Banned Substances: How Ostarine is Creeping into the Supply Chain

September 28, 2021 by
Photo Credit: NSF International
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In an effort to increase transparency and hopefully help educate athletes along the way, we’re digging into the topic of banned substances within CrossFit. To begin, we must go where all athletes who pop hot go — the testing lab. 

The testing labs we’re talking about do a number of things. From product testing to inspections and even certifying supplements to ensure supplies that their products are “clean.” There are a handful of reputable labs that specialize in testing for hundreds of sports teams and thousands of professional athletes such as Drug Free Sport International (CrossFit has partnered with since 2010), Banned Substance Control Group, LGC and NSF International. Essentially, these labs give the green light that products have been independently reviewed that comply with specific standards for safety, quality, sustainability or performance.

If the product passes the test, a stamp of approval, “certified for sport,”, is placed on the labeling to help athletes identity which supplements have gone through this rigorous testing. The screening tests for nearly 300 different banned substances ranging from stimulants, steroids, SARMS, masking agents, and anything that could result in a positive drug test.

But what we’re talking about, goes beyond that. We’re looking into the supplements that aren’t certified for sport, and why although their ingredient labels don’t include banned products, they are still making their way into supplements.

“An athlete could be looking at something that is not making ridiculous claims about muscle building, it could be an energy claim, but it’s actually spiked with an amphetamine,” said David Trosin, the global managing director of NSF’s health science certification programs. “We see the strangest things in supplements like morphine and even cocaine,” he continued. While hearing Trosin say he’s found cocaine in supplements was both shocking and alarming, it’s not one that shows up often. The most common ingredient that’s slipping into supplements in recent years, is ostarine.

Ostarine, a selective androgen receptor modulator or SARM, was the banned substance that Brazilian athlete Larissa Cunha tested positive for and prevented her from competing at the 2021 CrossFit Games. At the close of her appeal, she was able to prove to CrossFit that her supplements were unknowingly contaminated with ostarine, ultimately reducing her ban from a four-year penalty to a two-year.

Other notable athletes who recently tested positive for ostarine include Janelle Stites, a member of On Track’s fifth place team that qualified for the Games through the Mid-Atlantic CrossFit Challenge, 2019 Games rookie Katie Trombetta, Brazilian volleyball olympian Tandara Caixeta and British Olympic silver medalist sprinter CJ Ujah. Caixeta’s lawyer said in a letter, “recently, numerous Brazilian athletes have been victims of incidents involving ostarine.” The question we’re now asking is why is ostarine gaining traction in supplements and how is it getting there?

“It’s prevalent because it’s effective. There’s a number of ways it can happen (get into the supplements) because it’s a very complex supply chain,” said Trosin. Right off the bat, Trosin said if an athlete is getting their products from a compounding pharmacy where products are combined or mixed with other ingredients, it’s a red flag. He said, having your supplements mixed there is an easy way for outside products to get in. From there, he breaks down the supply chain.

“If you think about the supply chain, the raw materials start overseas and they’re processed overseas. Then, they’re sent to a broker, then sold to another broker here in the U.S., and then sold to a manufacturer, and eventually put into a product,” said Trosin. That means some products go through six different windows of operation before the consumer sees the final product.

“Along any of those lines, you have a number of people and you might be looking for an energy pre-blend which may be mixed here in the U.S. or maybe overseas, and someone along the supply chain might say, ‘we know something that’s going to soup this up,’ and put it in the pre-blend, and then the product becomes incredibly effective,” Trosin continued.

“It gives you a ton of energy and you might think ‘well it’s because it’s high in caffeine,’ let’s say there’s 200mg of caffeine. But in the background, there could be dimethylamylamine or DMAA, it’s not the caffeine it’s a meth-like substance that’s firing you up. The brand could be completely innocent in saying, ‘we didn’t ask for that in there,’ but the pre-blend manufacturer is saying, ‘if this is effective they’re going to keep coming back and buying more,’ so it could be a bad supply chain that’s spiking it,” said Trosin.

So if the supplement company selling you their product doesn’t know what’s actually in their supplements, who is responsible? In short, the brand and the athlete.

“The brand is always responsible because their name is on it so ultimately they bear the legal responsibility. They may be at fault unknowingly though because they might have said to somebody, ‘we want to buy an energy pre-blend and here’s what we want it to have…’ but somebody on the other side, way back on the supply chain, may have spiked it and never informed the brand. So the brand may be getting something spiked and they never knew about it unless it’s tested at a lab,” said Trosin.

The athlete takes responsibility because they are the ones testing positive which can cost them their career and damage their reputation.

This then brings us back to the question of why. The answer? A common theme for most decisions made in life — money. The incentive for tainting supplements goes down the supply chain. If the banned substance “works” and boosts sales of the product, customer loyalty is gained and the brand will continue to use the same supply chain and manufacturer.

“It can happen anywhere along the supply chain and that’s why we exist and that’s why athletes need to stick to a certified for sport product because you don’t know and they don’t have the luxury to say I’m not going to be banned substance tested. Even if it’s something as innocent as fish oil which is probably pretty unlikely to be spiked, they have to question it because it’s going through these same facilities,” Trosin explained.

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