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Sports nutrition consist of products designed for and used by athletes, exercisers and sportsmen to improve their nutritional intake and/or some aspect of health, wellbeing, performance, muscle growth and/or recovery from exercise. The vast majority of sports nutrition products are formulated with natural ingredients, ranging from milk or egg proteins and fibres, sugars or vegetable starches to vitamins, minerals and more unique ingredients such as non-essential nutrients and herbs.
Disturbingly, when members of the public think of sports nutrition products, they often conflate them or their effects with performance-enhancing drugs. As will be elucidated, it has been the fringe, “black market” products (mostly from the United States) that have nefariously found their way into European shops and internet sites that have been responsible for the media reports, which have given rise to this unfair impression. In fact, “hormonal” (steroid-like) products and strong stimulant products have been banned for several years in most European countries. Even simply stating or implying that a product increases testosterone or some other hormone (whether it does so or not) will cause that product to be deemed “medicinal” and not allowable for sale as a “food supplement”. So in fact, clear legislation has long been in place to protect consumers from any potentially dangerous ingredients or misleading claims and it is actually ‘black market’ products that are virtually always the source of controversy.
The modern sports nutrition product market is generally agreed to have been established in 1940, with the advent of Weider Nutrition. Initially this was a result of the demand, primarily by bodybuilders and strength athletes, for more convenient, nutrient dense and high-quality sources of nutrition that would help satisfy their additional requirements. However, as early as the 1930‘s, scientists began to realise that exercise performance could be improved by increased carbohydrate intake and so the first scientifically-inspired sports supplements were composed of sweets, starches and sugary drinks.
However, it is interesting to note that sports nutrition is a much older phenomenon than this. As far back as the Ancient Olympics of 500BC, athletes had recognised their enhanced requirement for nutrients by eating massive quantities of meat, bread, dried fruits and honey, along with various fungi and herbs in an attempt to support athletic performance.
Sports nutrition products are regularly cited in the media as a reason for athletes failing doping tests, sometimes because the athlete or coach responsible has specifically named the product involved. Occasionally this is reasonable, but often this is an unfair and out-of-date characterisation of a responsible, mainstream sector of the food and nutrition industry.
Virtually all performance-enhancing substances on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of banned substances are also banned from sports nutrition products sold in the EU. Furthermore, many sports nutrition companies take great steps to minimise the risk of processing, producing or selling a contaminated or adulterated product.
Although this risk can never be eliminated entirely, many companies choose to add a layer of assurance by having their products tested through world-leading testing programmes such as Informed-Sport/Informed-Choice, NZVT or Certified for Sport. Of those companies that do not choose to test their products, the vast majority take their responsibilities seriously: they are committed to having a full understanding of the provenance of the materials that go into a safely manufactured, accurately labelled final product.
Significant progress has been made by the sports nutrition industry to raise the overall levels of quality assurance in the last decade, but for a variety of reasons the risk of contamination leading to a failed doping test still exists. For this reason the industry must continue to be vigilant around this issue.
In the sports nutrition industry the majority of companies manufacture their products to internationally-recognised quality control standards. Typically, companies will manufacture to an ‘ISO9001’ standard which entails a rigorous audit and full traceability of all procedures. Under this remit, all suppliers must also be ISO registered. Records are kept (and retained) of every batch of raw material that is received, including when it was made, who opened each container, who packed it, etc. and each raw ingredient supplier must ensure that there is a chain of custody from the time the material is received to the time it is delivered. At the receiving facility, it is then tested again before production begins.
Many companies go a step further and have some or all of their finished products tested even for minute traces of banned substances (substances which can also be found in some foods) by an independent testing facility, so that professional athletes can be confident that they are not risking their careers by using sports supplements.
Powdered foods, protein and energy bars, and drinks make up the vast majority of total sales of sports nutrition supplements. Typical products contain some form of milk, egg, beef, gelatin or soy protein and/or some form of simple sugar or starch derived from corn, wheat or oats. Beyond these ingredients they may include micronutrients like vitamins and minerals and some may also contain amino acids, creatine and occasionally, certain herbs.
These make up the biggest-selling category of sports nutrition products. The best-known examples, such as Lucozade, Powerade and Gatorade, simply contain water, sugar, starch, minerals, colours and sweeteners. Similar products are sold in powdered form to be rehydrated with water. No ingredients that are unique to sports nutrition are typically found in carbohydrate drinks.
The vast majority of protein products are sold as powders to be mixed with water or milk. Most of them contain as their principal ingredient, milk protein (whey protein and/or casein) but egg and soy proteins are also fairly common. These products are designed to be a convenient source of high-quality protein to meet the well-established increased needs of athletes and individuals who participate in heavy exercise.
Amino acids are simply the building blocks that make up proteins. Bound together in small numbers, they are known as peptides and in large numbers, they are known as proteins.
Eight of these amino acids are essential to sustain life and studies have established that these eight are almost exclusively responsible for protein’s ability to stimulate muscle growth and repair and some have a more potent effect in this regard than others. This makes them obvious candidates to be used in sports nutrition products for recovery, repair and growth in hard-training sportsmen.
Creatine is an amino acid-like molecule, which is found in several common foods and is produced by the body. It was first discovered over 100 years ago and scientific studies starting in the early 1990’s found that by consuming this nutrient, high-intensity muscle contractions could be repeated for a greater duration. It was also found to rapidly cause increases in lean body mass in most users. Dozens of subsequent scientific studies have confirmed these effects. This lead to marketing of creatine products to gym goers, who quickly realised its benefits and it soon became a very popular sports nutrition supplement.
Micronutrients can be found in multivitamin/mineral supplements and various sports nutrition products in a range of dosages that are generally similar to that found in mainstream nutritional supplements and fortified foods.
Weight and fat loss products are used by active and non-active people alike. However, because many active people exercise to improve their appearance, shed body fat and improve muscle tone, these types of products are particularly attractive to sports nutrition users.
In the past, several so-called “fat burner” products have made unsubstantiated claims and some products appeared on the market which contained banned stimulants. Since then, this category has been highly scrutinised by the regulatory authorities in most EU countries. Currently, EU countries don’t allow the use of the word “fat burner” or allow any implication that these products cause weight loss unless they contain specific amounts of specific ingredients that have been approved to use a specific claim. Many countries also insist that the label state that these products should only be used in combination with a sensible diet and exercise program. Currently, the Nutrition and Health Claims Regulations dictate that only low-calorie meal replacements and a small number of ingredients are allowed to make claims about their ability to support weight and fat loss.
This category includes products that are designed to support the production of desirable hormones and/or moderate the production of undesirable hormones. They are often composed of herbs, micronutrients and other nutrients which may have a moderate effect on various hormone levels or activity. No legitimate, legal, sports nutrition product contains any ingredients that can stimulate testosterone or growth hormone levels to an extent that they fall outside the clinically-accepted ‘normal’ range. As stated earlier, so-called ‘prohormone’ or ‘steroid-like’ ingredients are not allowed in food supplements.