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Buyer Beware: Are Your Supplements Tainted?

Do you know what's really in your sports nutrition supplements?

Do you know what’s really in your sports nutrition supplements?


Even uttering the word makes many of us in the endurance community cringe.

It is a word charged with ethics, emotion, and politics. For us non-elite athletes, the issue of doping, or use of banned performance-enhancing drugs and methods, is mostly a theoretical one. Even if you were stuffed to the gills with testosterone and amphetamines at your next event, chances are you wouldn’t have to fear urinating in a cup or providing a blood sample for a doping test (even if you were on the top step of the podium).

However, if you plan on stepping onto the podium at Kona, or an Olympic Trials race, or a state championship cycling event, or even an NCAA-sanctioned running race, your chances of peeing in that cup are greater. The higher your level of competition is, the more likely you are to find yourself subjected to a doping analysis. (I’ve been tested twice as an elite-level rower, but never as a triathlete.)

Are Your Supplements Tainted?

According to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), athletes are “strictly liable” for any prohibited substances which are found in their bodies (blood and urine samples)—no matter how the banned substance made its way into the athlete’s body. It’s not overly cynical to “expect” any doping athlete to blame a contaminated dietary supplement for his or her positive dope test, but WADA doesn’t let athletes off the hook for “accidents;” even when some supplements have clearly been found to contain undeclared steroids and stimulants.

According to a much-quoted 2001 study commissioned by the International Olympic Committee, nearly 15 percent of sports supplements (634 products from 215 suppliers in 13 countries) tested positive for undeclared prohibited substances (anabolic agents or stimulants). Such findings have led to a policy of “supplement avoidance” among many people in the endurance community—even when scientific evidence clearly supports the use of some types of dietary supplements for promoting wellness, enhancing recovery and generally helping athletes maintain a high state of mental and physical performance.

RELATED: How To Choose And Use Supplements

Taking a “just say no” approach to supplements is simply unrealistic for some endurance athletes, however. We need to explore every option that can help keep us going amidst the demands of work, family and other aspects of our life outside of our endurance training.

None of us, elite or amateur, wants our supplements to contain any “undeclared” ingredients, especially if they’re prohibited by the rules of our sport. If your electrolyte powder has a smidge of testosterone in it, you probably won’t have to give back the Tour de France’s yellow jersey, but you want your nutrition products to contain what they’re supposed to and nothing else. This is where good quality control comes in.

Contamination And Quality Control

Most manufacturers of dietary supplements are responsible and ethical, and they have no desire to market contaminated products. But even while many companies will tell you that their products are “formulated without banned substances” or that their products are “manufactured in a facility which contains no banned substances,” you never really know that the products you’re ingesting are clean unless those products are specifically analyzed to confirm the absence of prohibited substances.

Testing products for banned substances is an extremely intricate area of analytical chemistry. The credibility of a banned substance screen really comes down to the sensitivity (or the “limits of detection”—the smallest amount of a substance that can be detected) of a particular analytical method, because even a minute “trace” amount of a banned substance present in a nutrition product could result in a positive doping result. Many labs can analyze substances down to microgram levels of sensitivity (mcg), but banned substances present at nanogram-levels (ng = 100 times lower than most labs can detect) could cause a positive doping result.

I have personally been involved in several projects where doping risks have been associated with dietary supplements used by elite athletes. In two instances, we were able to trace contaminated herbal extracts (containing undeclared ephedrine in one case and intentionally spiked with sildenifil, the active ingredient in Viagra, in another) back to their origin (China in both cases). In another instance, the individual raw materials checked out clean but the finished product tested positive for testosterone precursors (DHEA and androstenedione)—with contamination eventually traced to an improperly cleaned encapsulating machine that had been used months before to manufacture bodybuilding supplements.

RELATED: 7 Supplements That Aren’t A Total Waste Of Money

Endurance athletes also need to understand that some dietary supplement ingredients (and medications) that are perfectly legal in the United States may also be considered prohibited by WADA for use in sport (training and competition). DHEA, a precursor for testosterone synthesis used for anti-aging benefits, and sildenifil (Viagra), used for other types of “performance enhancement,” are two examples of substances that are perfectly legal for the market, but banned for athletes.

You could take one of several positions on the issue of dietary supplements and the risk of consuming banned substances:

1. I’m an elite athlete who can’t afford to take the risk with supplements, so I’ll just say no, even if that means I’m giving up a legal performance edge to my competition by forgoing the all supplements.

2. Who cares? I’m an age-grouper doing this for fun and a challenge. I’ll take the risk of taking supplements so I can gain any edge that can help me train harder and go faster.

3. I want the benefits of the right supplements, but I don’t want to break the rules, and I want to know what I’m putting into my body.

No matter which group you fall into, you ought to be concerned that your nutrition products are produced under Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP), which are mandated and overseen by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and that they contain only those ingredients that are disclosed on the label (which is mandated by U.S. law).

There are a handful of organizations that can analyze dietary supplements for the presence of prohibited substances (primarily anabolic agents like steroids and stimulants like ephedrine and amphetamines). They include Banned Substances Control Group (BSCG), HFL Sports Science, NSF International (which certifies supplements for Major League baseball and the National Football League), ConsumerLab and the National Products Association. Be aware that the limits of detection and the compounds they analyze differ between the organizations.

RELATED: 7 Supplements That Improve Endurance

Buyer Beware

There are certainly some dietary supplements that are of potential value to endurance athletes, but the responsibility for choosing and using the right supplements (and avoiding the “wrong” ones) comes back to the individual athlete. Only through self-education and asking the right questions can you make an informed decision about which supplements are right for you.


About the Author

Shawn Talbott is multiple Ironman and ultramarathon finisher and a sports nutrition expert with a Ph.D. in nutritional biochemistry and a master’s degree in exercise science. He lives in Salt Lake City. For more information visit