The unscientific nutritional supplements jungle
As long as humans have been competing in sports, nutrition has been seen as an inherent component of physical performance. In the last few decades, the understanding of human metabolism and exercise physiology have made clear that manipulation of nutrient intake have the potential to positively influence sport performance. The results of these scientific findings are clearly seen today, in an explosion of nutritional supplements (also called ergogenic aid and dietary supplement) with specific use to exercising individuals.
Nutritional supplements are today common in sports and accepted by athletes, showing a high prevalence of use and a large number of different types and brands of products. Over thirty thousand supplements are commercially available only in the USA, and more than 3 million people in the USA use, or have used, nutritional supplements. This includes athletes at high school and collegiate levels. Aggressive marketing has led millions of recreational and elite athletes to use nutrition supplements in hopes of improving performance. These supplements can be costly and even potentially harmful, and the advertised ergogenic gains are often based on no scientific evidence, or very little. The retail sale of nutritional supplements is generating enormous sums of money in Western countries, which is largely the result of forceful advertising of anabolic-steroid-like gains through these supplements.
A large number of consumers are willing to pay for alleged benefits of nutrition supplements that are too good to be true! The regulation of supplements and sports foods is a contentious area where no universal system applies of regulation of sports foods and supplements, and where countries differ in their approach and practice.
In the European Union (EU), supplements are demonstrated to be safe, both in quantity and quality. Those supplements that have been proven to be safe may be sold without prescription, and there is an established view that food supplements should not be labelled with drug claims but can bear health claims. A so-called “positive list” has been created under the EU Directive, listing the allowable vitamins, minerals and permitted chemical forms of these vitamins and minerals that may be used in food supplements. This EU Directive has been widely criticized for its inconsistent inclusion/exclusion criteria and for the costs involved with adding items to the list. This Directive was originally formed to protect public health in Europe.
The Food Standards Agency of the United Kingdom has successfully refuted the EU’s attempt and permits the continued use of vitamins and minerals not on the “positive list”. The UK’s nutritional supplement market remained semi-regulated at least until 2009. Unless strong evidence is found for adverse effects, health warnings are therefore not likely to be placed on nutritional supplements in the UK.
In the USA, supplement manufacturers were not required to prove the safety or effectiveness of their products, and the FDA could take action only after a dietary supplement had been proven harmful. As a result of this, a new group of products flooded the USA and international market: the pro-hormones. These compounds include androstenedione, DHEA, 19-norandrostenedione and other metabolites found in the steroid pathways, that can be metabolised in the body to testosterone or the anabolic steroid nandrolone. Today, FDA rules in USA will ensure dietary supplements to comply with current good manufacturing practices, and be manufactured with “controls that result in a consistent product free of contamination, with accurate labeling”.
Nutritional supplements are supposed to provide a known nutrient requirement to optimise training or competition performance, to contain nutrients in large quantities in order to treat a known nutritional deficiency or to directly enhance performance or maintain/restores health and immune function. Scientific theories are publicised in an exaggerated and often misleading manner with aggresive marketing tactics, announcing an amazing “scientific breakthrough”. A scientific theory should be developed in preparation for a study, or to explain the data collected in a study, but it can’t be accepted as proof of the efficacy of a supplement until verified by actual research! Such research is conducted under a special code of rules and published only after a review process by other scientists. This process is time-consuming and costs money, and therefore most supplement companies do not invest in this research, since they can already sell their products to a public who do not appear to demand real proof of their claims.
Scientific studies that follow these accepted scientific code of rules, have shown that under specific conditions some nutritional supplements can have some beneficial effects on performance, lean body mass, strength, and changes in body composition. There are also trials demonstrating efficacy in a laboratory setting, but not in an actual sports setting. Most of the scientific research conducted has failed to support the claims of the majority of the nutritional supplements available today.
The statements above are supported by scientific review articles. My photos pictures statements on nutritional supplements (Anabolic Halo Hardcore Pro Series and naNO Vapor Hardcore Pro Series from Muscletech) that science have not supported.
- If a product promises unbelievable results, don’t even consider buying it!