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Adding More Healthful Ingredients to Sports Nutrition Products

By Maura Keller

The sports nutrition industry is big business. By 2018, sales of sports nutrition supplements will reach $6.17 billion, according to a recent report from Global Industry Analysts.

Historically, sports nutrition products have included ingredients such as creatine, caffeine, and whey protein to boost athletic endurance, enhance physical strength, improve exercise recovery, and adapt to the rigors of intense training. And while many of these products, known as ergogenic aids, are benefitting athletes, many sports nutrition companies are trying to improve them by adding vitamins, minerals, and other healthful ingredients such as probiotics and glycerol to promote them as being “good for your health.”

“These [sports nutrition] supplements are still some of the most popular on the market,” says Amy Goodson, MS, RD, CSSD, LD, a board-certified sports dietetics specialist. The essential amino acid creatine promotes anabolism, increasing muscle mass to help athletes build greater strength during weight training workouts. And caffeine is the principal player in most preworkout powders, energy drinks, and weight-loss aids.

Sports nutrition companies are adding ingredients to products because of consumer demand for all-natural supplements and their desire for better health and wellness. “With the general public focusing its attention more on ‘natural,’ the supplement industry also wants to shift toward the natural side to maximize sales,” says Nathan Drendel, MS, RD, LD, CIC, a wellness dietitian with ProMedica Wellness in Ohio. “Many supplement companies just toss in extra ingredients that are currently trending, not only to grab new customers, but also to continue to evolve their product line.”

Vitamin D
For example, companies are adding vitamin D because many athletes don’t get adequate amounts in their diet and therefore have insufficient blood levels. Vitamin D aids calcium absorption. “It helps maintain a healthy blood pressure and can relieve chronic fatigue,” Goodson adds.

Because many athletes have vitamin D insufficiencies, Drendel says, it’s important for sports dietitians to recommend they have their serum vitamin D level status evaluated routinely, aiming for a serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D concentration greater than 32 ng/mL (preferably 40 ng/mL). Obtaining vitamin D via sun exposure (twice weekly for roughly 10 to 30 minutes), via dietary sources (eg, fatty fish, cod liver oil, low-fat dairy), or supplements (1,000 to 2,000 IU of vitamin D3 daily) seems to be advisable for the general population as well as athletes, he says.

Sports nutrition manufacturers are adding probiotics to promote gut health while enhancing athletic performance. “It’s possible that the beneficial bacteria in the gut may help athletes increase protein absorption and utilization, thus allowing them to maximize results from an elevated protein intake,” Drendel says.

Furthermore, companies are adding glycerol to nutritional supplements to slow dehydration during workouts. “Glycerol is marketed as a dietary aid for ‘hyperhydrating’ the body by increasing blood volume and helping to delay dehydration,” Goodson says. “Therefore, athletes training and competing in hot, humid environments may be interested in glycerol’s claims that it can increase blood volume, enhance temperature regulation, reduce dehydration, and improve exercise performance in the heat.”

Safety Concerns
While it’s OK for athletes to take performance-enhancing nutritional supplements, Goodson says, it’s better if they get their nutrients from food first. Then, if they’re not seeing the results they want, they can add a supplement.

Choosing food first also can help athletic clients avoid taking supplements that could contain banned substances. “Unfortunately, no one regulates the supplement industry, so there’s no one checking to see what’s in the product and comparing that to what’s on the label like the USDA and FDA do with food,” Goodson says. “So many substances may be laced with [illegal] ingredients, depending on where the supplement was made. For everyday exercisers, this may not be a problem, but for high school, collegiate, and professional athletes, this is a huge deal, as they are randomly drug tested.”

To avoid products that may contain illegal or banned substances, RDs should recommend clients buy supplements that have been tested by NSF Certified for Sport. It tests the quality and purity of the supplement’s lab to ensure nothing illegal was produced. “Thus athletes can feel safe taking these products, although they’re still taking supplements at their own risk,” Goodson says.

Before discussing sports supplements with clients, Drendel suggests dietitians focus on the science behind the sports nutrition supplement and not on what has the flashiest ads or largest marketing campaign behind it.

“Aside from scientific validity, safety also is critical,” he says. “With the increasing number of isolated compounds our science community is studying, we’ll continue to see a flourishing market of sports nutrition products. This, undoubtedly, will focus on weight loss, muscle building, as well as overall health.”

— Maura Keller is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor.