Youngsters exposed to 'significant misinformation' on sports nutrition: Irish authority

By Annie Harrison-Dunn

- Last updated on GMT

"Sports supplements are often sold as ‘miracle cures’ with little scientific validation," says expert speaker at FSAI conference on use among young people. © / Minerva Studio
"Sports supplements are often sold as ‘miracle cures’ with little scientific validation," says expert speaker at FSAI conference on use among young people. © / Minerva Studio

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Young people are exposed to a significant amount of misinformation on sports nutrition, which could have negative implications for their health now and in the future, according to a Food Safety Authority of Ireland’s (FSAI) chief.

Speaking yesterday at a FSAI Food Safety Consultative Council meeting, FSAI chief specialist for public health nutrition Dr Mary Flynn warned the €65bn-a-year sports food industry promoted products on “gender lines”​ for muscle gain in males and weight loss in females, messages which she said young people were particularly susceptible to.

"Young teenagers, who are still growing, need to be protected against unhealthy messages that promote a single unrealistic body image as the ‘ideal’ for young people. This weakens self-esteem and leads to unhealthy body image concerns.

“In reality, the variation of body types is very wide and changes hugely during the growing years of adolescence,”​ she told attendees.

“Having a good diet in terms of type of fat eaten, enough fibre and essential vitamins and minerals is crucial for optimal growth and development that ensures young people reach their full potential for lifelong health, as well as sports performance.

“This type of evidence-based dietary advice will be helped further by the Department of Health-led review of healthy eating guidelines which is nearing completion. Regrettably, sound nutritional advice is often drowned out by misinformation including ‘fat burner’ claims and extreme high protein diets that are inadequate in many essential nutrients.”

However responding to the statements, Dr Adam Carey, chair of trade group the European Specialist Sports Nutrition Alliance (ESSNA), said sports nutrition was so tightly regulated through the European Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation (NHCR) that: “Quite simply, sports nutrition companies are not allowed to misinform the public.”

However, he acknowledged the gap between regulation on paper and some products on shelves.   

“The unfortunate reality, however, is that companies operating illegally do still exist, primarily online, and it’s true that they might market their products differently. This can certainly mean misinformation which can also be fueled by the media, as Dr Flynn rightly mentioned,"​ he told us. 

“However here at ESSNA, alongside the authorities, we are working diligently to identify and eradicate all companies that might threaten consumers’ health through misinformation.”

The meeting discussed the impact of performance nutrition and the “proliferation of related food products and supplements”​ on young people aged 13-35 years.

'Significant dangers of this common practice'

Contamination with stimulants was also highlighted as an issue within the sector.

Dr Conor O’Brien, consultant neurophysiologist and physician in sports medicine at the Sports Surgery Clinic in Dublin, said there was a changing worldwide pattern of performance enhancing drug (PED) abuse, which were increasingly taken for cosmetic and work-related reasons rather than sports performance.

He said an estimated three million people were now abusing these substances in North America alone.

“Little resources are given to educating the general public on the significant dangers of this common practice, with most being committed to detection programs among elite athletes. Sports supplements are often sold as ‘miracle cures’ with little scientific validation.

“They can be contaminated or adulterated with PEDs and users of these seemingly harmless agents can be exposing themselves to potential health risk.”

Education campaigns needed

O’Brien called for greater education efforts on the issue in schools as well as a simple reporting registrar of adverse effects associated with sports supplement use.

ESSNA’s Carey agreed with the need for education campaigns.

“It’s important that young people are educated on the correct use of sports supplements and this is a responsibility that lies with everyone – the brands making the products, the shops selling them, the athletes endorsing them and the media reporting on them.

“It’s also crucial that young athletes ensure they’re only buying products from reputable brands and are using them in the correct way, and if they are ever in doubt, it’s always best to ask a qualified nutritionist.”

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1 comment

About time! This issue needs addressing

Posted by Carrie Ruxton,

Well done Dr Flynn and her organisation. Something should be done to restrict the online profusion of sports products which make unrealistic claims or contain harmful levels of substances. My 15 year old son bought weight loss pills online from a UK supplier which contained 450mg caffeine per dose - in excess of the EFSA safe level for adults. Luckily I intercepted and stopped it but how many other kids are able to access these products? He has also been able to buy protein supplements from high street suppliers which recommend protein doses of >60g daily on top of food sources. This could damage kidney function in young people. Sports product retailers should do more to age check shoppers and should moderate the protein and caffeine levels of recommended doses/servings to ensure that consumers are not exposed to health risk.

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