The International Supplement Industry is notorious for its constant exploitation by under-regulated and under-supervised businesses.
The core problem isn’t simply that supplement companies are crafty and evasive, the problem is that there are practically no walls or hurdles preventing your average gym-rat or business school graduate from starting their own supplement company.
The harsh truth of the matter is that anyone can throw their hat into the rapidly growing nutritional supplement industry with as little as a $3,000 investment, about 2 weeks of start-up time and a friend or two with ties to a supplement retail store.
The only advisory body here in Australia that ‘ensures’ that these new products hit the shelf with some level of safety is in the form of guidelines provided by the Food Standards of Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ). The guidelines presented by FSANZ provide supplement developers with quick access to the DOs and DON’Ts of nutritional supplement formulation and production eg. You shouldn’t include caffeine in a product without appropriately stating its content on the label.
These guidelines are all well and good when followed but if you were to spend a quiet evening at the computer, reading through the warnings required on labels and the countless ingredient limitations detailed in full, you wouldn’t be alone in feeling a sense that these guidelines were developed to prevent anything novel or effective from ever reaching the market. The guidelines are not only strict and explicit, they also blatantly restrict supplement developers from producing anything of any true ergogenic (performance enhancing) or therapeutic value to consumers.
What has evidently resulted are two very different streams of nutritional supplement products: 1) products which abide by all the guidelines and are practically “carbon-copies” of every other product on the market in their category and; 2) products which ‘bend’ or break these rules with something novel and new which, is potentially either very beneficial and exciting, or very dangerous and under-researched.
The overwhelming trend within Australian supplement companies is to stick to the norm and rely on marketing differentiation to set your company apart from the rest. Obviously, this is the safer approach, and with most Australian supplement companies restricting their distribution to Australian consumers, this helps to keep company owners safe from potential health risks to their trusting consumers and the otherwise ever-present danger of law-suits which constantly terrorise innovators within the health sector (even those with the very best of intentions).
Unfortunately, this isn’t the case for all companies, nor is it the case at all when dealing with companies distributing their products from overseas. The distance these (predominantly American and South-American) products travel across international waters, often provides their producers with a sense of disconnected security. This lends these business-owners and their companies a more apparent sense of freedom from nutritional guidelines, since much of what lands on Australian shores can contain ingredients not listed in any form of FSANZ documentation. As long as these ingredients aren’t scheduled (like drugs of abuse such as testosterone and adrenaline), they are often passed through Customs without much immediate cause for concern at all. This is especially the case where an ingredient has not been seen or produced before (a common issue in pre-workout products containing stimulant-like derivatives and herbal synergists of amphetamines). The recent nation-wide ban on products containing 1,3-dimethylamylamine (or DMAA) was a horrifyingly low-key (barely-publicised) example of an ingredient which flew under the radar for over a year without being flagged as hazardous (ultimately, its non-existent nutritional benefits could not be safely justified in the presence of its potential cardiovascular side effects).
This story, as with many others like it, should serve as reminders to consumers in Australia that just because a product appears on the shelves of our stores, it doesn’t mean that it has ever been reviewed or even authorised for human consumption by any nutritional regulatory body
In spite of the less trustworthy brands available in stores, there are a handful of far more scientifically grounded and credible companies which regulate themselves to exceptionally high standards. Although the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) has very little involvement in regulating nutritional supplements like protein powders and powdered vitamins, there is nothing stopping supplement companies from independently adopting the TGA guidelines and being produced in facilities which have been accredited and registered with the TGA.
Thankfully, these products are often no more expensive to purchase for consumers as the supplement market doesn’t realistically allow for much variation in retail prices. The extra expense is often worn by the supplement manufacturers and producers themselves, further demonstrating their inherent commitment to providing high quality products to consumers regardless of the lower-quality competition their products sit beside on retailer shelves.
Parting words: When you next venture to a supplement store or search around online for a supplement product to suit your nutritional needs or deficiencies, make sure to look for on-label statements like “Made in a TGA-registered facility in Australia” or “Compliant with TGA Guidelines for Therapeutic Claims”. Although the TGA will never endorse supplement products or be associated with their production or quality, you can feel far safer knowing your new supplement has been produced in an Australian facility which has been inspected, qualified and authorised by the national regulatory body to produce medical therapeutics of the highest possible standard.
Disclaimer: This article, nor its contents, is intended in any way to blame any supplement company, Australian Customs, FSANZ nor the TGA for any form of negligence or lack of effective activity. Generally, these institutions provide the best services possible protect us from dangerous and unsuitable nutritional consumable products in this country. It is rather the consumers’ independent research and due diligence which will ultimately determine whether or not the product they buy will safely meet their nutritional needs throughout their varying involvement in exercise and sport.