ASU, Pac-12 partner to help student-athletes avoid harmful nutritional supplements


Portrait of man in exercise lab

Arizona State University College of Health Solutions Professor Floris Wardenaar is designing a questionnaire to help identify student-athletes at risk of taking harmful nutritional supplements.

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College of Health Solutions Professor Floris Wardenaar is partnering with the Pac-12 Conference to help student-athletes navigate the confusing and potentially harmful world of dietary supplements.

Wardenaar, an assistant professor in nutrition, will develop a short questionnaire to help identify student-athletes at risk of using tainted nutritional supplements. Pac-12, the sports conference of which ASU is a member, is funding the efforts through its Student-Athlete Health and Well-being Initiative.

Wardenaar also heads the Athleat Field Lab, which came from a 2017 collaboration between the College of Health Solutions and Sun Devil Athletics.

Dr. Kimberly Harmon, research development director for the Pac-12, praised the efforts to get a better understanding of supplement use.

“The Pac-12 Student-Athlete Health and Wellness Initiative Board is pleased to support this and other research that promotes the health and well-being of the student-athlete,” Harmon said. “There is no other program like this in the country, and our grant program represents another way the Pac-12 leads.”

Though many student-athletes use a wide variety of nutritional supplements, the industry is not well regulated, Wardenaar said.

“Supplements can be contaminated or tainted and therefore can contain harmful or doping-related substances that can result in health issues or a positive doping test,” Wardenaar said. “There is education on this topic available for athletes, and there are third-party tested supplements available that limit the risk for a positive doping test, but a substantial number of athletes (30% to 50% depending on their exercise level) report not using third-party tested supplements.” Doping tests look for banned substances. 

While the questionnaire can't increase regulation of the nutritional supplements industry, it can help college athletics nutritional staff identify those who might be prone to using risky supplements.

Studies have shown that as many as 20% of supplements may contain substances not listed on the product label, which puts student-athletes at risk of a positive doping test. Athletes who use contaminated substances could experience health problems and a ban from their sport, which could result in loss of scholarships, income and recognition for previous achievements.

Though there is plenty of information available about the potential dangers of unregulated supplements, some student-athletes are still not getting that message.

“It is important to better understand which type of athletes are not susceptible to the current education and information that is available,” Wardenaar said. “This will allow us in the future to better identify these athletes and develop better solutions to ensure that we can help them change their supplement behavior toward higher safety standards.”

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