Tainted supplements don’t only pose a safety risk, they also taint the reputation of the fitness industry, argues exercise physiologist Dr Bill Sukala.When I started in the fitness industry in the United States nearly 30 years ago, there were minimal standards in place governing personal training. In fact, to become a trainer in those days, you just memorised a personal training book, spat back the answers on the certification test, and, voila, you were a certified PT.
In my quest for knowledge beyond the certification, I devoured every word in every fitness magazine, voraciously studying the ‘celebrity trainer’ exercise routines, and digesting articles on nutrition and dietary supplements (many of which were conveniently advertised next to the articles). Embarrassingly, I fell prey to what is now known as ‘bro science.’
But then something happened. My insatiable curiosity for responsible health information fuelled my desire to study nutrition and exercise physiology at San Diego State University. I immersed myself in the biochemistry and physiology of the human body. I memorised complex metabolic cycles and which enzymes catalysed which reactions.
As my scientific knowledge grew, the lens through which I viewed the health industry began to change. I started seeing through the smoke screen of marketing hyperbole, deceptive half-truths, and word salad sleights of hand used to sell things that either didn’t work or people simply didn’t need.
I became a consumer health advocate in 1996, giving talks at universities and conferences to expose the pernicious underbelly of the health ‘industry.’
To this day, I still speak out in defence of science, truth, and integrity through my writing, speaking, and media communications work – and sometimes to great effect. My 2010 article debunking the Ab Circle Pro went viral in the fitness industry and eventually contributed to the company being fined A$37.3m and forced out of business in the US.
An unhealthy health industry
I was recently interviewed by the Sydney Morning Herald and ABC Radio regarding the Shayna Jack Ligandrol scandal and the problem of dietary supplements adulterated with pharmaceutical grade drugs. In the wake of the media scrum, many pundits wondered how it was possible that supplements could be adulterated or contaminated. After all, ‘they couldn’t sell them on store shelves if they weren’t safe, right?’ Wrong.
First, under Australian law, dietary supplements can be sold to consumers without having to be proven safe, effective, pure, or that the potency on the label is what’s in the product. In fact, laboratory testing on over-the-counter supplements has uncovered products with contaminants, steroids, pharmaceutical drugs, and, in some cases, minimal to nil active ingredients.
Second, Australia assumes a risk-based approach which essentially means that no regulatory action is taken against a manufacturer or a product unless there’s a pile of dead bodies or a long list of people needing liver transplants.
Third, in my observations, over 85% of dietary supplements are sold using vague or deceptive marketing jargon such as ‘supports liver function’ or ‘helps maintain heart function’. News flash: food and exercise also support liver and heart function.
And finally, the internet, fuelled by social media hype, has given rise to the number of tainted supplements on the market. Anyone can make and sell supplements and there is low oversight, so dodgy operators are currently flourishing in the shadows. If anything goes wrong, they can instantly vanish.
The bottom line
Supplements are just that, supplements, not substitutes for hard work. As fitness professionals, clients and members look to you for safe guidance. Be responsible and inform them that supplements are not always a win-win and that there are risks. Do not sell supplements as a side hustle, because it’s possible that you could unwittingly sell adulterated products.
I am not anti-supplement, but I am pro-safety. Supplements need tighter regulation because tainted supplements not only pose a safety risk, they also taint the reputation of the fitness profession.
Dr Bill Sukala
Bill is an exercise physiologist, writer, presenter, consultant, and media health spokesperson. He has authored numerous consumer advocacy articles, spoken at conferences across five continents, and consulted to large multinational health organisations.