While certain sports supplements can provide an edge for performance, there’s one major issue with sports supplements that you ought to know about.
Sports supplements are very attractive to athletes because they offer the promise of an instant performance improvement. It is therefore little surprise that the sports supplement market is worth roughly 43 billion dollars. While we have written about some of the most effective sports supplements like caffeine, creatine, and nitrates, we haven’t quite discussed the biggest issue with sports supplements: many brands don’t include what they advertise on the label.
Source: Genetic Literacy Project
In a new analysis of 57 sports supplements—including pre-workout, fat burners, and substances marketed to improve muscle mass and strength—only 6 (11%) actually contained the quantity of the substance that was advertised on the label (1). Further, 23 (40%) didn’t contain the substance advertised on the label, about half (28) contained a different quantity of the substance advertised on the label, and 7 (12%) contained illegal additives (1). That's pretty alarming.
This study is far from an outlier. Other studies from the same research group found that 88% of melatonin ‘gummies’ did not contain the quantity advertised on the label and only 45% of caffeine supplements contained the advertised amounts of caffeine (2,3). Similarly, in a study from other researchers, only about 20% of beetroot juice supplements actually contained doses of nitrates that are expected to improve performance (4).
Clearly, the supplement industry is the Wild West, so if you want to take supplements, you need to ensure you’re using a reputable brand. The best way to do this is to make sure that the company you’re purchasing from uses third-party testing. This means that this company sends their products to an independent lab to be tested to ensure their supplements actually contain what they advertise they do. The most well-known third-party certification mark is the NSF Mark (Figure 1), so look for this mark (or a similar mark indicating third-party testing) on any supplements you’re interested in taking.
Figure 1. The NSF Mark
The takeaway from this article is to be careful when choosing a supplement by ensuring it is third-party tested to contain what it advertises (and nothing else). This is especially important for athletes who may be drug-tested, as it is crucial that your supplements don’t contain banned substances, for obvious reasons. However, as we have written before, most of your energy should be invested in improving your overall diet before even thinking about taking sports supplements.
If you’re interested in becoming a better footballer, avail of our supplemental football coaching services by reaching out to our team of expert coaches at [email protected].
That’s a wrap for this week, have a nice weekend!
Patrick Elliott, BSc, MPH
Health and Nutrition Science Communication Officer at Training121
Health Disclaimer: this article is for informational and educational purposes only, and is not a substitute for professional advice. For health advice, speak to a physician or other qualified health-care professional, and for nutrition advice, speak to a qualified nutrition professional (e.g., registered dietitian). The use of information on this site is solely at your own risk.
(1) Cohen PA, Avula B, Katragunta K, Travis JC, Khan I. Presence and Quantity of Botanical Ingredients With Purported Performance-Enhancing Properties in Sports Supplements. JAMA Netw Open. 2023;6(7):e2323879. Available at: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2807343
(2) Cohen PA, Avula B, Wang YH, Katragunta K, Khan I. Quantity of Melatonin and CBD in Melatonin Gummies Sold in the US. JAMA. 2023;329(16):1401–2. Available at: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/2804077
(3) Cohen PA, Attipoe S, Travis J, Stevens M, Deuster P. Caffeine content of dietary supplements consumed on military bases. JAMA Intern Med. 2013;173(7):592–4. Available at: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/1555822
(4) Gallardo EJ, Coggan AR. What's in Your Beet Juice? Nitrate and Nitrite Content of Beet Juice Products Marketed to Athletes. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2019;29(4):345–9. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8512783/
Caffeine: A substance found in coffee that is a central nervous system stimulant, meaning that it improves attention and cognitive performance, and also improves a range of exercise performance outcomes.
Creatine: a compound formed in protein metabolism and stored in most tissues, including muscle tissue, as phosphocreatine. Phosphocreatine is broken down to create energy (ATP) in our muscle cells during short-and-intense movements, e.g., weight-lifting, sprinting. When we take large doses of creatine from supplements, we increase our muscle stores of creatine. These stores can be broken down to create energy during short-and-intense movements to ultimately improve our exercise performance.
Nitrates: The compound in beetroot and certain green leafy vegetables (e.g., lettuce, rocket, spinach) that is eventually converted to nitric oxide, which is responsible for certain performance and health improvements.