Nutritional supplements are manufactured and supplied to the market to enhance the overall health of the general population and optimise the performance of athletes.
Most of these products are developed and manufactured according to scientific formulas and are apparently scientifically tested and researched. But it is not clear whether these procedures have adhered to prescribed criteria for testing and whether these are legitimate scientific studies.
A second 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 by business-minded entrepreneurs.
As more nutritional supplement brands and products are released, both locally and internationally, the scale of the problem is increasing day by day. This is especially a concern in first world countries where such supplements are the driving force of performance optimisation.
Do they work?
Athletes, students and the general population have asked 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 looking at 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. But the study found that high school and college students experienced no differences in their performances. The difference is explained by their diets: 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 followed a correct diet and exercise routine without the use of supplements. 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 by social media and the internet.
These changes in lifestyle have created a ready market for supplements.
Firstly, the industry has ballooned. A great deal more is at stake because there is so much money to be made. This translates into continued aggressive marketing from supplement companies. Adverts are designed to attract consumers to buy the product and motivate athletes to achieve their goals during performances.
As a result, clinical research for nutritional supplements is induced by commercial concerns. These need to be countered by scientific findings. There is a clear need for more trials to assess the efficacy and safety of nutritional supplements.
Secondly, the arrival of the internet has also had an impact. There is now easy internet access to nutritional supplements which lack adequate medical information. This misleading information leads to improper use by both healthy individuals. Better quality control of websites, more informed physicians and greater public awareness of these widely used products is needed.
A third challenge is 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.
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 which remains as the focal concern.
South Africa’s Consumer Protection Act should promote greater levels of policy development, regulatory enforcement and consumer education of the supplement industry.
Future evaluations of supplements should include qualitative research. It should be geared towards gaining insights into the supplement industry, distributors and consumer trends outside of South Africa. This would be useful as information could provide feedback to the sector overall.
In addition, nutritional supplement policies need to be drafted and current legislation amended to protect the consumer and safeguard the manufacturer, distributor and retailer. The policies and legislation can be invaluable to determine appropriate and safe networks for distributions of nutritional supplement products to the market place and for more accurate labelling practices.