The recent supplement furor involving football players being injected with a banned substance has brought all supplements in to question. While it is unlikely that the general public would be subjected to any injectable supplements without medical involvement; you need to be informed on what you are taking.
A supplement is defined as ‘something that completes or enhances something else when added to it’. This could take the form of a vitamin such as vitamin C, a mineral such as iron, a liquid such as a sports drink, a powder such as a protein powder, a gel such as a carbohydrate gel or many guises in between.
The general public often naively believe that supplements are safe, particularly if they can be freely purchased in a supermarket or health food store. However there are many documented cases of ill health from seemingly innocuous substances. So how do you know what is safe and legal first and foremost, but secondly, actually effective?
A great place to start is the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) website Nutrition page under Supplements. The AIS has spent countless hours researching and reviewing the literature for their Supplement Program, which divides supplements in to four classifications.
Group A Supplements are those that are supported for use in specific situations in sport. These are provided to AIS athletes for evidence-based uses. Examples of supplements in this category are sports drinks and gels, whey protein, multivitamins, caffeine and creatine.
Group B supplements are those supplements which are deserving of further research. They are considered for provision to AIS athletes under a research protocol. These include supplements such as B-alanine, beetroot juice, fish oils and vitamins C & E when used as an antioxidant.
Group C supplements have no meaningful proof of beneficial effects. These are not provided to AIS athletes. Examples of supplements in this category are Glucosamine, Ginseng and Coenzyme Q10.
Group D are supplements are banned by the World Anti- Doping Agency (WADA) or deemed to be at high risk of contamination. These include pro-hormones such as steroids and pharmaceutical or herbal stimulants.
The WADA website is a practical website to navigate with information on safe and legal supplements as well as listings of illegal substances. There is also a search function to search for specific supplement ingredients.
So do athletes have any excuse if they are caught taking a banned substance? There certainly are many avenues the athlete can explore to determine whether the supplement is safe and legal however inadvertent doping can occur where supplements are purchased overseas or online. Australia has very strict regulations on what is available for sale but overseas products can by-pass these strict controls. This does not mean that Australian made products are immune to contamination but you can be assured that products are regularly tested and recalled if it does occur. The responsibility, however always lies with the consumer of the product if a doping offence is recorded.
Special caution should be given to those under 18 years who are not recommended to take supplements by leading Paediatrics agencies, doctors and health professionals. Some substances in the group A category would be deemed safe in this population such as sports drinks and bars, sports gels and liquid meal supplements. Other group A supplements such as caffeine, creatine and bicarb however are not recommended in under 18’s. Vitamins and minerals should also only be taken under medical recommendation in this age group.
To find out more information on the supplements you are taking and their effectiveness, the AIS supplement website has fact sheets on supplements to help educate on the use and misuse of potentially performance enhancing substances. You can also ask your Eat Smart Dietitian or Doctor for their opinion in your individual circumstances.