A July 17 report revealed  that an alarming number of sports supplements contain incorrect amounts of ingredients, traces of prohibited compounds, and missing ingredients that are reported on the labels. Sports supplements, also known as performance dietary supplements, are heavily marketed for their abilities to enhance muscle growth, muscle strength, energy production and recovery, weight gain or loss and nutrients in an athlete. Yet, the sports supplement industry isn’t tightly regulated like the pharmaceutical industry, meaning, supplements aren’t required to meet specific safety and effectiveness standards before entering the market. 

This lack of regulation has led to a greater risk of products being contaminated, missing ingredients and even containing ingredients prohibited by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In the past few months, research has shed light on these lesser-known aspects of sports supplements. 

The FDA states that it is unable to test all 85,000 supplements that are available in the U.S. According to Pieter Cohen, a general internist at Cambridge Health Alliance, the FDA does not have the authority to approve dietary supplements before they hit the market although they are able to require companies to list the ingredients on the product labels. 

Recently, however, it has been confirmed that the supplement industry is not staying true to its product labels. In The Journal of the American Medical Association Network Open, an open-access biomedical sciences journal, a group with researchers from Harvard Medical School, the University of Mississippi and the National Science Foundation (NSF) International studied the presence of five ingredients known to be “promoted in dietary supplements for their stimulant or anabolic effects” to find that 57 of 63 products contained at least one of these ingredients. 

Nevertheless, only six of the 57 products with these ingredients had amounts that were within 10% of the label’s value, and seven of the 57 supplements contained at least one type of synthetic stimulant that is prohibited by the FDA. These included four synthetic stimulants: 1,4-dimethylamylamine (DMAA), deterenol, octodrine, oxilofrine and omniracetam. 

A recent study noted that 1,4-DMAA’s safety for human consumption is unknown. In addition, certain supplements contain amounts of octodrine that are over twice the largest pharmaceutical dosage. This compound is unsafe when taken orally, with side effects such as high blood pressure and serious heart problems, and is prohibited in competition according to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. 

If consumed, oxilofrine can increase the risk of abnormally high heart rates, chest pain and potentially cardiac arrest. This nootropic, or brain function-enhancing, compound omniracetam is not approved in the U.S. by the FDA given its unknown efficacy and side effects that include fertility damage, insomnia and irritability, among others. 

Over the years, scientists have discovered hundreds of supplements containing traces of harmful drugs. This is very concerning, especially during a time when more than half of the American adult population has reported taking dietary supplements. When investing in over-the-counter supplements, it is important to always remain cautious and skeptical. Cohen has said that certain organizations, like the NSF, the Banned Substances Control Group and the U.S. Pharmacopeia, are able to help consumers with evaluating the authenticity of their supplements by providing stamps of approval to the products they evaluate as safe and effective. 

Another resource to evaluate supplements is the U.S. Department of Defense’s (DoD) Operation Supplement Safety Scorecard checklist. When taking supplements for pre-workout, weight loss and so on, the DoD offers a series of questions to determine the supplement’s safety, including “Is the label free of the words proprietary, blend, matrix, or complex?” and “Is the amount of caffeine listed on the label 200 mg or less per serving?”

Sports supplements are designed to enhance athletic performance, but not all supplements are created equal. Supplements make up a multi-billion dollar industry with a wide range of products, catering to different needs. It is important to do your research and choose products from reputable companies, as well as understand their purpose and side effects. What works for one athlete may not work for another, and while sports supplements can help enhance athletic performance, nutrients from whole foods are vital for a healthy lifestyle.

A version of this article appeared on p. 16 of the August 24 2023 print edition of the Daily Nexus.