The sporting world is filled with pills, powders, bars and drinks that promise to improve athletic performance. But who is monitoring these claims? In a sense athletes are an easy target because they are willing to ‘try anything’ to win. Which is why all of these supplements make generic claims of ‘better’ recovery, ‘enhanced’ immune system function and increased’ strength.
Most people assume that government laws would prevent supplement companies from making outrageous or untrue claims about their products. In other words, they believe that if a company makes a claim, particularly in writing, it must be correct. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
In Australia, sport supplements, including protein powders fall under the control of the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). The TGA is Australia’s regulatory agency for medical drugs and devices. For new medical drugs, the TGA sets significantly higher regulatory standards than other developed nations, including the US. However sports supplements are not held to the same high standards. Most supplements within the ‘listable’ items category, the most lightly regulated category of the TGA, and are required only to provide proof that they don’t contain ingredients that are banned by our custom laws. The TGA has no requirement that a product must have proof of its benefits to be accepted at this level.
While regulations do exist to avoid manufacturers from making misleading or deceptive claims about their products, it is almost impossible for the TGA to keep up with the flow of research articles and advertisements. The result is that most supplement manufacturers claims and messages, are not regulated at all.
That is not to say that all supplements are a waste of money… There is significant scientific evidence in support of certain supplements. However the difficulty is in trying to separate the good supplements from the bad – or the right supplements for you from the wrong.
The Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) Sports Supplement Program, classifies supplements into four groups according to their effectiveness and safety. Unfortunately the full list of supplements is not publicly available. However the classifications do give you a sense for the varying quality of supplements on the market.
Supplements are supported for use in specific situations in sport and provided to AIS athletes for evidence-based uses.
These sports foods and supplements:
- provide a useful and timely source of energy or nutrients in the athlete’s diet.
- have been shown in scientific trials to benefit performance, when used according to a specific protocol in a specific situation in sport.
Supplements are deserving of further research and considered for provision to AIS athletes only under a research protocol or clinical monitoring activity.
These sports foods and supplements:
- have received some scientific attention, sometimes in populations other than athletes, or have preliminary data which suggest possible benefits to performance.
- are of particular interest to athletes and coaches.
Supplements have little proof of beneficial effects and are not provided to AIS athletes.
This category includes the majority of supplements and sports products promoted to athletes. These supplements, despite enjoying a cyclical pattern of popularity and widespread use, have not been proven to provide a worthwhile enhancement of sports performance.
Although we can’t categorically state that they don’t “work”, current scientific evidence shows that either the likelihood of benefits is very small or that any benefits that occur are too small to be useful. In fact, in some cases, these supplements have been shown to impair sports performance, with a clear mechanism to explain these results. We have named many of the products that belong in this category, but others that have not been named in our supplement system more than likely belong here.
Supplements should not be used by AIS athletes.
These supplements are banned or are at high risk of being contaminated with substances that could lead to a positive drug test.
Summary: supplements are marketed with very little control over the claims and messages they provide, and many companies appear to take full advantage of this.
To avoid wasting your money, time and interest, we recommend consulting an independent sports nutritionist.
Cameron is the Director of Pro Training Programs