ASADA’s long standing advice is that no supplement is safe to use and athletes should not risk their careers by taking a supplement. This is because many supplements are contaminated with substances prohibited in sport, which may not be listed on ingredient labels.
However, ASADA recognises that there may be circumstances where sports dieticians recommend supplements, or where athletes use supplements regardless of the risk.
In these circumstances, ASADA’s advice is that athletes should only use supplements which have been screened for prohibited substances by an independent company, such as HASTA or Informed Sport. Supplements screened by these companies cannot offer a 100% guarantee that an athlete will not test positive, but they are significantly less risky than other supplements.
For more information, download the ASADA Clean Sport mobile app, which lists all supplements sold on Australian shelves which have been screened by HASTA or Informed Sport, and provides a risk analysis for other supplements athletes may be considering.
All athletes should be aware of the three A’s for protecting a sporting career:
1 (Be) Aware
2 (Do your) Analysis
3 (Take steps to) Avoid
Millions of people around the world, including athletes, look to supplements as a way to boost their sports performance. However, supplements pose a real risk for athletes with about half of all anti-doping rule violations (sport bans) in Australia over the last five years a direct result of supplement use.
Being aware of the risks is the first step to staying in the game.
What are supplements?
Nutritional supplements cover a broad range of products including vitamins, minerals, herbs, meal supplements, sports nutrition products, natural food supplements, and other related products used to boost the nutritional content of the diet.
The marketplace supplies thousands of supplements claiming to provide nutritional support for athletes. Some of these consist of high-protein products, such as amino acid supplements, while other products contain nutrients that support metabolism, energy, and athletic performance and recovery. Supplements can be found in pill, tablet, capsule, powder or liquid form.
What are the risks?
The supplement industry is poorly regulated, so the ingredient list doesn't always match the product contents. That makes it difficult for any athlete to know exactly what is going into their body. It is not uncommon for banned substances to be added deliberately during the manufacturing process, or added accidentally through contamination. It is for these reasons ASADA is unable to guarantee whether a specific supplement, or batch of a supplement, is safe to use.
Consequences of supplement use by athletes
Products containing a prohibited substance can result in bans of up to four years for athletes.
The presence of a prohibited substance in a supplement may result in an anti-doping rule violation, whether its use was intentional or unintentional. Under the World Anti-Doping Code’s strict liability principle, athletes are ultimately responsible for any substance found in their body, regardless of how it got there. That means, even if the prohibited substance is not listed on the label of a supplement, if you consume it, you are still responsible.
In addition to facing a possible ban from sport, there are some supplements on the market that contain prohibited stimulants which can pose serious health risks for athletes.
In 2016, life science company LGC conducted the Australian Supplements Survey which analysed 67 common supplement products available for purchase in Australia. They found one in five products contained one or more substances banned in sport. Importantly, none of the products identified listed any banned substances on their ingredients list.
A study by New Zealand's Otago University's Department of Physiology also found several supplements on sale in New Zealand and Australia contained steroids not declared on their labels.
Australian athletes talk about supplements in sport
Many elite Australian athletes avoid supplements all together. Multiple Olympic medallist Kim Brennan stated it clearly when she said: "Supplements aren't going to win you a gold medal."
The risk of doping through the use of supplements is real and doing research can be an athlete’s best form of defence.
Prior to using any supplement, an athlete should ask themselves:
- Has it been tested?
- Is it safe?
- Is it effective (in improving performance)?
- Is it necessary?
Has it been tested?
If you decide to take a supplement, the first question you should ask about a product is 'has it been tested for banned substances?'
There are a number of companies that offer laboratory analysis of supplements to check whether they contain banned substances. HASTA and Informed Sport are two major testers operating in Australia, which screen more than 100 different products, including protein powders, creatine powders, pre-work outs and recovery products. You can see details of products tested by Informed Sport or HASTA using the ASADA Clean Sport mobile app, using each company’s webpage, or look for these logos when shopping for products:
Supplements which are screened by these companies undergo testing for every single batch, and have their manufacturing factories examined for possible contamination. Although batch tested products are the lowest risk supplements, they do not provide a guarantee against testing positive, and you can still face anti-doping sanctions if you test positive from one of these products.
Remember: No supplement is 100% safe. The only way to have zero risk, is to take zero supplements.
Checking ingredients online
Athletes can use ASADA’s online check your substances tool, Global DRO, to check thousands of ingredients and their status in sport, including individual ingredients listed on supplement labels.
