Sports nutrition ads – do they have a place on the pitch?

By Annie Harrison-Dunn

- Last updated on GMT

Has sport lent 'unwarranted credibility' to sports nutrition products?
Has sport lent 'unwarranted credibility' to sports nutrition products?

Related tags Sports nutrition Nutrition

Sports nutrition products should not be allowed to sponsor sporting events, say two researchers from the Institute of Sport, Exercise and Active Living in Australia.

Simon Outram and Bob Stewart said this kind of sponsorship posed ethical concerns in a landscape where efficacy was often debated and difficult to ascertain, and urged a review of such commercial partnerships.

“Sport may have found itself lending unwarranted credibility to products which would otherwise not necessarily be seen as beneficial for participation in sports and exercise or as inherently healthy products,” ​they wrote.

Terence O'Rorke, business development director for Informed Sport, a firm which tests products for substances prohibited in sport, told NutraIngredients that efficacy was almost irrelevant – sportsmen and women would continue to take these products regardless of the scientific evidence for or against. Instead he said it was more important to ensure the products being advertised at events and more generally were safe and complied with regulations.

Meanwhile, Dr Adam Carey, chair of the industry body European Specialist Sports Nutrition Alliance (ESSNA), claimed the research was “questionable” ​and included, “very inaccurate comments”.  


“People engaging in intense muscular effort, from professional athletes to fitness enthusiasts, have increased and specific nutritional requirements that are often not met by their everyday diets, ultimately leading to different food choices and eating behaviours.

“Sports nutrition products were created as a response to this – to provide a practical and convenient way for sportspeople to meet their daily nutritional needs.”

Efficacy by association

The research, published in the Journal of Medical Ethics​, suggested association with events conveyed the message that the products were, “integral to sporting engagement and achievement”​. They suggested this was distinct from other forms of sponsorship which sought to benefit from positive associations with sport, but were not “intimately associated”​ with it.

They said product-specific sponsorship might be considered suitable if backed by consistent and independent studies showing them to be beneficial to sporting achievement and appropriate for a general population engaged in non-elite sporting activities and exercise.

“For the present it seems that through its own positive health associations sport is conveying a similarly positive message about the benefits of using nutritional supplements and rehydration fluids; a message that is not warranted by the evidence.”

ESSNA’s Dr Carey rejected this criticism, saying it was an “undisputed fact​” that sports nutrition products were “extremely beneficial”​ for sporting activities and general health. He pointed out that the sports nutrition industry was “extremely tightly regulated”, ​coming under food law within the European Union.

The EU health and nutritional claims approval processes are some of the strictest and most rigorous in the world - products can only advertise health and nutrition benefits that have been scientifically proven and approved by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).”


Within sports nutrition, EFSA has given positive opinions to products such as carbohydrate-electrolyte solutions, creatine, protein, vitamins and minerals.

O'Rorke downplayed efficacy concerns, regulations and approved claims in noting sportspeople were a group that relied very much on instinct and knowledge of their own bodies and performance.

“What we need is for authorities to accept that people do take these products. Don’t put your head in the sand and say: 'Don’t take them.' But make sure products are well regulated.”

This could be done by ensuring only verified, compliant products were sponsors, not banning such sponsorship altogether.

Who’s fitting the bill?  

Outram and Stewart conceded that the question of how events would be funded if such sponsors were dropped remained an “important unknown factor, one with considerable implications for sports participation and associated population health.

“If sport authorities, teams and sports personalities distanced themselves from supplement and drinks-company sponsorship, ways would have to be found to cover the financial gap created."

They added: "Lessons can be learnt from the history of tobacco sponsorship and its gradual restriction, which did not lead to the wholesale collapse of sport.”


Source: Journal of Medical Ethics

Published online ahead of print,doi:10.1136/medethics-2014-102147

“Should nutritional supplements and sports drinks companies sponsor sport? A short review of the ethical concerns”

Authors: S. M. Outram and B. Stewart 

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Sponsorship vs. Efficacy vs. Compliance

Posted by Brandon Griffin - Ingredient Identity,

Product "Efficacy" and "Sponsorship" are two different beasts entirely - putting qualifiers/requirements on one to allow for the other as a means to better ensure the general public is either not misled or better understands how a given product might work or at least works for a given individual, is a nice theory to mentally toss around, but doesn't address the underlying challenge that I believe they are trying to actually get at: Corporate Social Responsibility, within our industry of course.

Some of the most prominent brands in Sports Nutrition (Dietary Supplement Industry) over the past two decades started out being driven entirely by their marketing efforts rather than any solid science or "efficacy" (often because there was none) for a given product. In part the testing technology wasn't there, or the FDA regulations weren't in place or being enforced and/or the general customer demand didn't require it. In fact, many of the big class actions can demonstrate this still to this day, but I digress. Should companies be vetoed from ever having the opportunity to move forward in targeting the right audience(s) at a given event or venue? No. Are those same companies accepting the fact that they are making themselves a bigger target for regulatory or legal action, especially if they haven't fully ensured compliance or product efficacy relating to their products and claims? Yes.

That all being said, many of the top brands we work with have committed to heavily reinvesting in better understanding the efficacy of their products or ingredients therein, to explore new competitive advantages and ultimately to set a new standards for "quality" that their competition subsequently must meet. This what we encourage and guide on, in doing our part for the industry and more importantly in educating consumers thereof. This is also separate from the expectation of ensuring overall compliance and ultimately product efficacy are in line for such, though no less important. For those other brands that don't do the same, capitalism restores balance in very short order and rewards those companies/brands planning for the long game.

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Great Point

Posted by Daniel Wallace,

Especially nowadays with the constant changing of what is allowed in certain sports and what is not, why would major companies such as the MLB or NFL allow players to promote something when it could be banned from the leagues substance policy in a year or so?

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