Does Supplement Contamination Really Cause Failed Drug Tests?

My biggest fears include being paralyzed, serving a long prison sentence, having a loved one get killed or seriously hurt in a bike or other sporting accident, getting old, and testing positive for a banned substance that I took accidentally. And not necessarily in that order.

Just a few days ago, I learned that a former teammate of mine failed a drug test and has accepted a one-year ban in bike racing. I first learned about it on Cyclingnews, and was so shocked that I thought it might be about someone else with the same name, so I went to his Facebook page to confirm that it was him. I was shocked not just because this was a former teammate of mine, but because he really didn’t seem like the type of guy that would cheat. I spent a fair bit of time with him, and actually lived with him for a month a few years ago, and I would have bet a considerable amount of money that he was clean. He was just too honest, and nervous, of a person to dope, in my opinion. Myself and another teammate that I was living with at the time would sneak across the street to eat a continental breakfast at a hotel every morning and this guy wouldn’t join us because he didn’t like to break the rules. He did have a marked improvement since I was teammates with him, but that doesn’t mean that he cheated to get to that point. In my experience, consistency, dedication, and hard work can create a pretty big boost from one year to the next, even after multiple years of stagnation. I have an extremely hard time seeing him as a doper.

I don’t need to name him, but for anyone who follows domestic cycling it would be easy to figure out who this is. Anyways, his story goes as follows. He was tested at a race that he did fairly well at last spring and was informed a few months later that he had failed the test for Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), a steroid that is sold over the counter and is widely known to be a fairly worthless banned supplement to take on its own. It can, however, be used to get the body to start making its own testosterone after a regiment of artificial testosterone has been used. The body stops making its own T after you dope with enough artificial testosterone so the idea is that when you come off testosterone doping, you use DHEA to get your body back on track so that you can eventually test clean at a race. DHEA might also be used as a masking agent. Anyways, he was given a one-year ban–a reduced sentence for providing evidence that his whey protein was contaminated with DHEA.

Tom Zirbel was busted for DHEA back in 2009, and a fair number cyclists in the domestic pro peloton believed his story that he was clean and had been screwed over by a tainted supplement. At first I didn’t buy this story a bit. I have gone back and forth over the years though. On the one hand, he did get 4th at the world time trial championships that year. Is that even possible without drugs? I don’t know. On the other hand, how would he have been so clueless to have been caught with DHEA in an in-competition test? (The test he was busted at was done at the USA national time trial championships).

I don’t known Zirbel that well, but have chatted with him a handful of times and he’s certainly a nice guy, which everyone says about athletes who get popped whom they want to believe are clean. Being a nice guy means nothing, of course, and is not evidence of innocence. Anyways like I said, I’ve gone back and forth on believing Zirbel’s claim, and don’t really have a definite opinion at this point, especially after my ex-teammate just got busted for the same thing.

Is my ex-teammate telling the truth? I believe so. Obviously I don’t know, but this story has certainly raised my concern about accidental contamination.

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 Pee for drug testing, or champagne. One of the two.

Over 25 Percent of Supplements Contain Banned Substances?

There’s certainly evidence of supplement contamination in studies. One source that I have trust in that supports this claim is Precision Nutrition, which cites a few different studies, one of which found that over 25 percent of supplements tested were tainted with banned substances, back in 2001.

You could easily say, “Just don’t take any supplements. It’s not worth the risk.” But that would pretty much be impossible. That means that you are not only avoiding vitamins and recovery drinks, which would be the easy part, but that you are also supplying and preparing all of your own nutrition for races. So no gels, no sports drinks or bars, no chews, and no taking anything in aid stations. You can’t even get a damn smoothie at a damn smoothie place because of the damn whey protein in it. I guess you could ask for it without the protein, but then of course you aren’t going to get yoked at all, so what’s the point? IT’S ALL ABOUT BEING YOKED!!!!

My second reaction to hearing about my ex-teammate’s failed drug test, after shock, was fear. Fear that something I take might be contaminated. I actually had a nightmare about it the other night. You might think that you don’t take that many supplements (this includes race and training nutrition) but you’re probably wrong about that. At least, I was. I compiled all of the “sups” that I take, either on a frequent or infrequent basis, and it’s pretty staggering, as outlined later on below.

