Sports nutrition is a constantly evolving field with hundreds and hundreds of research papers published annually. My goal is not to examine the evidence that supports or rejects any particular supplement but I thought it’d be good to share an overview of how a supplement comes to the retail shelf for you to purchase, from concept to commercial product, with the science, marketing and ultimately profits that accompany it.
As a sport nutrition professional it is my job to know how to evaluate the scientific merit of articles and advertisements about exercise and nutrition products so I can separate the marketing hype from scientifically-based training and nutritional practices in order to provide to you, my customer, the most effective, safe and financially affordable product I can find.
The first question I ask is whether the supplement is legal and/or safe. Some countries, states and athletic association have banned the use of various nutritional supplements (e.g. steroids, prohormones, ephedrine and many “muscle building and weight loss supplements, DMAA, AMP citrate). If the supplement is banned and/or used in a product I don’t offer it in my store.
I’ve worked in, and studied the world of sports nutrition for many years now, and it quickly became obvious that there’s a typical pattern with which the latest supplement emerges on the scene. Many supplements, but some do, don’t actually get conceived by the marketing gurus at first – rather there’s a scientific theory or proposed mechanism by which the supplement works, which has been discovered by the academic community. This usually involves a light bulb moment where someone considered if this finding would expand the limits of physical performance, and then try to find a potential successful market.
The earliest studies of sports nutrition supplements often slip under the radar for most people — they’re basic science studies (often in petri dishes or with rats) that examine the safety of a supplement and how it works in the body. The point at which people start to sit up and take notice tends to be in the next phase.
In this part of the cycle, the actual mechanism by which the supplement is proposed to benefit athletes is first tested in humans — often non-athletic students because they’re young, free of major health problems and easy to recruit as participants or a group of older people because the belief it would help with the aging process, muscle wasting, hydration, etc.
These early studies often provide the first moment of excitement about a supplement, and it’s here that manufacturers start jumping on the bandwagon and promoting the evidence that these supplements work.
It’s important to realize, though, that at this stage no-one has shown that these supplements actually improve performance or are safe, because performance and safety has not even been tested. Many times a supplement manufacturer won’t wait for the performance, safety (due diligence) studies to be done to start producing and promoting a supplement.
This is probably in part because they’re trying to beat their competitors to market which is fair enough. It may also be because they can convince people to buy a product simply based on studies that show changes in metabolism (Metabolism includes processes for cell growth, reproduction, response to environment, survival mechanisms, sustenance, and maintenance of cell structure and integrity. It is made up of two categories: catabolism and anabolism.)— and therefore imply a performance benefit to their potential customers — without having to wait another 2-5 years for studies to be conducted and published showing whether this is actually the case or not.
Cynics might argue that manufacturers do this deliberately, because they know that, historically, about 95% of supplements that show promise in these early studies fail to enhance performance when meaningful studies are conducted down the track. But my experience suggests that it’s usually because these early evaluation processes are enough to get the marketing team excited, and enough to get customers excited even though there is no direct controlled data to show the supplement, technique works.
The typical life cycle of sports supplement research. Manufacturers usually jump on board early in the process and begin marketing products long before the research shows whether or not there’s an actual performance benefit or not. Once this is known the supplement either becomes an accepted part of the athlete’s toolbox, or disappears for the most part as another passing fad.
The next group of studies typically involves recreational athletes, often performing a very basic physical task which may or may not have any relevance to real-world sporting performance. For example, it could simply be a one-legged performance test in the lab, or a cycling or treadmill test at a constant speed until fatigue.
This is when the hype really kicks into over-drive, with claims of improved performance because participants could perform longer after taking a particular supplement, or recovered one-legged strength better, or whatever the test may be. This is where it takes someone with specific scientific training in exercise, sports science and nutrition to sift through the research and pick out what’s relevant to the real world and what’s not.
The final phase of research on a product is where the supplement either becomes a staple part of an athlete’s routine, or the hype fades away, leaving the purchasers with less money and no improvement in their goals, and the supplement is never to be heard of again (or in some cases to make a comeback as an “all new breakthrough” several years later when everyone’s forgotten about it).
This is where real athletes (often high-level club athletes or occasionally elite athletes) are properly tested using a methodology that actually resembles the real world of competition. It is here that we finally know the answer to the question – does this supplement work for a particular type of athlete in a particular sporting situation?
If not, the supplement often slips quietly off the radar, surviving in only a small number of products. The manufacturers have made their money during the period of hype – it’s then on to the next big thing.
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