The past decade has seen rapid growth in the European and global sports nutrition market, and the industry has established itself as a responsible and reputable segment of the food and nutrition sector. This development has been partly due to successful industry campaigns educating the public and policy-makers about sports nutrition.
Yet misinformation still surrounds sports nutrition. Unfortunately, the sector continues to be plagued by a handful of companies giving false information about their products, which are inaccurately presented as sports nutrition, and/or selling products containing illegal substances. More worryingly, some have attempted to capitalise on the COVID-19 crisis as more Europeans look for guidance online on how to stay healthy during these challenging times.
As a result of counterfeit products, public mistrust in sports nutrition remains an issue for the sector.
However, the industry must continue to remind consumers that actual sports nutrition products are safe. Against a backdrop of reputational challenges, this message should be integral to all sports nutrition communications strategies. Focusing on the following issues is key.
Sports nutrition products are strictly regulated
It is crucial that consumers are aware that the sports nutrition sector is strictly regulated and that clear legislation has long been in place to protect them from potentially dangerous ingredients and misleading claims.
Firstly, sports nutrition, like all food products sold in the EU, must comply with the general food legislation. This includes general safety and labelling requirements, nutrition and health claims rules, and regulations on foods substances and additives.
On top of that, another strand of legislation (the Food Supplements Directive and the Fortified Foods Regulation) covers certain sports nutrition products with specific compositional and labelling requirements. And then there’s the Novel Food Regulation which governs any new ingredient. In the past, a few ‘black market’ products have found their way into European shops and websites and have been the subject of media reports. This issue refers to ‘hormonal’ (steroid-like) products and strong stimulant products. These products have been banned for several years in European countries.
The industry works to ensure compliance
It is important that the public is aware of the significant progress that the sports nutrition industry has voluntarily made in raising the levels of quality assurance for its products. For instance, in order to minimise the risk of processing, producing or selling contaminated products, the industry has voluntarily adopted testing and certification programmes such as Informed Sport, NSF International and Cologne List.
The European Specialist Sports Nutrition Alliance (ESSNA), has also developed and made publicly available its Framework on Tackling Inadvertent Doping. This explains how products can become contaminated and provides guidance and advice to the industry on how this problem can be minimised.
Similarly, the industry also works to ensure the safety of consumers that buy products online. For eight years now, ESSNA has been running a targeted award-winning campaign addressing the issue of non-compliant sports nutrition products, particularly in e-commerce. ESSNA has a dedicated webpage which consumers and businesses can use to bring any suspicious products to the attention of the group. ESSNA takes action to ensure these companies either comply with the law or, failing that, get them shut down and their products removed from the market.
New legislation to reinforce consumers’ safety
The industry’s formal power for tackling non-compliance is limited. The sector therefore needs to work closely with decision makers to guarantee that EU legislation not only ensures that serious food risks are detected and addressed, but that consumers are protected when shopping online. In this regard, another key issue that sports nutrition companies should be aware of is the recent European Commission proposal to upgrade the rules governing digital services, the Digital Services Act (DSA). With this proposal, the Commission aims specifically to regulate online intermediaries and platforms, such as online marketplaces, in order to increase consumer protection.
As ESSNA stressed in its response to the respective consultation, the DSA will allow the industry to protect its reputation and ensure sports nutrition consumers’ safety online, contingent on the Commission ensuring specific developments to the proposal. The industry must engage with the Commission and the European Parliament – which will now be assessing the proposal to produce its own position on the legislation – to ensure that the DSA will:
- Enforce permanent exclusion of repeat offenders from e-commerce. The current draft envisions only the temporary suspension of companies providing manifestly illegal content, which is not enough.
- Facilitate cooperation between public institutions and industry in tackling the issue of non-compliance online
- Introduce further obligations for online platforms to ensure that information on food offered on their space is the same as that applicable to food sold in physical shops. This should include the name of the food, the list of ingredients, the name and address of the responsible operator, instruction on use, the quantity of certain ingredients and nutrition declaration.
- Be expanded to cover online trading companies which are active in Europe and based outside the EU. On this issue, the Commission aims to establish legal representatives in the EU to trace illegal products sold online from companies outside the Union. Yet, the exact role of these representatives has not been clarified in the proposal.
Despite enormous improvements, misinformation on the safety of sports nutrition is still a significant challenge for the industry. The best way for sports nutrition companies to tackle this issue is to ensure their communication strategies highlight the following facts: firstly, sports nutrition products are safe and strictly regulated under EU law. Secondly, the industry has adopted voluntary practices to minimise the risk of inadvertent doping and has successfully put progressive methods in place to effectively prevent non-compliance in the sector.
It is equally crucial to stay up to date on the relevant policy initiatives and engage with decision-making to ensure they efficiently tackle any challenges to the reputation of the industry and consumers’ safety. ESSNA is in close dialogue with the relevant EU institutions and agencies as well as with Member States’ Governments to do this. ESSNA also works closely with the media to disassociate responsible brands from those tarnishing the reputation of the sector and to improve perceptions of the industry.
By Dr. Adam Carey
About the author: Dr Adam Carey is the Chairman of the European Specialist Sports Nutrition Alliance (ESSNA), the trade association representing the interests of the sports nutrition sector across Europe.