Third Party Testing

There are a number of independent, third-party testing companies that help hold supplement and nutrition companies accountable, including NSF Certified for Sport, Informed Sport, Informed Choice, Human Sports Performance (HSP), and others. However, even if a product is routinely tested by one of these companies, it doesn’t guarantee that it’s clean. Apparently 10 percent (@3:25) of the products sent in to be tested by Informed Sports are found to be contaminated with banned substances. That seems like a lot, especially for companies who are knowingly sending in their product when they are not required to do so by law. After all, if a company voluntarily sends a product in to be tested, that probably means they are fairly confident that it’s clean.

And what about consistency? If a company doesn’t use Good Manufacturing Practices, which ensure that each batch is consistent with the last, one batch could pass a third party test while another might not. According to USADA, “It is the law to manufacture supplements in compliance with Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP), but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) continues to find non-compliant companies,” meaning that a company’s batch of product might be clean in August but a later batch in December could potentially be contaminated (at least this is what I took it to mean).

Most supplement and nutrition companies source products from all over the globe, from a dozen or more different manufacturers, and switch their suppliers around throughout the years to use the cheapest ingredients they can find. There’s a lot of opportunity for one of the many ingredients in your protein powder to be made in a factory that also produces DHEA or steroids. Generally, the more ingredients your supplement has, the higher the chances are that one of those ingredients is laced with something dirty.

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If you’re dumb enough to take something that’s packaged like this, maybe you deserve to serve a ban? This has around 40 ingredients.

Using my Journalism Skills

I did some interneting and phone calling to figure out what third party testing procedures and other safeguards there were for the supplements that I take. I’m not including Good Manufacturing Practices, organic, GMO free, or USDA certifications as a safeguard, since these don’t necessarily mean anything.

There are a few ways that a company’s product can, for the most part, be trusted:

1) Third party testing from a non biased company like Informed Sport or NSF Certified for Sport that specifically tests for banned substances. However, some companies are misleading, such as My Protein. A website might say that they use Informed Sport when only a handful of their products are actually tested.

2) Only use supplements made by companies that get all of their ingredients from labs that never produce or handle any banned substance. This would be hard for you to confirm, however, and you’d likely have to take the company’s word for it.

3) Only use supplements that get all of their ingredients from NSF certified labs. The following is what it takes to be an NSF certified lab:

  1. Product evaluation
  2. Product testing in lab
  3. Manufacturing facility inspection, production confirmation, and product sampling
  4. Test results review and acceptance
  5. Contract signed and products listed
  6. Annual plant inspection and retesting

However, there is a difference between an NSF certified lab and NSF Certified for Sport product. The later is tested specifically for the 272 substances that currently make up WADA’s banned list, while the former (an NSF certified lab) is not specifically tested for banned substances. NSF certified labs do have accurate labeling, third party testing done by NSF, annual audits, unannounced visits by inspectors, and they generally seem like they’d be a large step up from the average supplement facility.

What Supplements and Nutrition I Use

Here’s my personal list of nutrition and supplements and the corresponding degree of safety: Green for good safeguards, Orange for some safeguards, Red for no real safeguards that I could find, Pink for I don’t know. I was surprised that most of the companies actually got back to me, as did NSF. I was also surprised at how many of these companies had some sort of safeguard be it a third party testing company, that they never use ingredients from distributors who handle banned substances, or that their products are at least made in NSF certified labs.

Daily (Nightly)

  • Pharmaca Sleep Formula Fast Acting Chewable Tablets (NSF certified lab)
    -Contains L-theanine, melatonin, and 5-HTP 

Every Few Days

  • Hammer Nutrition whey isolate in smoothies, as well as other Hammer Nutrition products including their bars, drink mixes, Fizz tablets, and gels *(Third party tested but I’m not sure which company, all ingredients come from NSF certified labs and none of the labs handle any banned substances)
  • Clif bars, gels, and Bloks (Played phone tag for a while and gave up. Never found anything out)
  • Barlean’s fish oil (Third party testing with Exact Science–couldn’t find out anything online about this testing company–but I doubt they test for banned substances)
  • Other liquid-form fish oils that are on sale at the grocery store (Who knows?)

