Sports nutrition flexes its muscles to stamp out non-compliance: ‘Third-party certification has significantly enhanced industry reputation’

By Flora Southey contact

- Last updated on GMT

Third-party certification has helped to 'significantly enhance' sports nutrition's reputation, according to ESSNA vice-president Terence O'Rorke. GettyImages/Extreme Media
Third-party certification has helped to 'significantly enhance' sports nutrition's reputation, according to ESSNA vice-president Terence O'Rorke. GettyImages/Extreme Media

Related tags: Sports nutrition

A sector once plagued by ‘suspicion’ and ‘failed doping tests’ is turning the tide on non-compliance thanks to voluntary third-party certification programmes.

When Terence O’Rorke first started working in sports nutrition around 2010, there was a ‘great deal of suspicion’ surrounding the industry.

“Athletes were failing doping tests on a regular basis, and there were varying worrying instances of consumers having their health put at risk,” ​recalled the vice chair of trade association the European Specialist Sports Nutrition Alliance (ESSNA).

Now, just over 10 years on, the sector’s reputation has ‘significantly enhanced’, O’Rorke – who is also business development manager EMEA and Asia at sports nutrition certification company LCG – told delegates at a recent European Food Forum (EFF) event.

“These instances have reduced significantly,” ​he stressed, putting much of sector’s improved reputation down to third-party certification programmes.

Stamping out non-compliance

Sports nutrition is not defined by EU legislation. For the most part, the sector is regulated by the European Commission’s General Food Law Regulation. The Food Supplements Directive is also applied to the sector where relevant.

In an effort to improve the reputation of the industry, particularly in manufacturing, quality assurance, and safety, the sector has taken it upon themselves to adopt voluntary systems and third-party certification programmes.

Amongst the third-party schemes available to sports nutrition businesses in Europe is ESSNA’s campaign to tackle non-compliance, Informed certification by LGC, and the Kölner Liste (or Cologne List) developed in Germany.

cycling claudio.arnese
A decade ago, athletes were 'failing doping tests on a regular basis'. GettyImages/claudio.arnese

The ESSNA non-compliance campaign, which launched in 2013, has now been in place for close to a decade. It aims to eradicate products that do not comply with EU rules from the market.

The campaign aims to identify suspicious products, unauthorised claims, banned ingredients, and non-compliant labelling. In its voluntary capacity, ESSNA has so far been able to address more than 500 cases of non-compliance, explained O’Rorke.

“Reassuringly, 60% of these have been resolved, very often through ESSNA being able to contact the company, being able to work with them, and educate them as to what the issues are.”

Certification for finished products and ingredients

The other programme to have made a ‘significant’ difference in the European sports nutrition industry is Informed, said the ESSNA vice-president. Informed is owned by certification business LCG, with which O’Rorke is also involved.

“This is a group of quality assurance and banned substance testing certification programmes which allow sports nutrition companies, manufacturers and brands to show their consumers or their customers that their products and their systems are of a high level of quality assurance and are free from any ingredients and substances which possibly might pose a risk to consumers,” ​he explained.

All the Informed programmes require a ‘very thorough’ interrogation of the manufacturing behind either a finished product or an ingredient, O’Rorke continued. “And we also look at various levels of the manufacturing process.”

Informed also analyses the ingredients being handled within the facility, and determines how the manufacturing facility meets other regulations.

“And we also test for substances banned in sport by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).”

As it stands, Informed screens for more than 250 substances banned in sport by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which O’Rorke says provides a ‘level of assurance’ to the brand, as well as to the consumer to know that a certified product is not contaminated with such substances.

The Informed stable of programmes

There are five certification programmes under the Informed banner. Three serve finished products, and two serve the B2B market.

In the finished product category, the most popular is the Informed Sport certification scheme. This programme is designed to provide quality assurance for brands which have a connection with elite sport and elite athletes. If a product is certified by Informed Sport, it means it has been tested for substances banned in sport.

Informed Choice is a more generic programme that provides quality assurance and a level of ongoing testing for banned contaminants, O’Rorke explained.

And Informed Protein was developed for protein products following cases of ‘protein spiking’ – an issue that has caused ‘a lot of concern’ for consumers over the past three to four years, we were told. “Protein spiking involves brands using certain contaminants or not using the source of protein which they claim are in the products.

“[Informed Protein] allows consumers to see that the amount of protein, but also that the protein source that is in the product is what it says on the label.”

protein ArtistGNDphotography
The Informed Protein scheme was developed following cases of 'protein spiking'. GettyImages/ArtistGNFphotography

LCG is targeting the B2B industry with two programmes: Informed Manufacturer and Informed Ingredients.

The former makes a ‘very thorough’ assessment of the manufacturing facility that produces sports nutrition and supplements products. “We look at all the critical points within that facility and we also do swabbing to make sure there is no evidence of banned substances and contamination,” ​the ESSNA vice-chair explained.

Informed Ingredients allows suppliers of raw materials to demonstrate to customers – made up of manufacturers and brands – that the ingredients in their products are free from contamination and have been made to ‘high quality’ standards.

Responding to consumer demand

In Europe, these certification programmes have been adopted ‘widely’. “Worldwide, we currently have more than 1,300 products using Informed Sport and we estimate that approximately 400 of those are European brands and European products,” ​we were told.

“The other programmes are starting to be adopted significantly and each of them shows that there is a very encouraging movement towards doing more in the sports nutrition industry to provide levels of quality assurance and safety for consumers.”

Indeed, O’Rorke is convinced consumers are demanding greater transparency in the sports nutrition sector. “They want to know that the products are safe, whether they are using those products as elite athletes, as regular gym goers, or as ‘weekend warriors’ – as we call them.”

sports nutrition MStudioImages
Consumers are demanding greater transparency from sports nutrition brands. GettyImages/MStudioImages

Having observed a positive shift in the sector’s reputation over the last decade, O’Rorke suggested it is not the time to sit back and relax. “There is still the need to continue with these third-party certification programmes and we are very encouraged by the fact that the industry is adopting them on a much more regular basis

“As a result of this, the industry has shown strong growth over the past decade and predictions [indicate] that through to 2026, it will continue to grow at a compound rate of about 8% per year.

“So overall, there is strong evidence to suggest that the industry has made good progress.”

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