Supplements: not exactly what it says on the tin

Having just completed the final lung busting sprint of training on a random Thursday night. The steam is rising of you and your fellow teammates as you enter the dressing room. Each player plants themselves on the hard-wooden bench. A common sight in many GAA club changing rooms across Ireland, that many will relate too. However, recently, most clubs have had the one person in the team who draws what looks like a cream whipper from the side pocket of their bag. “What’s that lad?”, one person will invariably say, to which the response will be “ah, this, it’s a protein shake lad, it’s for recovery”. Before long, the concept had spread amongst the crowd and ques have formed outside the local health shop.

The idea of using supplements has spread to most facets of Sport, be that elite or amateur levels. It has been reported that 75-85% of athletes consume at least one supplement, with 21% reported to be consuming at least 6 supplements (Maughan et al., 2007). Estimates place the value of the supplement industry in the United States at approximately $35 billion, with it expected to grow exponentially in the coming years (Kuszak et al., 2015). Especially given the level of exposure, these supplement companies get through social media and celebrity endorsements.

So, what may be the problem and how does it impact on GAA players? Well, the nutrition industry is a largely unregulated industry. In 1994, the Dietary Supplements Health and Education Act (1994) in the USA, removed the restrictions placed on the production and sale of supplements. Therefore, a supplement was not required to meet the stringent regulations placed on the production of pharmaceutical drugs (Maughan et al., 2007). So, if you ever go to purchase these products, the container that states “Fat-Burner”, “Mass Gainer” and “Improved Performance, these statements are not backed by actual science. In fact, most of the 55,000 products on the market are backed by very little evidence. It was also reported that 80% of supplements did not contain what was stated on the label (Outram & Stewart, 2015). This includes the breakdown of the macronutrients (Carbohydrate, Protein & Fat) may not be representative of what is within the container, so, even when reading the labels, the claim of 25g of protein or 30g of carbohydrate per serving, may not be accurate.

In recent times, it has been widely reported that several high-profile cases of doping were related to athletes unknowingly consuming prohibited substances. These cases include the likes of Asafa Powell, who received a 6 month ban testing positive for the stimulant Oxilofrine, which was apparently in a contaminated Epiphany D1 supplement. Similarly, Mamadou Sakho was provisionally banned for 30 days following a positive test for a fat burner. However, these should not come as a surprise as Outram & Stewart, (2015), reported that 6.4-8.8% of doping could be attributed supplement use, with 10-15% of supplements containing banned substances.

So, do you avoid them like the plague? I don’t think so, like most things, they have their place. Just be careful what supplements you decide to use. However, whatever you do, avoid buying the biggest container of powder for the least amount of money. There are companies out there that independently evaluate these supplements for ingredient safety, value for money and label accuracy etc., which could be useful. Most importantly, supplements are exactly that, they are meant to supplement your diet, not replace it. So, get the nutrition right and if you feel a supplement is needed, then try to make an informed decision, maybe contact a qualified nutritionist for their help.

Written by Emmet McDermott Masters student in Exercise Physiology at Loughborough University


Kuszak, A. J., Hopp, D. C., Williamson, J. S., Betz, J. M., & Sorkin, B. C. (2016). Approaches by the US National Institutes of Health to support rigorous scientific research on dietary supplements and natural products. Drug testing and analysis.

Maughan, R. J., Depiesse, F., & Geyer, H. (2007). The use of dietary supplements by athletes. Journal of sports sciences25(S1), 103-S113.

Outram, S., & Stewart, B. (2015). Doping through supplement use: a review of the available empirical data. International journal of sport nutrition and exercise metabolism25(1), 54-59.