A Table Top Full Of Random Pills And Medications In Dozens Of Colors

Those Supplements Likely Don’t Work and Might Be Harmful for Athletes

BY Phil White

Even the most effective products won't provide a shortcut to better performance and there are no substitutes for consistent training, eating and hydrating well, and prioritizing sleep and recovery.

There are over 80,000 supplements on the market, with more added all the time. In one way, it’s good that your athletes have this many choices, but the trouble is that studies frequently show how product labels are lying. Sometimes there’s too much or too little of certain ingredients or none at all. And there could even be pharmaceuticals, heavy metals and other toxins present due to cross-contamination. As long as the manufacturers add a disclaimer, they can make whatever label and advertising claim they like about their products boosting performance, improving recovery, aiding sleep and so on, even if they’re false or exaggerated. Let’s take a closer look at these issues and suggest a few ways for your athletes to choose safer, more effective supplements.

A Brief History of Sports Supplements

While many modern manufacturers claim their formulas are brand-new, attempting to improve athletic performance and recovery through supplementation is as old as sporting competition itself. In the ancient Olympics, trainers applied an olive oil rub to their runners’ muscles before racing, encouraged them to eat sheep’s testicles and brewed super-caffeinated tea. In his insightful book Foul Play: The Dark Arts of Cheating in Sport, Mike Rowbottom quotes the Greek physician Galen’s observation of a particularly odd supplement: “The rear hooves of an Abyssinian ass, ground up, boiled in oil and flavored with rosehips and petals.”[1]

Fast forward to the Victorian era and patent medicines — which were later referred to with the catch-all term “snake oil” — became all the rage among athletes. Champion race walker Edward Payson Weston chewed coca leaves, Pittsburgh Allegheny’s pitcher James “Pud” Galvin’s shutout popularized the ambitiously-named Elixir of Life. Thomas Hicks won the marathon at the 1904 St. Louis Olympics after drinking a cocktail of raw eggs, brandy and the stimulant strychnine (though he collapsed after crossing the finish line and was incoherent for an hour afterward).[2]

The introduction of recommended daily allowances (RDAs) in 1941, Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling’s push for vitamin C as a cure-all in the 70s, and the protein shake boom of the 80s brought supplements into the mainstream. And Michael Jordan’s legendary “Like Mike” commercials in the 90s made sports drinks a must-have long before individualized social media campaigns popped up ads every time athletes checked their feeds on cell phones and tablets.

False Claims and Low-End Ingredients

As the supplement business boomed into an industry that now brings in over $140 billion annually, you’d think that it would have become more tightly regulated. But although there has been some progress on Capitol Hill, such as the passage of the 1993 “Snake Oil Protection Act,” lobbying interests have blocked significant amendments to legislation that would give the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) greater power to punish manufacturers creating dodgy and potentially dangerous supplements.

As it stands, it’s too easy to create a product and get it to market without any kind of vetting. In the film Bigger, Stronger, Faster*, director Chris Bell showed how easy this was when he quickly formulated a supplement in his house. The most impactful part of this scene came when he slapped the standardized disclaimer on the label, which reads, “These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.” In other words, a company can say pretty much anything they like about how their product builds muscle, boosts performance, or aids recovery on the packaging and in ads, without having to substantiate it.

One of the biggest issues with this get-out-of-jail-free disclaimer is that it fuels ridiculous boasts about potential benefits and encourages unethical manufacturers to misstate which ingredients they’re using and how much of each is contained in a serving. Because there’s an inherent lack of transparency, your athletes might think they’re getting 1,000 mg of vitamin C or 20 grams of protein when in fact, there’s less than half that. Or perhaps, there’s much more than is stated.

It could even be that a supplement doesn’t have any specific substance because a cheap filler has been used instead, or there’s just a little of the good stuff mixed with a lower-cost alternative. If there’s actually a lower amount than the label suggests, your clients could be getting less than a clinically effective dose, making the supplement ineffective. At the other end of the scale, unwittingly taking too much could push them into a toxic range for certain micronutrients.

What’s Actually in the Bottle?

