Nutritional Supplements (The Health Industry’s “transformer”)

Most of the nutritional supplement products are developed and manufactured according to scientific formulas that are apparently scientifically researched and tested. But it is not clear whether these procedures have adhered to prescribed criteria for testing and whether these are legitimate scientific studies. Another challenge is that research shows that industry is not appropriately regulated, and claims that are made on products may not always be accurate. These containers merely manifest innovative ideas led by business-minded entrepreneurs.

As more nutritional supplement brands and products are released, both locally and internationally, the scale of the problem increases daily. This is especially a concern in first world countries where such supplements are the driving force of performance optimisation. Globally, up to 88% of athletes use supplements and in the United States, more than three million people use, or have used, ergogenic supplements at some point.

Do supplements work?

Athletes, students and the general population have asked me the same questions: “How long should one consume supplements?” “When are the appropriate times to consume supplements?” “Are supplements safe and effective for my adolescent child?”

The dilemma of using or abstaining from supplements has been debated for more than 30 years, and the debate around using certain supplements or ergogenic aids persists. A study focusing on college athletes and their use of supplements showed that elite athletes who use supplements notice significant differences in their performances. These include increased speed, strength and endurance. However, the study found that supplement use amongst high school and college students experienced no differences in their performances. This difference can be explained by their diets. Overall, supplements cannot be a substitute for a nutritious meal.

A majority of nutritionists and dietitians worldwide hold the view that common nutritional supplements can’t provide the same nutrients as certain foods, which are paramount to achieving performance or health goals. Before the 1980s when the supplement industry was born, athletes and the health conscious individual (mostly) followed a correct diet and exercise routine without the use of supplements (except for steroids in certain circumstances). Aside from leading a more active lifestyle, people in the early era cooked more and purchased less from outlet stores and food franchises. They were also not as consumed and influenced by social media and the internet. These changes in lifestyle have created a ready market for supplements today.

What has changed?

‘Nutriwise’ and avoid ‘Scamformance’

Firstly, the industry has blossomed into this huge balloon of promising elevated ‘scamformance’ (a word I like using to describe how athletes have been scammed to improve their performance). A great deal is at stake because there is much more money to be made. This translates into continued aggressive marketing from supplement companies in which adverts are designed to attract consumers to buy the product and motivate athletes to achieve their goals during enhanced performances. As a result, clinical research for nutritional supplements is induced by commercial concerns. However, there is a need for more trials to assess the efficacy and safety of these nutritional supplements is paramount.

Secondly, the arrival of the world wide web has also had an impact. Currently, there is easy access to nutritional supplements on the Internet that lacks adequate medical information. This misleading information leads to improper use by both healthy individuals and the general population. Better quality control of these websites, more informed physicians and greater public awareness of these widely used products are greatly needed.

A third challenge is the increased competition by the athletes. In sport, health and fitness, professionals are faced with the dilemma of their athletes doping and experiencing supplement abuse. One could argue that it is the responsibility of the doctor, trainer or conditioning specialist to guide athletes whether certain products are safe or not to use. Research shows that more than 80% of supplements on shelves contain a substance or element that can cause athletes to test positive when tested by anti-doping agencies. Both athletes and professionals lack the education about these supplements and should not be used as an excuse to enhance performance.

What needs to be done?

The reality is that not all supplement brands commit to nutritional supplement “best practice” manufacture policies. Manufacturers should be held responsible for their business decision practices that cause adverse or unintended consequences to the consumer when discovered.

South Africa’s National Health Act incorporates the Medicine Control Council, which ensures the efficacy, quality and effectiveness of medicines, and related through its clinical research. Although regulation has been underway, the challenge still remains with the implementation of regulation and its legislation among nutritional supplements that remains as the focal concern.

It is said that South Africa’s Consumer Protection Act should promote greater levels of policy development, regulatory enforcement and consumer education of the supplement industry. However, education, legislation and regulations of such may not be enough, transparency and tax rebates of the supplements are also needed (similar to the sugar tax situation) for stepping in the desired direction.


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Dr. Habib Noorbhai (Mr South Africa 2017) is a Researcher in Sports Science and a Health and Wellness consultant. He is also a speaker and presenter. He completed a BA in Sport Psychology (UJ), Honours in Biokinetics (UKZN), MPhil in Biokinetics (UCT) and a PhD in Exercise Science at UCT.

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