Clean Label on the Rise in Sports Nutrition Supplements

April 9, 2018

At the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, gold medalists from the Russian Federation didn’t wrap themselves in the Russian flag—literally or figuratively—as they stood on the podium, nor did they tear up to the stirring strains of the Russian national anthem. Instead, they received their medals under the neutral banner of the Olympic flag as the somewhat uninspiring Olympic anthem played in the background.

That’s because once again, Russian competitors found themselves behind the doping eight-ball when the International Olympic Committee banned all but those individuals who could demonstrate their “cleanliness” from competing in the latest games. And while the stakes aren’t nearly as high for the average weekend warrior—assuming that a friendly game of tennis even has stakes—the lesson remains the same: play clean or go home.

But what does clean even mean to the recreational athlete—or to the lifestyle consumer who just takes selfies at the gym? For them, the concern may be less about performance-enhancing steroids than “natural” flavors, vegan coatings, and ingredients you don’t need a team nutritionist to recognize. Either way, as consumers grow more adamant about labeling and transparency in general, it’s worth exploring why keeping the sports-supplement arena clean matters.


Supplements Not Immune

Whether you’re a sponsored pro or simply a spectator, there’s no denying: Even the low-stakes realm of sports-nutrition supplements has suffered its own sort of “doping” scandals. But the issue hasn’t just been the presence of unapproved ingredients; safety issues have emerged, too.

Citing his organization’s and others’ research, Brian Jordan, technical manager of NSF International’s (Ann Arbor, MI) Certified for Sport program, states, “We know that some sports supplements contain mislabeled ingredients, potentially harmful compounds, and synthetic stimulants—many of which are illegal dietary ingredients and are banned in sport.”

Researchers have identified as the highest-risk supplements those in the pre-workout, muscle building, weight loss, and sexual enhancement categories. “That definitely includes many products considered ‘sports nutrition,’” Jordan says. “And this is more than just a problem for athletes concerned about inadvertent doping; some of these stimulants are known to cause harmful side effects like cardiovascular and neurological problems. And again: they are not legal dietary ingredients.”

He traces their emergence to the banning of ephedrine in 2004—after which “some manufacturers have been searching for another ingredient that will provide that same stimulant kick.” That’s why many unapproved and potentially dangerous copycat stimulants have turned up in supplements, including DEPEA (N,alpha-diethylphenylethylamine, a close chemical analog of methamphetamine), DMAA (1,3-dimethylamylamine, a stimulant that when combined with ingredients like caffeine can pose health risks), DMBA (1,3-dimethylbutylamine, chemically similar to DMAA), and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA)-prohibited stimulant oxilofrine.

Recently, NSF and Harvard Medical School scientists published research1 in the journal Clinical Toxicology showing that six pre-workout and weight-loss products that claimed to contain Aconitum kusnezoffii actually contained unapproved DMAA-like stimulants. So it should come as no surprise that “we’ve seen a big increase in the number of athletes and consumers who are aware of the risks related to untested and uncertified sports nutrition products,” Jordan says.



Indeed, the Natural Marketing Institute’s 2018 Supplements/OTC/Rx Database (SORD) survey found that a majority of consumers—53%, to be exact—expressed concern about tainted or illegal ingredients in supplements. It’s these consumers, Jordan says, who “want quality products through verification of sport supplement contents.”

In other words, they want certification. “It’s all about trust,” he insists. “There are a lot of products out there making a lot of incredible claims. But how do you trust those claims without any sort of independent verification? I personally won’t take any supplement unless it’s independently tested and certified.”

Among the labs and organizations providing such testing and certifications are France’s SPORT Protect, UK-based HFL, Informed-Sport and Labdoor, and, of course, Jordan’s own organization, NSF International.

How does NSF do it? It starts by certifying that any product coming under its purview adheres to the requirements outlined in NSF/ANSI 173—the American National Standard for dietary supplements, which stipulates, among other things, that products be made in a facility inspected twice annually to comply with GMPs. Then NSF verifies label claims and ensures that no harmful levels of specific contaminants or fraudulent ingredients are present. After that, ongoing auditing and testing confirm continued compliance. To date, Jordan says, “more than 1,000 supplement products and ingredients are certified to the NSF/ANSI 173 dietary supplement standard.”

And for sports nutrition, NSF subjects products to the assessments outlined above while also testing on a lot-by-lot basis for more than 270 athletic banned substances. Passing this test earns a product NSF’s Certified for Sport imprimatur, which Jordan says carries real weight with elite and pro athletes, as well as those who train, feed, and care for them.

“Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, and Canadian Football League clubs and coaches are only allowed to give players supplements that are Certified for Sport,” he notes. The NFL, PGA, LPGA, CCES, CPSDA, and Taylor Hooton Foundation also recommend the certification. “Many pro athletes and even consumers are using our new Certified for Sport app” to find supplements that pass the test, he adds. “We always encourage athletes and consumers to take only supplements that are independently tested and certified. That’s the only way to know what’s really in the products.”


  1. Cohen PA et al., “Four experimental stimulants found in sports and weight loss supplements: 2-amino-6-methylheptane (octodrine), 1,4-dimethylamylamine (1,4-DMAA), 1,3-dimethylamylamine (1,3-DMAA) and 1,3-dimethylbutylamine (1,3-DMBA),” Clinical Toxicology. Published online November 8, 2017.