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Special report - December 4, 2002

Tainted Supplements: Positive or not? - Part II

Contaminated supplements have been blamed for a number of positive drug tests in recent years, and the situation is not improving. Are supplements foods or drugs? Jeff Jones investigates.

Click here for Part I

How do supplements get contaminated?

This is all you need...
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The lack of quality control is blamed for the high number of supplement contaminations. The IOC study showed that a company's supplement is more likely to be contaminated if that company also manufactures prohormones. Specifically, "21.1% of the nutritional supplements from prohormone selling companies contained anabolic androgenic steroids, whereas 9.6% of the supplements from companies not selling prohormones were positive."

Presumably this means that the equipment that is used to manufacture/package prohormones is the same that used for the other supplements. There is also a possibility that the ingredient sources used by non-prohormone selling companies are contaminated. Finally, for those with a more cynical bent, it could be that unscrupulous companies are deliberately putting in banned ingredients into their supplements, so that they actually do make you GIT HUGE IN 20 DAYS!!

In Scott Moninger's case, the alleged contamination was enormous, pointing to a very serious quality control problem, or worse.

Staying clean

On the basis of the Cologne study, it seems that the only way to guarantee you will never test positive from a contaminated supplement is not to buy one manufactured in the USA, the Netherlands, the UK, Italy or Germany. If all athletes boycotted these supplements, then the multi-billion dollar industry might wake up and call for more regulation. However, asking an athlete to stop taking supplements borders on heresy, especially as the majority of them will never be tested. As professional cyclists and teams are often sponsored by supplement companies, then they don't really have an interest in boycotting them either. It's an impractical option.

Some supplement companies have taken a proactive approach, vigorously stating that their products contain no banned substances, and no ingredients that are not listed on the label. Although this is like a magazine publishing its circulation figures without an auditor's report, it's a small step in the right direction. In the USA, the FDA could in theory act as an auditor, however it seems overwhelmed and powerless to do so at the moment.

Are supplements necessary?

Correct nutrition is important
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The short answer to this question is a qualified "yes". Sports nutrition has come a long way in the last 20 years, with a huge amount of scientific research having been carried out on the right way to eat for sport. We've learned how to enhance our performance using normal, everyday foods, as well as the more 'artificial' foods such as maltodextrin powder and electrolytes during competition. Then there are non-nutritional substances such as caffeine, which also have been found to enhance certain aspects of performance.

The increasingly large body of research has in no small way contributed to the boom of the supplement industry, which uses scientific studies to back up its claims. More often that not, these are rather far fetched extrapolations of the actual research, but as most athletes are not scientists, then the products sell. Real food is cheaper and contains all the nutrients you need, but it's not trendy!

For example, the November/December issue of Bicycling Australia compared a range of sports food products with real food on the basis of cost, carbohydrate, protein, fat and sodium content. A leading brand of energy bar came in at $5.36/50g of carbohydrate, while a humble jam sandwich was a mere 23 cents/50 g of carbohydrate, and actually edible. There's no doubt that energy supplements have their place in a sporting context, but the word 'supplement' shouldn't be emphasised over the word 'food'.

The area of supplementing with micronutrients, such as vitamins, minerals, enzymes and amino acids, is still decidedly very grey. In addition to a balanced diet, only a select few vitamins and minerals are considered useful in extra doses for a sportsperson. Beyond these, there is a lot of research out there about other substances, but very little of it conclusively showing that compound X helps your performance. That is, unless compound X is also on the banned list.

Athletes take supplements because they want an advantage, whether it be in the mind or body. It's this same motivation that drives some of them to take drugs, and hang the consequences. Health problems 20 years down the track don't really matter if they can be massively famous for two or three years, right?

Unfortunately with the supplement industry the way it is, a non-trivial proportion of supplements can be considered to be drugs, with all their potentially hazardous side affects. Supplements are currently considered legal, whereas drugs are not. The line between the two has been blurred beyond recognition, and until it's readable again, the athlete will always be responsible for what they put into their bodies.

The next step

The question of how to allow athletes to keep taking supplements legally is a big one, and by no means new. Although cycling seems to have become acclimatised to high profile athletes testing positive, there is no doubt that it damages the athlete, the sponsors, the public opinion and the sport in general. Athletes will do all they can to avoid testing positive, while at the same time they are clearly desperate enough to try and enhance their performances by taking spurious supplements. It's up to the individual to decide how far to push it.

Education plays an important role in this matter. More (and widely published) research like the Cologne study will help athletes to make more informed choices about what they put into their bodies. Unfortunately, due to legal reasons, there cannot be a list of 'banned supplements' or even 'clean supplements' published. The best we could hope for is an independent categorisation of varying levels of risk for the various supplements available. However, it would need some pretty thorough disclaimers.

If an athlete does test positive, then the sanctioning bodies need to mete out an appropriate penalty. In most cases there is no doubt that the banned substance was present. The matter of how it got there should determine the length of the penalty. But, as so many have found out, proving that a positive test came from a contaminated supplement is very difficult.

Scott Moninger is one of the few athletes who believes he has the evidence to successfully sue the manufacturer of the tainted supplement. If he succeeds, it may be exactly the wake up call needed to force the supplement industry to implement higher quality control standards, and this would benefit everyone.

Click here for Part I

What do you think of the tainted supplement issue? - Tell us your thoughts.

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