The summer racing season has nearly wrapped up, and the endurance sport community was likely pleased that no significant drug scandals broke this year. History has shown that most doping violations in sport have been deliberate attempts at performance enhancement. However, the possibility of inadvertent doping through contaminated supplements has also been shown to exist and all athletes, from weekend warriors to elites, should keep up to date on issues surrounding what they eat and what the food industry is doing to protect athletes.
In 2008, I wrote about dietary supplement testing programs. It is now five years later and fortunately banned substance testing has evolved. Significantly more supplements are tested, either on a lot-by-lot or random basis, and the scope of substances tested for has grown considerably as analytical techniques continue to improve. Yet, problems remain that leave unsuspecting athletes open to inadvertent positive drug tests due to inadvertent contamination. There's no standard international testing protocols and no oversight of testing facilities. A recently-released June 2013 study indicated that 10% of popular European nutrition products tested positive for banned substances.
Substances banned by WADA (see 2013 WADA prohibited list) can be present in dietary supplements from a variety of sources. Inadvertent doping can occur through ingestion of contaminated sports supplements. Raw materials have been observed with contamination from the source, and imported raw materials may be more susceptible to contamination. As well, during the manufacturing process, cleaning processes and cross contamination are possible sources. Many reputable companies now undertake extensive testing of their products to ensure they are not contaminated.
One group, HFL Sport Science, continues to operate the Informed-Choice program (in the USA) and Informed-Sport program (Europe). HFL has been working with companies since 2002 and now test for over 220 companies in 20 countries with over 40,000 tested supplement samples since 2002.
• 2007: HFL study involved analysis of 58 supplements (purchased via stores/internet in USA): 25% contaminated with prohibited steroids; 11% contaminated with prohibited stimulants
• 2008: HFL study involved analysis of 152 supplements (purchased via stores/internet in UK): 10.5% contaminated with steroids and/or stimulants
Both these surveys focused on products that did not undergo regular banned substance testing.
HFL Sport Science 2013 European Supplement Contamination Survey
HFL conducted a recent study involving 24 top brands selected from 12 European countries. 114 products were purchased (via internet and stores) and tested for prohibited substances via the standard HFL product screen. Products were randomly chosen allowing for a variety of formulations such energy products, protein shakes, and others consisting of tablets, gels, powders and liquids. No products currently registered in the Informed-Sport program were included. The testing was carried out to the HFL/Informed-Sport.com ISO17025 accredited, supplement testing, standard.
The results that were found provided evidence that there is still a serious issue within the
European supplement industry. From the 114 products tested, 11 (10%) were
contaminated with banned substances, either steroids or stimulants or in some instances both (with a total of 20 banned substance findings overall). Capsules (55%) and tablets (37%) were the matrices with the highest incidence of contamination. Some of the brands included in the survey made claims about products being “tested by an independent laboratory” or that they were “doping free.” Some of these products were actually found to contain banned substances.
2013 Study Conclusion
Contamination with banned substances remains a significant issue within the European supplement industry. One-in-ten odds when buying a supplement that it will contain banned substances...would you play those odds? Marketing claims can be misleading and can cause confusion amongst athletes who are looking to select a sport supplement product where the risks of it causing an inadvertent doping failure are minimal. A credible supplement testing and certification program (such as Informed-Sport), conducted by an experienced anti-doping laboratory, can help to provide this risk minimization and thus assist athletes in their product selection. It is worthwhile to note that no certification program can offer 100% guarantee that products will not contain any banned substance. Also, since the WADA list is open-ended (to allow for yet-unidentified doping agents), one cannot test for every banned substance. However, regularly tested products, made by reputable companies, are considerably safer compared to non-tested products, provided the testing program is fit-for-purpose.
Need for Worldwide Standards in Testing
Due to the variability of testing laboratories and the current lack of any international standards, a draft protocol is currently being developed in recognition of the development of a range of programs across the world. This diversity currently offers varying degrees of quality assurance for the presence of banned substance contamination in sport supplements that may lead to a positive doping test for elite athletes.
An international consortium of laboratories would be created, and the proposal is to generate a minimum set of essential elements for supplement contamination. Risk minimization programs would be recognized across the consortium, thereby aiding the athletic community in their search for supplements that have the smallest possible chance of being contaminated with doping substances.
The proposed guidelines include provisions on what should be done if a laboratory identifies a positive finding for a product, as well as a suggested minimum list of analytes and detection limits.
As this is an ongoing discussion and evolution of the dietary supplement industry and voluntary testing, it will be interesting to see where these discussions take the doping issue and if subsequent survey results will indicate improved compliance with doping-free labeling. This is an issue that should concern all athletes, not just tested pros, since everybody should be concerned with substances that may be present in supplements without being declared on the product label. Not only is it illegal, but there could be unintended health consequences.
Jonathan Toker is a Canadian elite-level runner and triathlete. He received a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from The Scripps Research Institute in 2001, and raced in the professional ranks as a triathlete and runner for 5 years. Dr. Toker worked as a scientist in the biotech industry for 5 years prior to launching his unique SaltStick Electrolyte Capsule and Dispenser lineup.