A recent study revealed approximately 25% of popular dietary supplements in the U.S. were contaminated with low levels of steroids; 11% of supplements were contaminated with stimulants, most commonly ephedrine. These steroidal and stimulant ingredients were not declared on the product label.
The study was done by Informed Choice, a nonprofit coalition of dietary supplements, and the analysis was conducted by the British company, HFL, to investigate levels of steroid and stimulant contamination in popular supplements available on the US market. The names of the supplements that were tested were not identified. This is most likely out of fear of legal action against them by any company should it be named in the study results.
Of course, the results shocked Travis Tygart, the CEO of the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). In recent years, the USADA has asserted, even in the absence of any hard data, that contamination of dietary supplements is not a problem for drug-tested athletes. He further claimed that no American athletes has tested positive for steroids due to contaminated supplements since 2004. He has called for Informed Choice to publish the names of the implicated supplement company so the “illegal activity” can be stopped.
Of course, such assertions have been made in the self-interest of the USADA rather than out of concern for athletes. The presence of undeclared banned substances in dietary supplements could lead the way for significant doubt about the guilt of athletes who fail drug tests, thereby making the job of the US Anti-Doping Agency significantly more difficult.
The present study is only further evidence of the quality control problems in the dietary supplement industry and the risks for competitive athletes subject to doping tests. In recent years, at least one athletes has successfully sued a supplement manufacturer. The IOC conducted a similar study between 2000 and 2002 that revealed 15% of dietary supplements purchased in various countries contained undeclared steroid and/or prohormone ingredients.
There are several explanations for the high incidence of steroids and stimulants found in sports supplements:
- Intentional contamination. There have been allegations that some supplement companies may have added some undeclared ingredients, usually by the addition of a stimulant, so that the consumer actually “feels” that the product is working. The overall success of the sports nutrition supplement industry is largely due to the “placebo effect” – if the consumer “feels” something from the supplement, they think it is working. If they think it is working, it may actually have benefit (placebo) and they will continue to buy the product.
- Cross-contamination. Many factories manufacturer various different categories of supplements in the same facility. For example, ephedrine products may be processed on the same equipment as vitamin and mineral products; hormonal products may be processed on same line as protein powders. If the equipment is not cleaned properly, contamination could result.
- Contaminated raw material. Supplement manufacturers often import raw materials from Asia, India and Eastern Europe. This could be contaminated with impurities.