In a May 18 Sports Illustrated cover feature titled “Supplements: The Dangerous Obsession with Improved Performance,” David Epstein and George Dohrmann do their best to deliver a knock-out punch to the sports supplement industry and the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), which the writers say is the basic reason the sports supplement industry has become “a Pandora’s Box of false claims, untested products and bogus science.”
The piece brings up numerous examples of professional players being punished for using supplements spiked with banned substances, delves into the recent Hydroxycut recall and rehashes the dark days of ephedra. It also features several sports supplement retailers and product developers who reap riches from selling and concocting stimulant-filled products that can be sold “with no proof of effectiveness or safety, and without approval from the FDA.” The story goes on to talk about about how GNC salespeople are paid commission by sports supplement manufacturers to push their products on “unsuspecting customers” who “are sometimes steered to a supplement that is inappropriate for their needs.” It ends with discussion of sports supplement companies manipulating the findings from clinical research or rigging the studies altogether. Taken as a whole, the articles paints a grim portrait of a rogue sports supplement industry that the writers say Nutrition Business Journal research estimates generated nearly $20 billion in U.S. sales in 2007.
The trouble is, the writers use carefully chosen examples to tell only one side of the story—and they misleadingly cite NBJ research to create a picture of an industry that appears much larger than it actually is. In 2007, U.S. sales of sports supplement products totaled $2.5 billion, while the entire U.S. sports nutrition & weight-loss (SNWL) sector—which includes sports supplements, weight-loss pills, meal-replacement supplements, low-carb foods, nutrition bars, and sports & energy drinks—generated just under $20 billion in sales in 2007. Yes, sales of sports supplements have been growing but they still constitute a relatively small piece of the overall SNWL market—and this certainly was not made clear in the way Sports Illustrated cited our research.
Exposés such as the Sports Illustrated article are, unfortunately, not new for the dietary supplement industry, and they will continue as long as there are examples of products containing banned substances, of researching being manipulated, of false or misleading claims, or of people becoming sick after using a supplement—even if these instances do not reflect the overall nature of the supplement industry at large.
The good news is that now the supplement industry has good manufacturing practices (GMPs) and the serious adverse event reporting (SAER) system to ensure supplement product quality and demonstrate the safety of dietary supplements. We also have organizations such as the Council for Responsible Nutrition, the Natural Products Association and NSF International to ably communicate the positive, responsible side of the supplement industry and help ensure the safety and quality of supplement products. But, in this day and age, the industry is likely to need more than that if it wants to protect its reputation and current regulatory structure. To weather the current media storm, all supplement companies are going to need to help defend the industry by strictly adhering to GMPs and DSHEA, by speaking out against potentially damaging products and companies, and by only doing business with those companies whose practices and ideals they support.