Words of caution …
Despite the claims made by supplement manufacturers that their products are safe and free of substances prohibited in sport, remember that the manufacturing process of supplements is not regulated. As such, supplements may contain prohibited substances even if every ingredient listed on the label is approved by Global DRO.
When researching supplement ingredients be aware that supplement manufacturers may use alternate names. Be particularly wary of ingredients with chemical names or plant extracts.
At a minimum, an athlete should check every ingredient on Global DRO. However that still does not guarantee that the supplement is safe to use as some supplements contain substances not listed on the ingredient label. Global DRO will not return results for specific supplement products (that is, searches for brand names).
Common ingredients banned in sport
Some supplement ingredients that have come to ASADA’s attention through failed tests, include:
|Prohibited substance||Other known names||WADA Prohibited List category|
S3: Beta 2 Agonist
Kigelia africiana (extract)
J. Regia (Extract) or Juglans Regia (Extract)
Is it safe?
Not all supplements are safe. Supplement manufacturers are not required to prove that their product is safe or that it works, and this should act as a red flag to athletes concerned about their health. Many of the supplements coming to ASADA’s attention contain different classes of prohibited substances with the most common being anabolic agents, peptide hormones and stimulants.
Such are the health concerns surrounding supplements; warnings, deaths and major health issues have been reported around the world:
Is it necessary?
Athletes who value their sporting career get advice from the experts (like accredited Doctors, Nutritionists or Dietitians) about whether supplements are actually needed. The experts will often look at an athlete’s diet, lifestyle and training before considering the use of supplements.
If a dietary supplementation is required, ask a Doctor or Pharmacist if there is a Registered Medicine, which carries a much lower risk of contamination, and can be checked with certainty on Global DRO.
In the following videos the Head of Sports Nutrition, Professor Louise Bourke and Chief Medical Officer Dr David Hughes from the Australian Institute of Sport talk about whether supplements in sport are necessary, and how changing your diet is often a better, and safer option.
Food First initiative
As part of ASADA’s commitment to intelligence-led, targeted education for sports, ASADA and the NRL worked together to develop a suite of resources to help prevent inadvertent doping in the sport.
An analysis of ASADA’s data showed that supplement use is a risk for sub-elite rugby league players. To tackle this, ASADA and the NRL developed three posters focusing on the Food First message:
- No one ever tested positive to a banana
- No one ever tested positive to a drumstick
- No one ever tested positive to broccoli.
These posters will be displayed in local football clubs across the country to encourage athletes to look at their own diet before resorting to supplements and risking their athletic career.
Sports can download a PDF of these posters by clicking on the links above, or ASADA can tailor posters specific to other sports on request. Simply email email@example.com to discuss how we can help you.
Avoiding or taking supplements will come down to a personal choice for each athlete. From ASADA's perspective, the avoidance of supplement products is the safest path for athletes to follow, but for those who choose to take supplements, here are some things to avoid:
- Supplements made in China, India or the USA.
- Pre-workout, weight-loss and muscle-building products, as they can be at higher risk of contamination with a prohibited substance.
- Bold claims from the manufacturer about the effectiveness of a product, such as:
- offering the same benefits as prohibited substances
- the treatment or prevention of disease, or
- being an alternative to prescription medicine.
- Claims of WADA or ASADA endorsement or approval (anti-doping organisations do not test, endorse or approve supplement products).
- Ingredients that include chemical names or plant extracts.
- Supplements that are only available online.
- Supplement products labelled ‘Not for human use’ or ‘For research use only’.
A range of resources are available to help athletes reach an informed decision:
- ASADA Clean Sport is a mobile app which lists every batch-tested supplement sold on Australian shelves, and gives athletes a way to assess the risk of other products. It is available on Apple and Android phones and tablets.
- ASADA's online education is a free and easy-to-use tool featuring online courses, videos and learning updates about the key areas of anti-doping such as prohibited substances and methods, Therapeutic Use Exemptions, doping control, intelligence and investigations.
- The Therapeutic Goods Administration's (TGA) advice on Sports Supplements in Australia.
- The Sport Australia website includes fact sheets from a number of expert groups on the topic of sports nutrition.
- Play by the rules website provides information, resources, tools and free online training to increase administrators, coaches, officials, players, parents and spectators knowledge of discrimination, harassment, child safety, inclusion and integrity issues in sport.
- A national sporting organisation’s policy or guidelines about supplements.
- USADA 411 is the United States Anti-Doping Agency’s dietary supplement safety education and awareness resource.