A 2016 analysis of 67 leading brand supplements in Australia found one in five contained substances that are banned in sport. “Two products were found to contain such high levels of unlabelled stimulants that they were considered to pose a significant health risk to athletes,” the TGA report said.
A second study from 2017, found that, of 116 supplements assessed, more than one in 20 contained anabolic steroids that were not declared on the labels.
Further research, from earlier this year, found that an amino acid widely used in bodybuilding supplements may cause damage to brain cells.
The TGA report also points to two recent deaths which have been linked to sports supplements.
Western Australian mum-of-two, Meegan Hefford died in 2017. The 25-year-old bodybuilding competitor, who had an undiagnosed genetic condition which meant her body couldn’t metabolise protein properly, had a protein-heavy diet which included supplements. Lachlan Foote, 21, from the Blue Mountains, died on new year’s eve in 2017 after overdosing on a caffeine supplement, which he mixed into protein powder.
“Given the above issues regarding consumer safety posed by sports supplements as a class of goods, this can put consumers at risk,” the report said. “This is of significant concern since adverse events associated with the use of supplements in the community are likely to be under-reported, which is exacerbated by community perceptions around supplements being ‘foods’ that pose a lower risk than medicines.”
The proposed reform, however, has caused an outcry in the industry worth $1.9 billion. With the consultation period for the changes closing next week, more than 11,300 Australians have signed the petition to #saveaussiesupplements, which claims consumer choice, jobs and safety are “under threat”.
Ben Crowley is the owner of Tasmanian-based supplements company, Bulk Nutrients.
He admits the industry has “gotten a bit out of control in terms of companies taking liberty” in recent years.
“I would say our industry definitely needs more legislation and boundaries,” Crowley says.
Although Crowley says such changes would “definitely” help to weed out less scrupulous Australian companies, he fears the baby will be thrown out with the bathwater while giving unscrupulous overseas companies an advantage.
The supplements industry has more than doubled in size in the last 15 years, and because of that explosion it has gone under the radar.
Researcher Kate Samardzic
“What we’re concerned about is there is very strict policing in Australia, but when it comes to personal importation, that won’t be something that they follow,” he says. “If I’m making a product and I can’t make any claims and my competitor from overseas is saying it builds muscle, increases stamina and has larger doses and a wider array of ingredients, they’ll be at a huge advantage.
“The legislation is really inconsistent with anything else in the world.”
Instead, he hopes substances on the World Anti-Doping Authority banned list will be prohibited along with analogue substances.
“[Natural stimulant] DMAA was banned so what laboratories did was just developed a different form of that with a slightly different structure,” explains Crowley, who adds that most of the supplements that fail tests are from overseas. “The analogue law means that anything with a similar structure is also banned. We think that would be a good idea.”
Kate Samardzic is a researcher at the University of Technology’s Department of Medical Science.
She says the proposed changes are “a very exciting prospect and long overdue”.
“The supplements industry has more than doubled in size in the last 15 years, and because of that explosion it has gone under the radar,” says Samardzic.
“People are buying supplements online now as well and have managed to bypass a lot of safety regulations because they have been classified as food … I’ve studied a bodybuilding supplement that is classified as food and my research found it has potentially toxic side-effects.”
She says Australian companies “should want nothing more” than to have some this official endorsement of their safety and efficacy in an untamed industry.
“Up until now these compounds have gotten around TGA regulations because they use loose language like ‘boosts’ and ‘improves’ and ‘promotes’,” she says. “But at the end of the day they are making health-related claims and these claims are unsubstantiated. It is the consumer’s right to know these products are safe and second of all these claims are real.”
Sarah Berry is a lifestyle and health writer at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.