How You Can Avoid Tainted Supplements

I’m Joseph Maxwell, NCAA All-American athlete for the University of Tennessee. I’m going to share with you some tips on avoiding a trap I see many athletes fall into: tainted supplements. 

In my journey as a collegiate athlete, I’ve used supplements like protein, creatine, and omega-3’s to help my body recover from the wear and tear of competing at the highest level. They’ve played a huge part of my development and have offered an edge over my competitors.

While I encourage you to use these products in your own training, it’s important that you take steps to avoid tainted supplements. The consequences of taking tainted supplements (knowingly or unknowingly) are serious. In this guide, I will give you an overview of what tainted supplements are, why they’re dangerous, and how you can avoid them. 

What are Tainted Supplements?

Tainted supplements are nutrition products that contain ingredients not listed on the packaging. They are particularly prevalent in Canada and the USA, where regulations on dietary supplements are not as strict as compared to Europe. 

Tainted supplements are more common then you think! An independent study released in 2018 showed that 1 in 5 supplements on the market contained drugs not listed on the packaging. As a college athlete who needs to strictly avoid banned substances, that statistic is terrifying.

From 2007 through 2016, 776 adulterated dietary supplements were identified by the FDA and 146 different dietary supplement companies were implicated. Most of these products were marketed for sexual enhancement (353 [45.5%]), weight loss (317 [40.9%]), or muscle building (92 [11.9%]), with 157 adulterated products (20.2%) containing more than 1 unapproved ingredient.

“Unapproved Pharmaceutical Ingredients Included in Dietary Supplements Associated With US Food and Drug Administration Warnings” (2018) by Jenna Tucker, MPH, Tessa Fischer, DVM, MPH, and Laurence Upjohn, PharmD.

The same independent study concluded that the highest risk supplement categories were sexual enhancement, weight loss, and muscle building. This makes sense – products in these categories often make extreme claims.

To help meet these claims, supplement companies have been known to spike products with drugs that will enhance results. Including these drugs on packaging however, carries with it a multitude of costly legal ramifications. To avoid this, some brands simply won’t tell you everything that’s in their product.

Intentional Tainting vs Unintentional Tainting

The scenario in which a supplement company knowingly adds ingredients to a product, without putting them on the label is what I call intentionally tainted supplements. This results in products that are intentionally contaminated for commercial benefit.

Unintentionally tainted supplements exist as well. Sometimes a supplement can become accidentally contaminated with ingredients from another product when the two are produced in the same factory. While this isn’t quite as sleazy, it still shows extreme negligence on the part of the manufacturing company.

Consequences of Using Tainted Supplements

As a college athlete, tainted supplements are something that you must avoid at all costs.

Many students don’t realize the dangers until it’s too late. If you haven’t already, you’ll face a number of random drug tests during your college career. These tests will check your body for performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) which are common in tainted supplements.

If you test positive for PEDs, you’ll face a ban from your sport that could be as long as 4 years, depending on the severity of your transgression. 

It’s also important to understand that testing agencies like the NCAA and WADA (World Anti Doping Agency) don’t care if your violation was intentional or not. It makes no difference to them whether or not your positive test was the result of a tainted supplement.

As an athlete, you must be aware of every single thing you put into your body. A positive test will cost you playing time, and tarnish your reputation.

Stories from the Locker Room

I know of a collegiate football player who suffered these consequences. He was a member of a high profile team, with a realistic shot at going pro. At the beginning of his junior season, he tested positive for a PED. It was later discovered that the protein powder he’d been taking contained the substance he tested positive for.

This player’s violation was, in fact, entirely accidental. Still, that had no bearing on his punishment: he was forced to sit out his entire junior season. The ban cost him a whole year of eligibility and ended the possibility of a pro career.

Famous Cases of Tainted Supplements

On a more global level, in 2012, 3-time Tour de France winner Alberto Contador was stripped of his 2010 Tour win after he tested positive for clenbuterol, a drug commonly used for weight loss and muscle building. His defense centered around tainted supplements, but his punishment remained unchanged. 

More recently in 2019, Tennessee Titans’ lineman Taylor Lewman faced a 4 game suspension after testing positive for ostarine. Lewman blamed the positive test on contamination, saying that he’d only been taking supplements recommended to him by his doctor and nutritionist.

Lewman’s case is an important reminder to always double-check the supplements you take, even if they’ve been recommended to you by someone trusted. 

How to Avoid Tainted Supplements

By this point, you’re probably sufficiently scared. You may be thinking “why should I bother with supplements at all when the risks are so high?”

Some elite athletes do avoid supplements altogether but this is, in my opinion, a mistake. Supplements can offer a huge advantage over competitors. There are ways to use them safely, without risk. 

WADA and NCAA Banned Substance List

Each year, WADA and the NCAA publish a list of banned substances. You can check out the current lists here:

The NCAA handles all collegiate drug testing, while WADA covers international events. If you have any aspirations of competing internationally, it’s important you check both lists as they have slight differences.

Certain substances permissible in the NCAA are banned by WADA. It’s also important you check these lists often too, as they’re updated frequently.

Before you take any supplement, make sure that none of its ingredients are on the banned lists. Taking a supplement that contains a banned substance is a surefire way to get popped with a positive test.

However, as I mentioned earlier, ingredient lists don’t protect against tainted supplements. To protect yourself from tainted, off-label ingredients you’ll need to take some added precautions.

NSF International

NSF International is an independent product testing and inspection agency. They examine supplements for banned substances, and only offer certifications if the products meet their standards.

It’s essential that every supplement you take as an athlete be NSF Certified for Sport. Sport certified products are marked with a small blue circle, usually at the bottom of the packaging. Look for this marking on the product:

NSF also offers a quality certification, but this one isn’t designed for athletes and it does not include extensive banned substance testing. Make sure the product you select is specifically Certified for Sport by NSF.

You’ll notice that NSF-certified brands are a little more expensive, but the security they offer is well worth the extra money. 

Informed Choice

Informed Choice is another organization that certifies products similarly to NSF. They independently test products and deem them banned substance-free if they meet their requirements. You can identify Informed Choice certified products by looking for these two logos on their packaging:

Informed Choice is focused on testing for sport, while the NSF does a multitude of work beyond athletics. They’re a relatively new player in the certification world and have yet to stand the test of time.

Which One is Better?

Without question, NSF. While Informed Choice has only been around since 2007, NSF has been independently testing products since 1944. They’re trusted by thousands of athletes around the world.

Informed Choice is a smaller organization, yet their roster of certified products is much larger than NSF’s. In my opinion, that could signify that their standards are not as stringent.

It’s up to you which certification agency you go with, but I highly recommend using only products that are NSF Certified for Sport.

Final Thoughts

Every advantage in athletics comes with a potential pitfall. Weight training can make you stronger, faster, and leaner but if it’s done incorrectly it’ll leave you injured. Similarly, supplements boost recovery and muscle growth but if used incorrectly, they can get you banned from competition.

Luckily, the pitfalls of tainted supplements can be avoided. As long as you’re checking the banned substance lists often and only taking NSF Sport Certified products, your risk of a positive drug test is exceedingly low.

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