Athletes & Dietary Supplements: Where’s the Regulation?

It’s no question that steroid use and doping is a major problem in professional and college sports. In the 2018 preseason the NFL had 14 performance enhancing drugs (PED) related suspensions. The MLB had four such suspensions the most prominent being 8x MLB All-Star Robinson Cano. However, none of these are regulated by the FDA.  Diet and fitness supplements are the “Wild West” and is an industry in desperate need of FDA regulation.

There are hundreds of diet and fitness supplements that contain very trace amounts of substances that are banned by most major professional sports organizations as well as the NCAA, many of which are widely used by athletes. This begs the question, do these organizations need to lighten up when it comes to testing, or does the FDA have to step in and make sure these supplements are regulated?

The Case of Nate Schmidt

One of the suspensions that caught a lot of attention in the media this past summer was Vegas Golden Nights defenseman Nate Schmidt.  Schmidt was suspended 20 games by the NHL after a trace amount of a banned substance was found during preseason drug testing. After the ruling, Schmidt released a strongly worded statement stating his innocence and the absurdity of his test results.  After expert analysis there was 7 billionths of a milligram of a banned substance found in Schmidt’s sample, which was described as “a pinch of salt in an Olympic swimming pool.” Schmidt said later in his statement that the substance wasn’t taken intentionally and was found in a supplement given to him by the team.

Consumers at Risk

Professional athletes are not the only ones negatively affected. In the United States, over 170 million adults take some form of dietary or fitness supplement. Those same supplements send about 23,000 people to the emergency room every year. Many of these supplements contain substances that have very negative effects on the body. These products should be transparent about what they are selling to both consumers and professional athletes.

Between 2009 and 2012 a total of 274 supplements were recalled because they contained drugs banned by many professional sports leagues. A 2014 report found that more than two-thirds of the supplements purchased six months after being recalled STILL contained banned drugs. In 2017 the FDA recalled several supplements after they were found to contain unapproved new drugs, and two contained anabolic steroids not listed on the label. In 2011, a US Army private died after taking the performance enhancing substance “Jack3d”. He was 22 years old.

Where are the Regulations?

If we can’t trust supplement companies to provide accurate information about what is in their products, how can we be sure what we are ingesting is safe? In 1994, Congress passed a controversial law called the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act. Before DSHEA passed, the FDA was starting to regulate supplements more strictly, similar to pharma.  In 2006, Congress passed The Dietary Supplement and Nonprescription Drug Consumer Protection Act, commonly referred to as the “adverse event reporting law.” But, waiting for something to go wrong before FDA intervention, just isn’t enough.

Other Industries

Sadly, diet and fitness supplements aren’t the only industries that are loosely “regulated.”  Cosmetics are an infamous industry guilty of dancing around the rules the FDA has in place.  In 2016 the women’s hair-care company WEN, received 21,000 complaints directly, and 1,400 reports to the FDA.  Unfortunately, the FDA has no authority to recall the product unless the manufacturer voluntarily agrees to do so.  And according to a study conducted at jamanetwork.com, more than 40% of all hair care adverse events were considered serious.

According to an article from fortune.com, the cosmetic industry, like fitness supplements, are grossly under-regulated, and can be causing consumers harm.  In the article, it shows that although the FDA does have some labeling requirements, companies easily get around these rules stating that releasing their ingredients would be “giving away trade secrets.”  Furthermore, manufacturers also aren’t required to report any customer complaints to the FDA.  The agency has to rely on direct consumer reports to identify any potentially dangerous products.

 What You Can Do

The good thing is, you don’t need to trust the dietary supplement companies to know what you ingest is safe. Supplement Owl can be used for self-education.  You can also report all adverse events directly to the FDA itself, eliminating the worry of your complaints to the company falling on deaf ears.  It should be standard practice for sports teams to review all supplements provided to their athletes to avoid PEDs, keep their athletes playing, and keep them safe.

Encourage Company Testing

Supplements and foods can be tested through the Banned Substances Control Group and become a BSCG Certified Drug Free® product. This independent program conducts non-biased testing on dietary supplements, natural products and functional food/drink. Companies like Arbonne, Nugevity, Oxyfresh and Nerium have already taken the plunge on their own accord and have all or most of their products officially certified. And yet, so many companies still haven’t jumped on the band-wagon. Which is something I just can’t wrap my head around. If a sports team has your product tested and discovers ANY level of a banned substance, they will no longer purchase your product. These companies’ lack of ethics is actually losing them money.  And furthermore, where is the FDA to enforce this internal testing?

Re-thinking the Rules

With athletes like Schmidt and so many others serving suspensions for unintentionally ingesting microscopic levels of banned substances, it may be time to re-think the rules. If the amount of these banned substances is so microscopic in certain supplements, maybe the level of a banned substance warranting a suspension should be reduced.  How many unfair suspensions, injuries, illnesses and deaths do we have to with stand before these companies have their products certified? When will the FDA step in and regulate the industry as strictly as the pharmaceutical industry?

Kieran Stack