Adelaide and I make our own recovery mixture, which contains the following:

  • Hammer whey isolate (See above)
  • Dextrose from Nuts.com (The only company I never heard back from and that didn’t have information on their website)
  • Maltodextrin from Honeyville (NSF certified lab)
  • Sodium citrate from Modernist Pantry (No third party testing, but at least the manufacturer where they get their sodium citrate supposedly only makes food additives. Possibly a risky supplement considering the large number of products the manufacturer produces)
  • BCAA’s from My Protein (No third party testing. I originally thought that they was tested through Informed Sport, but that is only true for ONE of their many BCAA supplements, and not the one that I’ve been using. Threw it in the trash just now)

Infrequent Use

  • Vitamin D from Puritan’s Pride (No third party testing)
  • Magnesium from Puritan’s Pride (No third party testing)
  • Vitamin B-12 from Puritan’s Pride (No third party testing)

At Races, So Every Month or Two During Race Season

  • Whatever gel gets handed out in aid stations (Potentialy no third party testing)
  • Maurten dink mix (Informed Sport certified)
  • Gatorade at aid stations (No third party testing) 

Sometimes I also get free omega 3’s or vitamins as samples at the grocery store, and I generally use the free protein powder or other goodies found in race swag bags. So there’s even more supplements that I take over the course of a year that could be tainted. This list also doesn’t include cold medicine, cough drops, anti-inflammatories, etc.

I’d say it’s almost impossible to completely safeguard yourself from accidentally testing positive if up to 25 percent of supplements would actually cause a failed drug test, and/or if it’s true that eating South American beef can trigger a failed test for clenbuterol (I have a hard time believing this one and certainly don’t believe Contador). What does this mean? Pretty much that if you’re an athlete who gets tested, you should live in constant fear–and narrow your use of products as much as possible to those that have some sort of third party testing, use NSF certified labs, or are not made in a facility that handles banned substances. No more free gummy vitamins from Sprouts or vitamin D from Puritan’s Pride.

In General, Don’t Trust Someone Who Failed a Drug Test

If I ever fail a drug test I will not expect anyone outside my immediate family or very close friends to believe that it was from a contaminated supplement or food. I think there should be an extreme level of skepticism for the stories told by athletes who fail tests. I am of the belief that the vast majority of world tour pro cyclists, whose names you recognize, are dopers. I don’t think it’s possible to get an olympic medal in any speed or strength sport without doping (running, swimming, gymnastics, lifting, throwing, etc). I think that many of the top guys in triathlon are dopers as well. I don’t believe the stories of the triathletes who got busted for ostarine last year, who claimed it was from a contaminated salt product.

If you read an article about an athlete failing a drug test, you should believe that they doped on purpose unless you know them personally and have a very strong reason to believe that they are clean. For me, it was seeing the annoying level of adherence that my ex teammate had for the rules. . . at least when it came to stealing breakfast from a hotel. Plus, he was able to prove that his protein powder was contaminated, which USADA recognized.

It’s hard to know what to think when the person who fails a drug test is a teammate, training partner, or friend. Does your emotional bias get in the way? Certainly. Does that bias help you see the truth, or does it blind you? I don’t know. I’d lean towards blinding you. You really only know for certain that one person is clean: yourself.

And your spouse. I think it would be virtually impossible for your spouse to dope without your knowledge.

 

**Disclaimer, I’m sponsored by Hammer Nutrition. However, I was prepared to write the truth even if it meant putting Hammer in a bad light. Over a phone call with Hammer I also learned that if a supplement that you take is made in a place that produces or mixes DHEA, there is a high chance that that supplement is tainted. DHEA is so fine that even if it’s being used in a closed off room on isolated equipment, it can still get into the ventilation system and contaminate a product all the way across the factory.

Edit: USADA has a “High Risk” supplement page if you click here (you have to create an account). There are hundreds of supplements listed, with classic names such as Anabal 10 (Injectable), Crackhead, Double Tap, God of Rage XXX, Phenbuterol, Total WarRed White and Boom, and just simply Growth Hormone.