Although thousands of supplements are available, there are only a few that offer either practical or physiological benefits to rugby players. The challenge is to identify the product(s) that may offer these advantages, as there is often a big gap between the suggested claims and product features compared to the proven benefits, dosages and applications.
Another challenge is to understand players’ specific needs and their individual responses, as this varies from player to player. There are also a number of other very important considerations to bear in mind when contemplating supplements, such as legality, quality, safety and purity.
In 1994, the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) essentially gave “free license” to anyone to market and sell a variety of products as supplements, and as a result there has been an exponential growth in the dietary supplement industry worldwide, with sales estimated to contribute in excess of $270 billion to the global economy.
In 2007, a survey of 39 companies in South Africa reported average total sales of R78.5 million. Simultaneously there has also been a global increase in the contamination of dietary supplements with “banned substances” such as testosterone, benzodiazepines, powerful diuretics and potent stimulants.
The supplement industry is poorly regulated both internationally and locally. Unlike drugs, there is no legislation requiring companies to prove the efficacy of their supplement before it is marketed or sold.
The intention of Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) regulations, which supplement companies may claim to adhere to, are in fact very general and open-ended and allow each manufacturer the flexibility to decide on how to implement controls. Although GMP standards may provide some assurance with regard to documentation of manufacturing processes, they do not guarantee that the product has been tested for banned substances.
In practice, this means there is only limited control over the production, labelling, importation, distribution, and marketing of supplements and there is also no system to ensure products are safe and effective before they are sold. There have been numerous cases of supplements either being incorrectly labelled, or containing negligible amounts of declared ingredients. Some supplements may even contain undeclared ingredients with potentially harmful side-effects.
There have also been several cases of athletes testing positive after having used supplements and, unfortunately, this has undermined the image of the industry as a whole.
What is a supplement?
The DSHEA defines a dietary supplement as “a product, other than tobacco, which is used in conjunction with a healthy diet and contains one or more of the following dietary ingredients: a vitamin, mineral, herb or other botanical, an amino acid, a dietary substance for use by man to supplement the diet by increasing the total daily intake, or a concentrate, metabolite, constituent, extract, or combinations of these ingredients and dietary supplements are products that are labelled as a dietary supplement and is not represented for use as a conventional food or as a sole item of a meal or the diet”.
Typically, dietary supplements are available in the form of tablets, capsules, soft gels, liquids, powders and bars and may include vitamins, minerals, herbals, protein and carbohydrate powders, fat-cutting remedies, sports bars and drinks or powders, to more specialized products such as amino acids, creatine, HMB (beta-hydroxy-beta-methylbutyrate) and glutamine, either on their own or in combination with other ingredients.
SARU's standing on supplements
SARU does not condone or endorse the use of supplements. SARU does not and will not provide supplements to members of SARU national teams and High Performance squads, other than sports drinks. A “Sports Drink” is defined as a fluid beverage that contains only carbohydrates and electrolytes and that has met the required company standards.
SARU recognises that the only way rugby players will be risk-free is not to use supplements at all.
Despite having this policy in place, there are indeed some supplements that do have proven performance-enhancing and/or practical benefits, but since the industry is currently so poorly regulated, use of these supplements carries a huge risk and does not protect the player.
However, players are always looking for a competitive advantage and supplements have great appeal in trying to meet this need. The industry uses this desire to perform better when marketing and advertising their products, often making false claims with regard to the potential performance benefits, and without highlighting the potential risks involved.
This document provides a scientific, evidence-based review of supplements and also provides a best practice approach that rugby players need to consider if they, against SARU’s best practice recommendations, choose to use a supplement. This review does not constitute an endorsement or recommendation of any of the supplements discussed.
These guidelines provide the player with the necessary information to make an informed decision and to minimise the risks involved. Players are however reminded about the strict liability principle which means that players use supplements at their own risk. SARU will not and cannot be held responsible for players testing positive as a result of using contaminated supplements.
Read more on SA Rugby.
Source: Practical Nutrition for Rugby by Dieticians Shelley Meltzer and Cecily Fuller, courtesy SA Rugby.
(Health24, August 2011)