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Pills, Powders and Potions: Choosing a Supplement 

By Bob Seebohar

pills The supplement industry is saturated with products promising quick fixes for enhancing performance and health. In fact, the main three reasons athletes use supplements are to improve energy, body composition and strength. No matter the reason, when it comes to putting something in your body that is not real food, there are certain precautionary measures that must first be taken.


Congress defines a dietary supplement as a product taken by mouth that contains a "dietary ingredient" 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, glandulars, and metabolites. Dietary supplements can be extracts or concentrates and are found in many forms such as tablets, capsules, softgels, gelcaps, liquids, or powders. They can also be in other forms, such as an energy bar, but if they are, information on their label must not represent the product as a conventional food or a sole item of a meal or diet.

Of course, of primary concern is making sure that any product you put in your body is safe and will not produce any ill health effects. Enter the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994. This act introduced a very interesting take on dietary supplements. In brief, it states that the supplement manufacturer is responsible for ensuring that their supplement is safe before it is marketed. Obviously, there is a bit of an issue with this as some manufacturers do not have stringent safety and quality assurance standards that others do. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) only steps in to flex its muscles after products reach market. A little backwards if you ask me. The FDA is also responsible for monitoring product labeling, claims and other literature that companies distribute.

This is all fine and dandy but the take-home message is that supplement manufacturers do not need FDA-approval to make, sell or advertise supplements. This means that the FDA has no paper trail of the supplement companies until a claim is brought to their attention. Even more alarming is the fact that the FDA does not require a company to disclose information regarding a product’s safety or benefits to the FDA or even consumers. It is the sole responsibility of each manufacturer to determine its own policy on disclosing this information.


Certain organizations such as the NCAA, USADA and WADA have banned substance lists which indicate which compounds are illegal for use in sport. Most coaches and sport dietitians concern themselves with these lists when working with athletes. However, what it really comes down to is if the supplement manufacturer takes the steps to have their supplements tested for safety and quality. When done by reputable, independent third-party testing organizations, this will identify if there are substances in the supplement that are not reported on the label.

There are a few reputable companies that provide this independent testing and when a supplement manufacturer goes through this extensive and often costly process, they will proudly state it on their products, website or educational literature. Look for the stamps of NSF, Informed Choice and HFL Sport Science. These are the more popular labs and testing centers that supplement manufacturers are using and when completed, each batch of supplement will have an independent quality assurance report and certificate of analysis stating that it passed the testing standards. This will ensure that what is in the supplement is in it, without contaminants, and in the amounts stated on the label.

The take-home message is to look at the quality control, third-party testing and safety measures that a supplement company employs to ensure that there is no risk of supplement contamination and thus no future legal ramifications. Whenever I evaluate a supplement, my first question to manufacturers is if it is independently tested. The answer speaks volume to their commitment to providing safe and legal products to athletes.

Metabolic Efficiency TrainingBob Seebohar, MS, RD, CSSD, CSCS is a sport dietitian and elite triathlon coach. He traveled to the 2008 Summer Olympics as the U.S. Olympic Committee Sport Dietitian and the personal Sport Dietitian for the 2008 Olympic Triathlon Team. He has served as head coach for Sarah Haskins, 2008 Olympian, was a performance team member (sport dietitian and strength coach) for Susan Williams, 2004 Olympic Triathlon bronze medalist. He is the current coach of Jasmine Oeinck, 2009 Elite National Champion.

Bob's new book, Metabolic Efficiency Training: Teaching the Body to Burn More Fat, will teach athletes how to structure their nutrition and training program throughout the year to maximize their body's ability to use fat as energy and improve body composition.  For more information and to order the book, visit or contact Bob at