which the European Commission will prepare over the next two years, “on the necessity, if any, of provisions concerning food intended for sportsmen.”
This report could ultimately be accompanied by legislative proposals to regulate sports foods; in the meantime, the sports nutrition market remains in a regulatory limbo.
While most experts agree sports people are clearly not part of a vulnerable group that needs regulatory protection, it is fair to acknowledge that the report is welcomed by most in the industry. After years of uncertainty and intense scrutiny, this report is an opportunity to address crucial, outstanding issues, including the need to recognise that people who do sports have specific nutritional needs that sometimes cannot be adequately reflected under general foods legislation.
The industry also hopes that this report will be a chance to finally close the issue of specific legislation for sports nutrition products.
Readers will not be surprised to hear that the reputation of the industry has not always been high, with some still associating it with hyper-muscled men consuming strong stimulants and steroid-like hormones in gym changing rooms, or with elite athletes who turn out to be cheats.
That image has contributed to the scepticism of some policy makers and regulators, and it is still one of the main challenges the sports nutrition industry needs to overcome. While dangerous products still find their way into European shops, it is important to highlight that they have been banned for several years in European countries, and that clear legislation has long been in place to protect consumers from any potentially dangerous ingredients and misleading claims.
Some policy makers have been calling for the introduction of more stringent rules to protect the consumer from these dangerous products, but what is really needed is a serious and effective implementation of the rules which already exist.
The European Specialist Sports Nutrition Alliance (ESSNA) is working with authorities across the EU to ensure that banned products are removed from the market and that those products which reach consumers are safe and come from reputable sources.
This is why over the past year ESSNA has started policing the sports nutrition market by investigating dozens of cases involving illegal and non-compliant products, from those in breach of the EU Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation (NHCR) to some rare cases of dangerous products being sold on the internet by criminal gangs.
In the UK alone, ESSNA has worked with the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), to successfully ensure that several non-compliant products were withdrawn from the market.
This initiative clearly shows that there is a way forward for trade bodies, responsible businesses and regulators to cooperate in tackling those manufacturers, distributors and retailers of non-compliant sports nutrition products.
In view of the Commission’s ongoing report into the possibility of bringing forward specific legislation regulating sports nutrition products, the next two years will be absolutely crucial for our sector.
Responsible companies have the opportunity to work with ESSNA to achieve the objective of a transparent, clean and well-functioning sports nutrition market once and for all.
More about ESSNA can be found here.