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How testing and certification give sports-nutrition brands an edge.
“Natty or not?” Spend any time in that rowdy corner of the Twitterverse dedicated to sports and fitness and you’ll soon encounter this question, which speculates as to whether someone trains naturally—making them “natty”—or with pharmaceutical enhancement, making them decidedly not.
And though such speculation may appear innocent enough, in our online era merely the suggestion of steroid use can send an athlete or influencer’s reputation—to say nothing of their career—into a tailspin in less time than it takes to watch a TikTok video.
So, fitness enthusiasts of all sorts can be forgiven for treating banned performance enhancers like the plague—and for wondering if the ingredients in their favorite sports supplements are what the labels actually claim them to be.
Of course, the brands and manufacturers behind those supplements have a similar cause for concern, as the prospect of winding up entangled in a doping drama poses an existential threat to a company’s good name and its long-term viability.
Which is why product certifications are fast becoming must-haves in the sports-nutrition space, both for the sector’s consumers and for the brands that fuel them.
Having spent much of his career with one foot in the supplement industry and the other in the world of sport, Terence O’Rorke, business development manager, LGC Science Group (Heswall, England), has witnessed firsthand the sort of unfortunate incidents that keep organizations like the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA)—where he did a stint in the early 2010s—in business.
And one lesson he’s extracted from his experience is that “doping happens all the time across the world, absolutely. It’s still one of the bigger challenges for the anti-doping community and for sport itself.”
It’s a tragic one, too, given that doping not only wreaks havoc on an implicated athlete’s hopes and health, but—more often than not—happens unintentionally.
One need look no further than the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, in which the British men’s 4 × 100-meter relay team was stripped of its silver medal after one of its runners tested positive for Ostarine and S-23—both substances that WADA bans, but the runner in question claimed he consumed them via a contaminated supplement.
Best of Intentions
While that’s just one high-profile example, a 2017 review1 of the literature on banned substances in sport found that rates of contamination in sports supplements can run as high as 12%-58%.
And it’s important to distinguish—as the study’s authors do—the difference between contamination, which occurs unintentionally, and the deliberate, premeditated spiking of supplements with performance enhancers, which, alas, also occurs, but to a surprisingly lesser degree.
Indeed, observes O’Rorke, “Most brands these days want to be reputable, and where cases of contamination occur, they’re usually accidental.”
How those accidents happen should be no mystery to anyone who’s worked in supplement manufacturing, where the fight against inadvertent contamination is a daily struggle.
But militating against contamination in sports supplements is a uniquely tricky task in light of the regulations and sourcing complexities that surround the category.
Consider, for example, a substance like DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone). Though permitted for sale in the United States as a dietary supplement, it is prohibited for use in sport, explains John Travis, technical leader, NSF International Certified for Sport (Ann Arbor, MI).
“So, if a manufacturer producing DHEA as a dietary ingredient doesn’t execute meticulous cleaning procedures, it could contaminate subsequent manufacturing runs at a trace level,” says Travis. And that’s all it takes for an athlete to test positive.
Then consider the weaknesses in our global supply chain.
“COVID’s impact on ingredient supplies has illuminated an important issue: the use of unqualified ingredient vendors,” Travis points out. “Not performing the requisite vendor qualifications places brands at risk of receiving substandard or, at worst, contaminated ingredients, which also puts consumers at risk.”
Even the dynamism driving the sports-nutrition sector can introduce hazards. As O’Rorke notes, “This industry is very innovative, and brands are always looking for the next wonder ingredient.” But when those ingredients happen to be botanicals with complex chemistries of their own, they can complicate testing and detection.
A case in point is Citrus aurantium, commonly known as bitter orange, which resembles and even substitutes for the banned ephedra in some supplements. Other botanicals, O’Rorke adds, can contain natural phytosterols that convert to banned substances during manufacture or processing.
In any case, testing positive because you consumed a seemingly innocuous botanical is the very definition of injustice. Yet, maintains O’Rorke, “You’re always responsible for what you put in your body. That’s the principle underpinning the world anti-doping code.”
And that’s where safe-for-sport certifications make a difference. As Travis puts it, “The greater the claims of ‘bigger, stronger, faster,’ the more one should pause to consider if the product truly is a supplement, or something impersonating one.” Testing and, to a greater degree, certification, he says, “provide that final third-party check on a brand’s quality systems.”
In the case of NSF International’s NSF Certified for Sport protocol, screening starts at the manufacturing level, where teams audit facilities for GMP compliance. But the program’s main focus, Travis says, is the finished product, as “that’s what the athlete consumes; that’s where the risk begins.”
Thus, checks help verify that product labels match formulations; toxicological reviews further scrutinize formulations and label claims; products are tested for dangerous levels of contaminants (think heavy metals, pesticides and more); and screenings for 280 banned substances are standard and repeated over time to ensure compliance.
For its part, LGC’s Informed Sport program tests products three to four times for substances on WADA’s “prohibited list,” dialing in detection to the parts-per-billion level “because that’s how athletes are tested,” O’Rorke states. “We also look at the manufacturing behind the products, review ingredients and formulations, and ask manufacturers to submit SOPs and evidence of safety,” he adds.
The process takes time—thanks to its rigor, O’Rorke insists—but once a product achieves certification, it can bear the Informed Sport logo on labels and marketing materials and gets a spot in Informed Sport’s online library of roughly 1,300 certified products, allowing athletes to cross-reference their own purchase’s batch number with batches that LGC has approved.
With such programs on offer, O’Rorke sees no reason why brands and manufacturers wouldn’t pursue certification.
Yet in his time in the business, many have felt they don’t need certification. “I’ve worked with many who say, ‘Look, we’ve got great processes in place, a fantastic facility—there’s no chance our products will be contaminated,’” O’Rorke explains. “And they could be right. But at the end of the day, unless you test, you never know. You can never be too sure.”
That’s especially true as the sector, and the ingredients available to it, evolve. “Fifteen years ago, when an athlete became embroiled in an anti-doping scandal, the first thing they implicated was a dietary supplement,” Travis says, “But with certification, athletes now know they can choose from many certified products. So those who wish to be clean have that option; those who don’t no longer have that excuse.”