An appetite for dope-free supplements

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The Russians have brought Olympic doping to the media foreground and have found their track and field team banned from the upcoming Rio games. But far from just a Russian problem, doping is widespread throughout professional sports. In fact, a 2013 New York Times piece states that, per World Anti-Doping Agency, or WADA, “an estimated 29 percent of the athletes at the 2011 world championships and 45 percent of the athletes at the 2011 Pan-Arab Games said in anonymous surveys that they had doped in the past year.” By contrast, they continue, “less than 2 percent of drug tests examined by WADA laboratories in 2010 were positive.”

As comedian John Oliver tackles the topic in a recent rant, he focuses on three key elements that make this a crisis difficult to curb. First is the difficulty of the testing regulators use. No single test can identify all banned substances, and the list of banned substances is always changing. “Testing itself, it’s much less black and white than you might assume,” says Oliver. “There are wide variations in human biochemistry, so to avoid false positives, testing thresholds are often deliberately high and athletes can still dope and come below those thresholds.”

Second, there is a complicated web of relationships between the regulators and the regulated, creating great opportunity for corruption—opportunity clearly taken in the Russian scandal.

Most importantly, though, is a reluctance to solve the problem. Oliver quotes former WADA President Dick Pound’s independent report for WADA, which stated, “There is no general appetite to undertake the effort and expense … to deliver doping-free sport.”

That is a primary focus of the new book Spitting in the Soup. “Fans, athletes, governments, sports organizing bod­ies and advertisers are all complicit in the championing of chemistry in the service of greater happiness and performance in life,” writes author Mark Johnson.

But beyond the sports entertainment conflict, Johnson keenly identifies a drugs-for-good vs. drugs-for-evil cultural double standard. “Taking erythropoietin (EPO) to get ahead in a bike race is illegal," he writes, "but popping a prescribed amphetamine like Adder­all to improve focus and stamina in school or the workplace violates no regulations. Nor does taking Viagra to improve sexual performance.” 

Eventually Johnson brings readers, unfavorably, around to the supplement industry. “Knowing they are selling a high percentage of snake oil,” he writes, “some sup­plement manufacturers add drugs to their remedies so consumers will feel the kick promised on the product label. Mixing in unlabeled steroid precursors, for example, ups the chance that customers see an improve­ment in their musculature and form and come back for more.” 

In context, Johnson appears magnanimous when he writes “some supplement manufacturers…” Yet, it certainly is only some, with a few high-profile, Olympic-sized scandals centered around the sports nutrition category where, indeed, consumers are looking for fast and substantial results.

Like in athletes, the inclusion of banned ingredients in performance-enhancing supplements is harder to detect than one might assume. For example, Oliver Catlin of the Banned Substance Control Group told Nutrition Business Journal last year that insulin-like growth factor is a banned substance, but “every form of whey protein contains IGF-1,” keeping athletes and regulators on their toes. BSCG is one of four major third-party certifiers of clean supplements. Our “The Seals” provides a comparison of these entities and the methodologies each employs. “It’s our job to interpret what is and what is not acceptable,” says Catlin.

But the cat and mouse of detecting banned ingredients will always exist as long as the marketplace demands drug-like performance from drug-free products. Johnson quotes WADA Science Director Olivier Rabin: “Most of the time, natural products that are sold by these companies don’t have an effect, and if they want their product to have an effect, and for people to buy these products again, they put something into it that has an effect.”

Overstated, but pointing to a key problem: As long as the fantasy of steroid performance from steroid-free products exists, “steroid-free” products will continue to have—you guessed it—steroids.

Good companies producing quality third-party certified products, like Twinlab’s Clean Series or Thorne Researchthe only supplement company to receive an official stamp of approval from the United States Olympic Committeelead the way in building confidence and resetting expectations: high performance steps toward a supplement industry with, to paraphrase Dick Pound, an appetite for dope-free supplements. 

The challenge is doing this in a culture that stays up late watching Last Week Tonight and then pops ambien to sleep till tomorrow. 

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