Risks of Supplementation

Risks of Supplementation

By Sean Burke

A few weeks ago a wrote about a few supplements that  I personally take.   As I’ve said before, I’m not really a big supplement guy, and I am cautious about what I take, as well as what I recommend to my athletes.    The WADA and USADA websites have excellent athlete resources and full lists of banned substances that can help you avoid anything  that is against the rules.  But taking supplements, even apparently legal and safe ones, is not without risk.    Earlier this year  my  Crank Cycling   co-coach  Chris Daggs sent me a list of   supplements that were tainted and recalled by the FDA. . You can find the list here.     The list is an excellent reminder that there are tainted supplements out there, and that   an athlete is responsible for anything that winds up in his body.   If a substance that is on the WADA banned list winds up in your body, you will get a suspension.    It doesn’t matter if it was an accident or not.   Some of these supplements may even be purposefully tainted in  in order to increase their efficacy.    Most of the supplements on this list are bodybuilding supplements, and are unlikely to be taken by cyclists, but the other common classifications are basically penis pills and weigh loss supplements.  I know many cyclists that might be tempted to try at least one of those…..  And cyclists have been banned for unintentionally ingesting a banned substance in a tainted supplement.  In 2002, professional rider Scott Moninger received a one year suspension when he  tested positive for a metabolite of anabolic steroids.   Moninger  had unopened containers of  the amino acid that he  purchased  at a local health food store.  He took those unopened packages and had them tested  at an independent lab, where they found the same anabolic substance that was in Moningers sample,  giving pretty strong evidence  that Moninger did not knowingly take the substance.     Moninger’s 1 year suspension was considered a slap on the wrist because he unknowingly ingested the substance.  If he hadn’t proven that  it was taken on accident, he likely would have received a much longer ban.    More recently in the Fall of 2011,  an amateur racer in Florida received an 8 month ban for a banned substance  that was apparently   in an over the counter mass marketed energy drink he bought a local  drug store.


Anyone who takes out a racing license is essentially agreeing to the possibility of being tested, and the push to have testing at more amateur events is growing.    It is important to understand that anything on the banned list is found in your system, you are going to pay the price.   Even if it was an accident, and even if it was in non-therapeutic dosage.     So how often  are supplements contaminated?   In 2002 the IOC issued a  report that found that 14.8% of the supplements they tested  were contaminated with testosterone or related compounds, 18.8 % of the supplements  that originated in the US were contaminated.  That is 1 out of 5!  But wait….it gets worse…. A 2004 study published in the journal Sports Medicine, found that 40% of the supplements they tested were contaminated with either prohormones or  or stimulants that could cause an athlete to test positive for a banned substance!  Not good.   Almost half!   I’m not suggesting that a full 40% of all supplements out there are contaminated.  A full 40% of the supplements in that one study were contaminated, but the researches chose mostly protein powders/muscle building supplements and weight loss supplements.  It is definitely possible that those classes of supplements are more likely than others to be contaminated, but that isn’t really the point either.     The point is that  supplement contamination is real and you can get into real trouble if you accidentally take a contaminated supplement.      What is the best way to ameliorate those risks?  Avoiding  supplements in general is probably the best way to avoid accidental ingestion of a banned substance.   If you really want to take supplements though, there is an independent testing organization called NSF that tests products .   This organization runs completely independently of the supplement companies, tests their products for contamination, ensures that the label accurately reflects what is in the product inspects their facilities, and will only give their stamp of approval  once their rigorous standards have been met.    NSF even does random ” marketplace testing”, meaning they don’t just  test the stuff the companies give them.  They go to the store and randomly buy the supplements off the shelves and test those  as well.        I am generally of the opinion that most supplements are not worthwhile, but there are a few that are worth taking for some athletes ( that belongs is another post).  If you absolutely must take a supplement, my suggestion is that you march on over to http://www.nsfsport.com now, and search their list of certified products.    You’ll get no promises from me, but that is probably  the best way to make sure you stay clean.

Resources and Sources:

IOC Report on Supplement contamination: http://www.edb.utexas.edu/ssn/SN_Papers/IOC%20alert-Supplement.pdf


Sports Medicine Journal Article on   Tainted supplements: Http://www.ajol.info/index.php/sasma/article/viewFile/31857/23634


World Anti Doping agency website: http://www.wada-ama.org/


US Anti-Doping Agency  website: http://www.usantidoping.org/


NFS Sport: http://www.nsfsport.com





  1. […] UKA’s  anit-doping educator David Walsh   flatly stated: “With supplements you can’t give 100% guarantees”   David was talking about the risks of tainted supplements.  In the USm you should check to make sure your supplements are NSF Safe certified.   NSF independently tests the supplements to be sure that they contain what they say they contain and nothing more.      I’ve written a little more extensively about there at Cycling illustrated.   Check it out. […]

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