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Sports nutrition growth spoiled by ‘wrong and immoral’ marketing

By David Anderson

- Last updated on GMT

©iStock/mindscanner
©iStock/mindscanner

Related tags: Sports nutrition, European union, European specialist sports nutrition alliance

The global sports nutrition industry is forecast to leap in size from $28bn in 2016 to $45bn in 2022 but the industry believes its growth is being stymied in Europe by restrictive regulation while critics argue the industry is still undermined by some of its practitioners peddling false advertising.

While North America may account for the biggest sports nutrition market, forecasts show Europe is also growing, swelled not only by athletes looking to improve their fitness but an increasing number of lifestyle and recreational users of protein bars, muscle milks and energy gels which have become store-cupboard staples.

Industry figures reveal that UK consumers spent £66 million ($83 million) on sports nutrition food and drink products in 2015, up by 27% from 2013, yet dieticians argue that consumers are in some cases being duped by false marketing from industry manufacturers, particularly those selling protein supplements.

Marketing in sports nutrition is “wrong and immoral”

The British Dietetic Association (BDA) says that marketing across the industry is “wrong and immoral”​ and thousands of people are using protein powders as a “substitute not a supplement”.

Speaking to NutraIngredients, Graeme Close, professor of sports nutrition, John Moores University, said: “There are some great companies out there who understand the rules and regulations and abide by them and do give some good information out.”

But the said the industry was being undermined by “the smaller brands or the less reputable ones trying to bring something what they think is unique and new to market”.

He pointed to companies marketing “fat burners and testosterone boosters”​ as particularly problematic, saying that the claims of purported health benefits were based on thin evidence.

"Some of the advertising by some of these companies is wrong and immoral,”​ he added.

"You will see some ridiculous claims that you can move from out of shape and overweight in four weeks by taking a pill,”​ he added.

That said, the UK advertising regulator, the Advertising Standards Authority, told NutraIngredients that complaints about ads by sports nutrition companies are infrequent. Those complaints it received tended to be questioning the validity of the purported health claims from various sports nutrition products.

Within sports nutrition, protein supplements are popular, more so than other dietary supplements, but some dieticians say people get enough protein in their diets, so many of the benefits from the supplements are only small or even non-existent.

But the European Specialist Sports Nutrition Alliance (ESSNA), the trade alliance representing the sports nutrition industry in Europe, says the current food laws around protein are adequate to regulate the industry.

Relaxation of current EU rules

But the European trade body argues that the sports nutrition industry is treated unfairly when it comes to nutrition and health claims and other areas.

Mark Gilbert, vice chair, said he would like to see a relaxation of current rules which mean that if a health and nutrition claim hasn’t been approved by EFSA and accepted by the European Commission then manufactures can’t make a claim in this area, irrespective of the efficacy of the product.

“Perhaps even EU authorities would acknowledge that the health claims law has restricted the ability of companies to communicate the proven benefits of their products to consumers,”​ he told us.

But Luca Bucchini, food risk scientist and consultant, argued that the EU regulatory framework is fundamentally robust.

“What is important is that EFSA has scientists who understand sports nutrition and sports sciences. Some claims have been rejected and I have disagreed with the verdict but this has to do with implementation not with the framework,”​ he told us.

Further thorny issues, according to ESSNA, are the expense of submitting claim dossiers to the EU regulators, and EU member states hindering the industry by setting up “unfair, often illegal barriers to trade”.

“These make the single market in sports nutrition grind to a halt” and “harm consumer choice,”​ Gilbert told us.

Rogue companies

The sports nutrition industry is aware that rogue companies threaten the industry’s status, but says there are fewer and fewer and ESSA says it has helped weed out those giving the industry a bad name and putting consumers at risk.

“We don’t underestimate the scale of this problem; one consumer harmed by a sports nutrition product is one too many. But over the past few years ESSNA, national governments, regulators and enforcement bodies have made great strides in stamping out non-compliance in the sports nutrition industry,"​ Gilbert told us.

For Close, the solution is simple and the responsibility should lay with the manufacturers themselves.

“I don’t know if it’s the legislation or just a little bit more honesty in the industry. Most people are very aware when companies are over emphasising the evidence,”​ he told us.

“I look forward to the day when we only sell products that are genuinely needed.”

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