CLEMSON — Contaminated dietary supplements may cause health problems in users and render athletes ineligible to play, according to a Clemson University professor.
Bryan Denham, Campbell Professor of Sports Communication and chair of Clemson’s communication department, writes in a series of journal articles that the problem often lies in the inclusion of methylhexaneamine, or DMAA, an amphetamine derivative banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).
Denham said supplement users may not realize that manufacturers need not supply evidence of safety and efficacy before marketing their products. Under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, or the DSHEA, the U.S Food and Drug Administration cannot inspect supplements until after the products have appeared in the marketplace.
Denham’s work, featured in the International Journal of Sport Policy and Politics, explains that athletes might enjoy an energy boost from DMAA-spiked products, but the presence of DMAA can result in a suspension from a World Anti-Doping Agency-regulated competition.
“The DSHEA classifies supplements as a subcategory of food and from a policy standpoint the assumption is that supplements are safe to consume, but that assumption means players looking to improve their health or performance might find themselves suspended from competition,” Denham said.
Denham said that while many athletes are aware of the ban on DMAA, they nevertheless test positive because some manufacturers continue to spike products with it. DMAA does not appear on ingredient labels, he said, but it certainly shows up on drug tests. The substance also has been discovered in products linked to illnesses and at least one public health crisis.
As Denham points out in a second article, forthcoming in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, the spread of misinformation is another hurdle for athletes, who often rely on one another for information about supplements. That practice may or may not result in an accurate understanding of the risks involved.
Denham said supplement manufacturers can also sow confusion. He said these manufacturers frequently contend that substances such as DMAA can be found in nature and therefore qualify as legitimate ingredients based on DSHEA guidelines.
“Upon closer inspection, so-called natural ingredients are often synthetic stimulants,” Denham said. “Researchers have noted, in fact, that some supplement producers appear to have studied the content of every antihistamine and nasal decongestant manufactured in the 1940s, reintroducing ingredients that ultimately amount to a form of speed.”
In addition to stimulants, dietary supplements have also been found to contain anabolic steroids. In a third article, published in the International Journal of Sport Communication, Denham examines the Designer Anabolic Steroid Control Act of 2014. In the U.S., anabolic steroids are classified as Schedule III Controlled Substances and the 2014 legislation added approximately 25 “designer” steroids to the list.
Denham said designer steroids are substances that have been reverse-engineered to differ slightly from existing drugs. Chemists design these drugs, which frequently turn up in dietary supplements, with an end goal to create performance-enhancing substances that have not been banned by WADA.
At first glance, Denham said, the 2014 steroid legislation appears like a responsible policy action. But the problem of designer steroids arose back in 2003 with the investigation of Bay Area Laboratories Co-operative (BALCO) in California. Additionally, the late Sen. Arlen Specter conducted a hearing about designer steroids in 2009, with versions of the 2014 legislation previously appearing in 2010 and 2012.
“In my view, the press has done a very good job of identifying the problems associated with designer steroids,” Denham said, “but certain policymakers and strong supplement lobbies have made it difficult to act. Any mention of reforming DSHEA is met with shouting about threatened consumer rights. In many cases, it is actually the financial profits of manufacturers that may be threatened. Consumers should be able to expect a legitimate product upon purchase.”
Denham said that more than half of all adults in the United States use some forms of dietary supplements and the U.S. supplement industry is approaching $40 billion. The problem, he said, is that consumers can only trust that products contain what manufacturers say they contain. While actual pharmaceuticals are required to contain between 90 and 110 percent of stated ingredient amounts, researchers have identified dietary supplements that contain between zero and 150 percent.
Denham encourages supplement users to examine product labels for indications of third-party batch testing. These tests examine raw materials that will be used in supplements. Companies such as Informed Sport certify products following batch tests, and individuals can then record batch numbers of supplements used. Athletes can also install a phone application, “Supplement 411,” which lists hazardous supplements identified by the United States Anti-Doping Agency.
“The spread of misinformation is unfortunate, but there are steps that consumers can take to be better informed,” Denham said. “For athletes whose competitive success can be compromised because of tainted supplements, they owe it to themselves to seek out that information.”