Updated 25 February 2014

Are there any 'safe' sports supplements?

Sportsmen and -women need to be super vigilant when they take any medication or supplement. Just one wrong step can ruin a promising career, DietDoc warns.


Sportsmen and -women need to be super vigilant when they take any medication or supplement. Just one wrong step can ruin a promising career, DietDoc warns.

Two of South Africa's top rugby players, Chiliboy Ralepelle and Bjorn Basson, have been cleared to play on after a judicial hearing found they were not to blame for returning positive drug tests. According to Vata Ngobeni writing in the Pretoria News on Saturday the two have “walked away scot-free and with a slap on their wrist from their doping hearing...” The players who had been suspended since November last year when dope test samples taken after the Ireland rugby test had tested positive for the banned substance methylhexaneamine, were exonerated because proof was provided at their hearing that the entire Springbok Rugby team had used a dietary supplement that may have contained this compound.  The two tested players were not aware of the fact that the dietary supplement they and all their fellow players had taken, contained an internationally banned substance, hence the verdict that has released them to continue their sporting careers.

What is methylhexaneamine?

Methylhexaneamine is a medication that was initially developed as a nasal decongestant. More recently this compound has been increasingly used as a stimulant to enhance sporting performance. Although regarded as less potent than related compounds such as amphetamine and ephedrine, methylhexaneamine does stimulate the central nervous system (Merck Index, 1989). It is banned throughout the world and was classified as a ‘prohibited substance’ by sports authorities, such as the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in 2009. And yet, it is included in sports supplements which can have disastrous consequences if athletes taking such supplements happen to be tested.

Why is methylhexaneamine included in sports supplements?

Because methylhexaneamine occurs in flower oils extracted from geraniums (Pelargonium graveolens) (Ping et al, 1996), which have been approved by organisations such as the FDA in America for use in foods, it can be added to dietary supplements. Now that methylhexaneamine is classified as a "prohibited substance" by the WADA and more and more athletes are testing positive to it, the time has come for all athletes, sporting bodies and supplement manufacturers to stop using or producing any product (nasal decongestant or dietary supplement), that contains the pharmacological or herbal compound.

The sensible approach

Any individual who pursues a serious career in any sport, and any organisation who is in charge of such sportsmen and women, should make it a priority to check every single medication, over-the-counter product and dietary supplement they use to prevent these unfortunate incidents where sports stars are banned because of often inadvertent use of a banned substance like methylhexaneamine.

But in a world of fierce competition where athletes are prepared "to die to win", and coaches and managers expect superhuman performances from their players, it is not surprising that potentially harmful products that can ruin the careers of everyone involved, are still used.

A drug and contaminant free sports supplement

Just when the doping scandal broke, I received a press release from the Sports Nutrition Working Group of the Association for Dietetics in SA (ADSA), about drug and contaminant free sports supplements called PeptoPro and PeptoSport. According to Dr Amanda Claassen, who is a Registered Dietician and Exercise Scientist and chairs the ADSA Sports Nutrition Working Group, “The supplement industry is fraught with poor and/or inaccurate labelling, contamination and irresponsible marketing which leaves consumers in a highly vulnerable position.” (ADSA, 2010).

Dr Claassen then went on to say that she welcomes sports supplements that make use of line testing to ensure that their products are drug and contaminant free. She mentioned that Informed Sport (a prohibited substance testing programme) in the UK has been created to test sports supplements and provide assurance to all users that products that have been tested and found to be drug and contaminant free are safe to use and will not result in doping scandals (ADSA, 2010).

Two researched products

The first products to be tested by Informed Sport and declared drug and contaminant free which are available in South Africa, are PeptoPro and PeptoSport. PeptoPro is formulated so that it can be added to carbohydrate-containing energy drinks to combine protein hydrolysate with carbohydrates to increase protein synthesis and improve muscle recovery after exercise. This product also enhances continuous hard training and improves performance.

PeptoSport is a sports drink which contains both carbohydrates and PeptoPro (the protein hydrolysate), which can be used during and after exercise. PeptoSport was tested by Prof Andrew Bosch at the University of Cape Town/Medical Research Council (MRC) Research Unit for Exercise and Sports Medicine in 2009. Twenty-three elite rugby players participated in the study and it was found that the subjects suffered less from muscle soreness in their calf and quadriceps muscles during periods of hard training. It has also been demonstrated that both PeptoPro and PeptoSport activate protein synthesis in muscles and enhance muscle recovery.

PeptoPro and PeptoSport have been tested and approved by Informed Sport in the UK and are allowed to display the Informed Sport logo on their labels. These products are manufactured by DSM Nutrition Products, and available in South Africa from At Life Products.                                                                                                     

Sportsmen and -women need to be super vigilant when they take any medication or supplement, because one wrong step and a promising career can be ruined if the person in question should test positive to a WADA prohibited substance. Hopefully more dietary supplements for sportsmen and women will be tested by Informed Sport and awarded their drug and contaminant free logo, so that athletes can see at a glance if the dietary supplement they intend taking, is safe and drug and contaminant free.

- (Dr IV van Heerden, DietDoc, January 2011)



(ADSA (2010). Drug and contaminant free sports supplements - A South African first. Press Release ADSA Sports Nutrition Working Group; Merck Index (1989), 11th Edition. Merck & Co.; Ngobeni V (2011). Justice as Bulls duo walk free. Pretoria News Weekend, Saturday 29 January 2011, p. 28; Ping Z, Jun Q, Qing L (1996). A study of the chemical constituents of Geranium Oil., J Guizhou Inst Technol, Vol 25(1): 82-85; WADA (2009). The 2010 Prohibited List. International Standard. Valid 1 January 2010. Published by WADA on 19 September 2009)

Any questions? Ask DietDoc

(Picture: Protein Shake from Shutterstock)

Read more:

Your guide to banned substances
Sports nutrition guides
Methylhexaneamine - the latest doping drug?


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