Kicking off in London today, the 2012 Olympics will boast more—and more sophisticated—testing of athletes for doping than ever before.
Already, at least nine athletes (including bronze medalist Nataliya Tobias) have tested positive for synthetic hormones, including testosterone and growth hormone, according to the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). It’s almost certain that contaminated dietary supplements will be blamed for positive results at some point during the events.
We spoke with Ed Wyszumiala, general manager of dietary supplement programs at NSF International, about the ongoing problem of adulterated sports and performance supplements, NSF’s Certified for Sport program and how to choose a safe supplement.
NSF International is a nonprofit, global public health and safety organization that writes standards, and tests and certifies products for the food, water and consumer goods industries—including nutritional supplements.
newhope360: There has been a flurry of announcements recently about athletes who have taken supplements contaminated with steroids and other performance enhancing drugs. Recently, NASCAR driver AJ Allmendinger and Olympic hopeful Debbie Dunn tested positive for steroids, and now the nine Olympic athletes.
Ed Wyszumiala: We see two different cases where the athlete has tested positive and they’re sort of pointing at a supplement, but nothing has been confirmed to show that the contamination actually derived from the supplement.
It cuts both ways—sometimes an athlete has taken a contaminated supplement, but before additional testing comes out, it becomes an easy target to blame a supplement for accidental doping.
newhope360: What are the most common problems with contaminated supplements?
EW: Bodybuilding products can have steroids and various anabolic agents added. The other category would be energy-based products with undeclared stimulants added. And weight-loss products sometimes have undeclared stimulants and diuretics added.
newhope360: What about DMAA in sports performance-enhancing products?
EW: This is where a non-prescription drug ingredient was being added under the guise that it was derived from geranium. In 2010, the World Antidoping Agency (WADA) added DMAA to its list of prohibited substances. On products, it was labeled as geranium, which has led to positive doping results all over the world. It’s the largest outbreak weve seen since androstenone.
newhope360: We've seen claims of proof that DMAA really is in geranium.
EW: All the independent research is counter to that right now. The main study was done at the University of Mississippi, where the FDA does its botanical research. A study done by Ole Miss carries a lot more weight than a study done by a manufacturer at a private lab. Like anything else, you can buy a result.
newhope360: How do the Olympics heighten the stakes?
EW: It’s really the global stage for sporting competitions every four years. There can be a lot of positive attention in terms of dietary supplements and nutrition, but if there’s a positive result it can also draw a lot of negative attention. The industry needs to react if the supplement is being scape-goated, but if it’s directly related, then it can be very damaging for the industry.
newhope360: How does NSF’s Certified for Sport program help?
EW: With NSF certification, we’re protecting the value of the brands by minimizing their risk. A lot of the companies we work with sponsor professional or Olympic athletes. This is reassurance that their product has undergone the additional screening of auditing their facility, testing their label claims and screening products for potential banned substances.
newhope360: What major brands do you certify?
EW: Vitamin Shoppe, EAS, Muscle Milk, and Oh Yeah are some of the larger brands. Also Amway. You can find them all online (nsfsport.com) or on our app, which has been really popular with even high school and collegiate athletes and weekend warriors. They can check on their phone while they’re shopping for a protein powder and see which products have been tested.
newhope360: Have you noticed a trend toward cleaner sports nutrition products?
EW: Since we started the program in 2004, we’ve definitely seen an increase in companies being certified, and with expanding their certified lines. We turn down products that make outrageous claims, talking about boosting testosterone or explaining how you stack a product with other products to simulate a steroid effect.
The professional organizations we work with don’t want to see products that claim to boost growth hormone factors, or controversial ingredients like deer antler, or products claiming to be an EPO booster being certified.
Choosing safe sports supplements
newhope360: What’s misunderstood about sports supplement category?
EW: It’s more than the narrowly defined market segment. People just think about protein powders, amino acids and creatine, more what I call bodybuilding products. But there’s a deeper level with a lot of athletes taking B vitamins, multivitamins, fish oil and other supplements.
newhope360: What are your tips for choosing a safe sports supplement?
EW: The first thing to look at is if a product is making outlandish claims, like promising to increase lean muscle mass by 40 percent over the course of a few days. It’s probably too good to be true!
Stick to strong, reputable brands. Look for NSF Certification. Talk to your doctor about supplements you take. That’s especially important with adolescents. With teens starting football workouts for all, ask your doctor, "Will this work for me?" Make sure you are making an educated decision to help you reach your goals.
newhope360: Are there red flags on labels?
EW: It can be very confusing. For instance, the WADA list only listed a couple of names for DMAA, when there are more than 25 names used for it on labels. So a consumer can make an unknowing decision.
There’s been a lack of transparency about things like DMAA. Some product labels will even say on their label: "If you’re doing a job that requires drug testing, do not take this product." Some of these also describe potential side effects that are what you’d see with steroids, like females may get increased hair growth and a deeper voice or males may get acne or more aggressive. If you see that, run away!
newhope360: Besides athletes, who is being drug tested?
EW: We often have issues with police officers in major urban areas who are being drug tested and had positive results from a dietary supplement. We are trying to work with departments to educate their officers on what to look for in products and encouraging them to use NSF Certified products.
newhope360: Do you expect to see a lot about contaminated dietary supplements during the Olympics?
EW: Any time you have that much drug testing at one time, it's bound to show up. It'll be interesting to see what and from where—whether there will still be some DMAA fallout and what kinds of supplements athletes are getting in different countries.
A lot of athletes, not necessarily podium athletes, may be tempted to get a boost from taking what looks like the most powerful "natural" thing they can find. And they may end up with a positive result.