Dr. Pieter Cohen, a professor at Harvard Medical School, has become a crusader against crooked supplement suppliers and their low-grade products. In a study published in Clinical Toxicology, he and his fellow researchers discovered that not one of the 24 supplements they tested contained the stated amount of higenamine, with some having as much as 200% more and one as little as 0.01% of what it said on the label.[3]

Perhaps those who took the latter lucked out, as it’s a heart stimulant that’s been banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency for the past five years. “Consumers in America have the sense that the FDA is quietly behind the scenes, ensuring that these products are safe,” Cohen said in a revealing Men’s Health article. “That’s the furthest thing from the truth.”[4]

Another all-too-common issue that could put your clients at risk is that supplement makers can cut corners on production and often get away with it. Sometimes this leads to products containing unlisted banned substances that cause an athlete to “pop hot” on a drug test. Even if members of your training group aren’t at that competitive level, this would be a problem for anyone who is a first responder, military service member or has another job that requires testing.

Supplements may also contain heavy metals, pharmaceuticals and other potentially harmful substances. While one of a company’s products could initially be clean, it might become tainted by cross-contamination if poor manufacturing processes are in play. With so many inconsistencies, it’s no wonder that there are 23,000 emergency room visits each year attributed to bad supplements, with many more unsuspecting customers dealing with acute and chronic side effects that don’t require hospitalization.

Guiding Your Athletes to Safer, More Effective Supplements

Now that we’ve explored the Wild West state of the supplement industry, you might be wondering how best to help your clients navigate safely through it, considering a high percentage of the 85,000 products on the market could be largely ineffectual, some harmful and a few even fatal. The best bet is to suggest they remove the guesswork, worry and potential danger from the process by looking to a respected testing protocol. This can be trickier than it sounds, as many manufacturers slap a “third-party tested” label on their products.

The key is to look beyond such generic claims — which could be bogus — for validation by proven entities. NSF Certified for Sport® is arguably the most rigorous, evaluating products to ensure they’re free of contaminants and the 270+ substances banned by WADA, the IOC and sports’ governing bodies. The process proves that only the ingredients listed on the label are in the container and that a serving contains the stated quantities. Regular batch testing rules out a decline in manufacturing standards over time. Informed Sport conducts stringent analysis and certification, assessing individual products and companies’ overall manufacturing processes to see that they have quality control systems and offer traceability and recall procedures.

It will also help to guide your athletes toward products that list the amounts of each ingredient explicitly rather than those that try to hide such information behind a term like “proprietary blend.” They’d do well to avoid fads and stick to supplements with a large body of evidence to back up their efficacy. For example, creatine monohydrate and whey protein for performance or vitamin D and omega 3s for overall health — though Cohen and others are quick to point out that the purity and quality of these can still vary substantially, which is where third-party testing comes back into play.

The more transparency a company offers on its website — like clinical proof and listing ingredient suppliers — the better. And both you and your clients should set your BS detectors to a high level. If a supplement comes with a radical claim that seems too good to be true, it probably is. Remind your athletes that even the most effective products won’t provide a shortcut to better performance and that there are no substitutes for consistent training, eating and hydrating well, and prioritizing sleep and recovery. Once they’ve checked those boxes, then safe, pure, and productive supplements can do what the term suggests — provide supplementary support for solid nutrition and positive habits.


[1] Mike Rowbottom, Foul Play: The Dark Arts of Cheating in Sport (London, England: Bloomsbury, 2004), 4.

[2] Daniel M. Rosen, Dope: A History of Performance Enhancement in Sports from the Nineteenth Century to Today (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 2008), 8-9. 

[3] Pieter A Cohen et al, “The Stimulant Higenamine in Weight Loss and Sports Supplements,” Clinical Toxicology, 2019, available online at https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/15563650.2018.1497171. 

[4] Stephanie Clifford, “The Toxic Supplement Hunter,” Men’s Health, July 9, 2021, available online at https://www.menshealth.com/health/a36945827/toxic-supplement-hunter-pieter-cohen-md.

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About Phil White
Phil White is an Emmy-nominated writer and the co-author of The 17 Hour Fast with Dr. Frank Merritt, Waterman 2.0 with Kelly Starrettand Unplugged with Andy Galpin and Brian Mackenzie. Learn more at www.philwhitebooks.com and follow Phil on Instagram @philwhitebooks.

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