Doped Dietary Supplements, The Olympics and A Century

August 15, 2008 at 7:42 pm (Supplements) (, , )

OK: the century reference just means I’ve now written one hundred blog posts, of which about five are worth reading. The Olympic reference relates to the fact that a study has been released around the time of the beginning of the Olympics (for maximum publicity, I would have thought) and the doped dietary supplements bit is the meat of the story I’m looking at. A study conducted by drugs testing lab HFL and sponsored by Lucozade has found that “10.5% of supplements contain banned substances”. This sounds quite scary (exactly which ‘banned substances’ are we talking about here?) and the story is not without precedent, as anyone who remembers the ‘natural’ cholesterol-lowering products contaminated with statins will be able to confirm. The funny thing is, we have a minor ‘scare story’, but we do not yet have newspaper headlines or any other media news reportage of this story (with one exception*). Which is unusual, but possibly explicable: the newspapers regularly write puff pieces on dietary supplements and may not want to appear inconsistent for the sake of what is, on the face of it, a relatively minor story.

From what I can gather**, the supplements are mostly of the ‘sporty’ type (supposed muscle building supplements and ‘energy’ products) and the retailers were found on the internet as well as on the high street. This was bound to skew the results slightly – 10.5% of body building protein powders containing e.g., steroids would not be a huge surprise to me (if any supplement is likely to contain steroids or hormones it is surely a ‘sports’, or ‘performance’ supplement). What would surprise me is if 10.5% of all dietary supplements were found to be contaminated with banned substances (notwithstanding the seemingly regular introduction of pharmaceutical substances to supposedly herbal medicines – but as far as I know, these herbal medicines are being properly regulated by the MHRA, which is why we’ve heard about enforcement in that area previously. If it wasn’t being monitored we wouldn’t know about those incidents). It seems to me that the study was designed to cherry-pick both the likeliest supplements to be contaminated and the manufacturers/retailers likeliest to be guilty of contaminating their products. If, as a competetive athlete, you buy pills over the internet rather than from a company that maintains high standards (e.g., through use of Good Manufacturing Practice), then you are perhaps guilty of naivety. This sounds a bit harsh, but given that the World Anti Doping Authority classes doping as a strict liability offence it really is up to the athletes to think critically about what they put into their bodies and where they source the substances they ingest. The thing is, pharmaceutical companies have to work to Good Manufacturing Practice in order to be approved by the MHRA whereas any joker can set up a dietary supplement firm. This is where regulation might come in handy.

Regulation may be seen sometimes as a means to an end and many making a living from Alternative Medicine may be tempted to use a toothless regulator to make their brand of AltMed seem more respectable and/or reliable. This is an issue for things like chiropractic or homeopathy, where regulation can be seen as conferring unwonted respectability. Vitamin pills do work – i.e., they prevent deficiency diseases. One thing to remember though, is that RDAs are set deliberately high [see my comment on HolfordWatch for a bit more more on how RDAs are set] and this means that most people will not require supplements provided they eat a vaguely healthy varied diet. Given that vitamin pills are effective, albeit in a very limited way and in no way are they the ‘magic bullets’ that some nutritionists seem to think they are, and given that they are legally being mass-produced – isn’t it sensible to have some kind of quality standard, perhaps even proper, independent regulation of this standard?

If you want to prevent contamination of supplements, whether accidental or deliberate, then there is already a model that can be followed – GMP. The Food Standards Agency is responsible for ensuring the quality of all foods in the UK, including dietary supplements. If companies were registered with the FSA as working to GMP then the FSA could ‘police’ this and perhaps this would prevent such a degree of contamination as was seen in the HFL study. Firms could even be allowed to use an FSA-controlled GMP logo on their products and lose the right to use the logo if they were found not to be in compliance with the standards set by the FSA.

Of course, contamination is not the only issue – apart from assurance that no banned or inappropriate ingredients are present how do you know that the active ingredients are present in the amounts claimed on the label? There is, at present, too much scope for products to go on the market that do not do exactly what it says on the tin (or, worse, may be potentially dangerous). I’m not criticising the FSA here, they do a good job as far as it goes and I know they do test samples of supplements and other foodstuffs – in particular they have done ‘surveillance’ on mercury content and PAH [polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon] content of foods and supplements and I believe there was similar investigation of PCBs [polychlorinated biphenyls] in food. This surveillance helps with regards food safety, but I believe it would be still better if there were some scheme that enabled the public to know which firms worked to GMP, and perhaps that enabled the public also to find out whether these firms were audited for compliance by an independent auditor. I certainly think it’s worthy of discussion. IFST [the Institute for Food, Science and Technology] has published a guide to GMP for food and drink and their webpage refers to certain standards. “…important new developments in the food industry such as the BRC Global Standard for Food, the Global Food Safety Initiative, and the introduction of ISO 22000:2005 Food Safety Management Systems” – IFST

*Telegraph story, T’internet article.

**Via UK Sport: “A range of supplement products commonly used by male and female athletes was randomly selected and purchased from internet-based supplement outlets, as well as specialist stores/gyms and general stores. The products selected were not believed to undergo regular banned substance testing as part of the manufacturer’s quality control processes” [I’d need to contact HFL if I wanted more, but I don’t think you’ll find it that interesting judging by the number of comments this piece attracted]



  1. Acleron said,

    ‘The independent research shows that out of 152 products tested, 10.5 per cent contained enough illegal substances to trigger a positive drug test. ‘

    That first sentence of the Telegraph report worries my skeptical and cynical soul.

    First it is hardly independent when it is funded by the manufacturer of sport drinks.

    Second problem is with the phrase ‘trigger a positive drug test’. Does this mean that if ingested according to the instructions a subsequent blood/urine test would be positive? Or does it mean that when directly tested, and in the case of solids, made up to any desired concentration, it gives a positive result?

    If you change your mind and contact HFL, you might ask if they are going to release their methodology and data.

  2. jdc325 said,

    Cheers for your comment and suggestions Acleron!

    I’ve sent an email to HFL asking your questions and stuck a few of my own in there. I asked about how they selected retailers and products and whether they came up with the blanket statement “1 in 10 dietary supplements contain banned substances” or whether the Telegraph and that internet news page independently decided to use roughly the same headline.

    I’ll post here if they come back with anything. Thanks again, jdc.

  3. jdc325 said,


    HFL have replied to my email and offered to call me next week to discuss.

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