You only have to walk down the aisle of any local pharmacy to notice the plethora of supplements on offer. Vitamins, minerals, high-protein, herbals, weight loss, weight gain, metabolism, energy, recovery… the marketplace supplies thousands of supplements claiming to provide benefits for Australians. However, one must exercise caution in a lucrative, commercially driven industry with unregulated suppliers and the absence of any requirement for manufacturers to provide evidence of safety or efficacy.
The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend that individuals, with the exception of pregnant women, only take supplements if they are eliminating a food group from their diet (1). However, a significant proportion of the Australian population continue to take supplements, with 34% of men and 47% of women reporting supplement use in a recent national survey (2). Prevalence of supplement use among elite athletes is even more widespread. As a means of boosting their sports performance, 89% of Division 1 athletes in American Colleges reported supplement use (3).
So what exactly is the problem with supplement use? In 2016, life science company LGC conducted the Australian Supplements Survey which analysed 67 common supplement products available for purchase in Australia (4). They found 19% products contained one or more substances banned in sport. Importantly, none of the products identified listed any banned substances on their ingredients list. It stands to reason then that the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Agency (ASADA) reports half of all anti-doping rule violations (sport bans) in Australia over the last five years are a direct result of supplement use. For the recreationally active individual, you risk ingesting an unknown substance that may be hazardous to your health.
The Australasian College of Sport and Exercise Physicians (ACSEP) strongly recommends a “food first” approach to the achievement of nutrient needs. However, if supplementation has been deemed necessary, ACSEP recommends utilising only products that have undergone third party batch testing. The ASADA clean sport app was designed with athletes in mind, however it is a useful resource for any individual seeking reassurance that their product contains only those ingredients listed. Whilst not a 100% guarantee, the risk of contamination is significantly reduced, with screening undertaken by an independent laboratory.
With high profile Australian Swimmer, Shayna Jack, recently testing positive for a banned substance found in contaminated supplements, now is as good a time as ever to question whether or not supplement use is worth the risk.
- National Health and Medical Research Council. Australian Dietary Guidelines. National Health and Medical Research Council; Canberra, Australia: 2013
- Dietary Supplement Use among Australian Adults: Findings from the 2011–2012 National Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey
- McDowall JA. Supplement use by Young Athletes. J Sports Sci Med. 2007;6(3):337–342. Published 2007 Sep 1.