How safe are your supps?

Terence O’Rorke is business development director for sport analytical services at international science group LGC and manages the supplements testing programmes Informed-Sport.

In January 2015 January Welsh sprinters Gareth Warburton and Rhys Williams were suspended from competition for six and four months respectively by UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) after testing positive for banned substances following an out of competition test in June 2014. Both athletes’ defence was that they had inadvertently taken the substances, banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), through the consumption of contaminated sports nutrition products.

After the ruling UKAD director of legal Graham Arthur said: ‘These cases send a powerful reminder to athletes that there is no guarantee that any supplement product is free from banned substances. Athletes are strongly advised to be very cautious if they choose to use any supplement product and must undertake thorough research of any products before use.’

Arthur was right that athletes should take all necessary precautions that the sports nutrition products they take are free of any banned substances, and there are steps that athletes can follow to make sure their supplements are as clean as possible.

Sports doping control laboratory LGC has more than 50 years of expertise in anti-doping. It tests more than 10,000 samples a year and currently has more than 170 products from across the world registered on its Informed-Sport supplement testing programme. LGC uses an anti-doping screen that can identify in excess of 160 prohibited substances, including anabolic agents, stimulants and masking agents.

IronLife caught up with LGC’s business development director, Terence O’Rorke, to find out exactly how safe your supplements are.

How does a sports nutrition company get a product approved as drug-free?
The first step is for the company to complete a through audit called the Product Assessment Questionnaire that details all the ingredients used in the product, where they are sourced from, where the product is manufactured and packaged, and all the standard operating procedures employed from the start of the production process. Companies source individual ingredients from many different suppliers from many different countries so it’s vital we have all this information to begin the approval process.

Whilst they fill in this questionnaire we test five samples of the product: three samples from one batch, and two samples from two subsequent batches. We test for banned substances at a detection level of parts per billion. What that effectively means is that if you added a teaspoon of a contaminant to an Olympic-sized swimming pool we’d spot it. Once we have tested all five samples, evaluated the questionnaire and are happy with production process, the product is ready to be included in our Informed-Sport certification programme. This shows that the product has been rigorously assessed and undergoes ongoing testing for banned substances.

How do consumers know which products are approved?
Once we’ve approved the product the manufacturer can use the Informed-Sport logo on labelling and in its marketing. We also list the product on the Informed-Sport website so that coaches, athletes and consumers know that this particular product has been assessed and every batch is tested for banned substances.

We need to test every single batch of that product that is subsequently made. This means that we can then list the approved batch number on our site, so that it’s possible to look at the batch number on the actual product in your hands, then go to our site and cross-reference it for 100% confidence that the product you are using has been tested. In addition, we also conduct blind testing on all registered products by going out and buying them and testing them.

How common is contamination of a product with a banned substance?
It is impossible to say, but any contamination is too common. According to UK Anti-Doping, 44% of its positive tests in 2012 were the result of athletes taking contaminated sports nutrition products. Research has shown that 10% of supplements that are not tested could be contaminated with low levels of steroids, stimulants and other banned performance-enhancing substances.

The contamination may be present at a very low concentration but at a level sufficient to generate a positive drugs test in elite sport. Manufacturers are not trying to pull the wool over our eyes. They have paid to register products on Informed-Sport because they want to give their consumers  want consumers to have confidence in it. It’s a huge challenge for the sports nutrition industry today because competition is tougher than ever and companies want to keep their costs down and margins high. It must be tempting to source the cheapest ingredients possible, which often come from countries outside of Western Europe with less stringent quality control measures in place or in facilities where the risk of cross-contamination is high.

What are the main causes of contamination?
There are two main causes, both of which are inadvertent. The first is the use of raw botanical ingredients. These are used in increasing frequency by the industry and sometimes they can contain substances banned by WADA without the manufacturer’s knowledge. The second is cross-contamination in facilities producing multiple products, especially those where sports nutrition supplements are made alongside pharmaceuticals.

Adulteration of products with banned substances also happens. We never deal with these companies, but we know there is a market for these products. We have heard that sales can increase when they are mentioned in the press because people think that by taking them they can gain an added edge.

What’s your advice to someone worried about taking a banned substance?
It’s essential to look for the Informed-Sport logo on the label, but also to check and cross-reference the exact product and the exact batch number of the product against the list of approved products and approved batches. Also, some substances are banned in the UK and Europe, but not elsewhere in the world. Dehydroepiandrosterone or DHEA, which is an endogenous steroid hormone, is a prime example.

It’s legal in the US but not in the UK. Athletes need to make sure they are not using a product that contains such banned substances. The Informed-Sport registration applies only to individual products, not an entire brand’s range, so consumers need to be aware that some products have been tested and registered whilst others might not. Brands are under no obligation to test all their products, only the ones they submit for approval. But the message is a simple one: always check the product you are using carries the Informed-Sport logo.