Dietary supplements are used for many purposes, from weight loss to performance enhancement. It’s common for companies to label their products as “natural”, leading to the misconception that it is safe for most people to consume. Unfortunately, this just isn’t the case.
When athletes use supplements, they can suffer a wide range of side-effects, health problems, or test positive for banned substances at competitions (resulting in sanctions). Many supplements are incorrectly labeled or contaminated with banned or dangerous ingredients, like anabolic steroids, experimental drugs (like sibutramine), Viagra-like medications, or even substances not recommended for human use!
Companies label food or supplements as “all-natural” because they want us to assume their products are safer and better than their competitors. Really, they’re trying to get people to trust their product by using trendy labels.
But, when it comes to supplements, it’s difficult to know what they mean by “all-natural.” In the medical context, the term “natural” has not been associated with any nutritional or other health benefits.
“Natural” herbal products may pose an anti-doping risk to athletes at every level of competition. There have been cases where companies have promoted “geranium oil” as a “natural” product, but the supplements contain methylhexanamine, a synthetically produced stimulant that is prohibited in all competition.
Also, some plants naturally produce substances prohibited in sport. For example, the ephedra plant produces ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, which are both banned substances; Citrus aurantium (orange peel or bitter orange) produces prohibited octopamine.
If athletes choose to use supplements despite these risks, the decision should be based on nutritional needs and not on any competitive advantage a product claims to offer. Remember that the benefits of dietary supplements are often exaggerated. This is especially true with supplements that promise to aid weight loss and muscle growth or enhance your sexual performance.
Before an athlete buys a supplement, USADA recommends only using dietary supplements that are certified by a third-party program that tests for prohibited substances. The best USADA recommended third-party certification is NSF Certified For Sport®. Supplements with this label are significantly less likely to have harmful or banned substances.
If you choose to add supplements to your diet, there is always a risk that it includes harmful or prohibited ingredients. But, if an athlete tests positive for a banned substance and the source is a contaminated supplement that is NSF Certified for Sport®, the athlete may get a much lighter sanction (though there would probably still be some consequence).
NSF has an app that helps athletes choose supplements that are safer and tested for prohibited ingredients. Consider using this app when choosing supplements. You can also speak with your certified coach or registered sports nutritionist for more information about how to add supplements to your regular diet safely and effectively.