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With more than 170,000 NCAA Division I student-athletes in the United States, one shouldn’t be surprised by the rather large amount of strict rules pertaining to these students and their institutions, particularly when it comes to supplement usage. Some rules can be vague, though — according to the NCAA, taking a certain supplement may be just fine…or it might cause an athlete to lose an entire year of eligibility and scholarship. Information on how to tell the difference is not readily available, and that’s where the problem lies. How are people supposed to follow rules on taking supplements when those rules are beyond challenging to find and understand?
The standard NCAA Banned Substance List appears simple at first, with the average athlete most likely having no moral problem following it. No street drugs, no anabolic agents, no stimulants, no beta-2-agonists and so on. Overall, the rules are clear, especially with informative pamphlets and posters available at most, if not all, Division I institutions. Generally, athletes shouldn’t consume what are colloquially known as “drugs” and should double-check what they’re taking if it requires a prescription.
Yet on the same Banned Substance List lies a warning for all nutritional and dietary supplements — a less specific advisory that taking supplements can lead to a positive drug test. What does that mean?
It took 15 minutes of scouring the Internet just to find the list, but finally, the “not exhaustive” list of impermissible supplements from the NCAA’s statement on nutritional supplements appeared on a small PDF produced for Washington State University.
Four of the 17 banned nutritional and dietary supplements are amino acids and any amino acid chelates, glucosamine, green tea and protein powders. Anyone that has taken some form of basic biology in their lifetime knows that every human being is made up of the standard 20 amino acids. And if one combines biology with a little chemistry, one would learn that most vitamins and minerals are chelated (paired) with an amino acid for easier absorption into the body. Protein powders have a place in most D1 training facilities, glucosamine is a helpful joint aid and green tea is universally known for its high antioxidant count.
I soon discovered that green tea was banned due to its ability to mask marijuana consumption on a drug test. But how much green tea is required to keep an athlete’s poor choice in the clear? Whether it requires drops of extract or cups per day is left undisclosed by the NCAA’s rules. This is where changes need to take place — notifying athletes of the disallowed amount or at least the most dangerous forms of ingestion.
With that idea in mind I met with Laura Anderson, the University of Colorado’s athletic performance dietitian. I voiced my concerns about green tea and its masking abilities and how they closely mirror minor side-effects of cranberry juice. Given this information, how long would it take the NCAA to list cranberry juice as impermissible? What logic do they use to apply such a blanket ban to most dietary supplements?
“Supplements are supplements and foods are foods,” Anderson said. “Foods are substances containing macronutrients to provide energy essential to support human life, used in the body to sustain growth, repair tissue damage and vital processes. Although these [food] products may contain vitamins and minerals, they differ from dietary supplements by the presence of a ‘Nutrition Facts’ panel rather than a ‘Supplement Facts’ panel on the product packaging.”
Other than the packaging facts, one can see where it would be easy to confuse foods and dietary supplements to be within the same category, especially with protein and carbohydrate replenishers listed as supplements.
“Supplements follow other guidelines, defined by the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) as any product taken by mouth that is intended to supplement the diet. The ‘dietary ingredients’ in these products may include vitamins, minerals, herbs or other botanicals, amino acids, and substances such as enzymes, organ tissues and metabolites,” Anderson said.
So what’s wrong with simply listing off amounts allowed for each supplement?
“Listed amounts lead athletes to believe that they can take [a] supplement, then not understand why they just failed their drug test. The proprietary blend in a supplement can be made up of Chinese mushrooms, juju fruit and other ingredients that may or may not be there in their real or false forms,” Anderson said.
Basically, foods are what goes into one’s diet, whereas supplements quite literally supplement the diet. The dangers considered by the NCAA aren’t exactly concerned with an individual’s intake, but rather what that intake may contain. Since supplements are not considered foods or drugs, the FDA does not have to regulate them before they’re sold. This loophole in the industry allows distributors to add potentially harmful ingredients to the overall supplement without listing them.
A clip produced by Supplement 411, a resource of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), titled “Decoding the Dietary Supplement Industry” explains the fears. As the video explains, many supplements are “mostly OK” but a good number are in the “unknown” category and some are “dangerous.” Dietary supplements in the “dangerous” category can contain not only NCAA-banned substances, but generally illegal ones ranging from amphetamine-like stimulants to steroids and hormones, and even a “mostly OK” supplement has been found to contain anabolic steroids. The FDA sometimes steps in and adds further warning to these supplements or issues recalls, but some companies find ways around complying.
Some dietary supplements are safe, and some can really help athletes if they have been tested by a third party (a private non-FDA entity) and carry one of the four main private certification seals, but even then, they can’t always be trusted. What is more frightening is the amount of work required to find and understand these guidelines. The knowledge immediately available to student-athletes is something many D1 institutions and the NCAA as a whole must improve. Supplement information and regulation should be common knowledge to the NCAA athlete, starting with a greater push to educate those working hard to be the best they can be.