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Human Performance Performance Sport Medicine / Science | 30.10.18

Are Your Dietary Supplements Tested?

Brian Jordan of NSF International’s Certified for Sport® Program explains why athlete education is essential when it comes to dietary supplements.


Brian Jordan is under no illusions of the scale of the task of unearthing banned substances in dietary supplements. “There’s hundreds of thousands of products out there in the marketplace and the testing and certification of dietary supplements makes up just a small volume of those products.”


By John Portch

He tells the Leaders Performance Institute: “The challenge is always a moving target; different substances show up all the time and the biggest challenge is trying to uncover what the moving targets are.” Jordan is the Technical Manager of NSF International’s Certified for Sport® Program, which was founded in the early 2000s in Ann Arbor, Michigan. NSF International is an independent, not-for-profit program born at the College of Public Health at the University of Michigan in the 1940’s. The Certified for Sport® certification has grown into a global program that now has over 900 certified supplement products commonly used by athletes, both amateur and professional.

A number of leagues, including MLB, NHL and the CFL, have endorsed the Certified for Sport Program, while others, such as the NFL, PGA and LPGA, recommend the certification. Jordan emphasizes that there is no monetary exchange: “Those that endorse the program do so because they believe it’s best for their athletes.”

He also explains that it is not just a finished product for testing for banned substances. “We are auditing the manufacturing facilities, making sure they are abiding by good manufacturing and industry best practices. The second part is actually testing what’s in the product; we’re testing against the labels to make sure there’s legal dietary ingredients in these products. We’re also checking these supplements to make sure they contain what is said to be the amount of a labeled ingredient, such as protein, for example.. We are also testing for microbials, heavy metals and pesticides to be absent from these products so that people aren’t consuming something that’s a health risk.

“The last part of that, which makes it the most complete certification, is the testing for banned substances that athletes are tested for in sport. It’s a comprehensive program that I would say is not just for athletes; it should be of interest to people in any walk of life. I’m sure people would be happy to know the contents of the label are accurate and there’s an absence of drugs or heavy metals in their dietary supplements, even if they’re not a drug-tested athlete. You could be taking a potentially harmful substance not listed on the label but that is found in a supplement which could have a potential negative impact on your health. There could be negative health outcomes that people aren’t aware of in situations like this.”

When it comes to professional athletes and the guidelines they must abide by, the number of substances on the banned list of organizations such as WADA is in continual flux and requires updating several times per year. “There will be a few new substances that turn up in dietary supplements each year and our scientists will develop methods for testing those supplements.”

You have to speak to the people who are going to convey that message to their athletes directly, because they are the gatekeepers and the ones who will be educating their athletes.

With the landscape continually shifting, one of Jordan’s most significant roles is to oversee the education of those stakeholders responsible for guiding athletes. At any given engagement he could be speaking before physios, athletic trainers, strength & conditioning coaches, and other high performance personnel, including dieticians. “Athletes are very hard to get to unless you’re in those locker rooms so you have to speak to the people who are going to convey that message to their athletes directly, because they are the gatekeepers and the ones who will be educating their athletes.”

Jordan tells us it starts with food. “We do certify and test dietary supplements but it should be a food-first approach,” he says. “There’s an appropriate use of dietary supplements – there is a need for that – but begin by educating around really analyzing what your needs are and working off that. What is the safest way to navigate these rough waters of the dietary supplement industry? We’ve also learned that in the food industry, what we thought was benign and low risk is now becoming a much greater risk to food safety and contamination.”

Jordan hints at some heavy science but that is not his approach at all. “You have to be cognizant of who your audience is and the information that they need to convey to their own audience. We do have research scientists at hand who can speak to the science and testing behind it but we try to frame things as they can be applied in everyday life.

“Like most things, if you can teach them by saying ‘these are high risk issues and here’s a way to mitigate that risk, here are your options and solutions’ we usually have a good chance. There’s not a young athlete out there that wants to be told ‘don’t do this.’ so our approach needs to be education around available options and understanding the athlete’s needs and wants. From there, it’s helping them to navigate the best course for action based on those needs and perceived wants.”

This is particularly crucial if a teammate has taken a certain approach in the locker room, either at their team or away on international duty. “If they have the tools to understand the risks and the available options they are less likely to engage and follow suit just because they’ve been exposed to it.”

We do certify and test dietary supplements but it should be a food-first approach.

It is, however, an ongoing challenge and the Certified for Sport® Program endeavors to be proactive in anticipating the moves of those who may support doping. “If you’re going to have any chance in sport or preventative medicine and health then you have to be thinking about other people and putting yourself in    their shoes. You have to be able to convey messages that are up to date and relevant.”

The program is making great strides in that regard, establishing itself as the recognized and required product certification for leagues and teams across the globe. “We are getting the message out there at a greater capacity. More and more products and brands are earning Certified for Sport® certification and we’re getting the message out to more and more people.

“We can be happy and build on this and it appears we are being successful in our mission, which is protecting and improving public health.”


NSF Certified for Sport® are official partners of the 2018 Leaders Sport Performance Summit in London, November 12-13.