Pursuing Botanical Sports Supplements Means Separating Fact from Fiction


As the CEO of a quickly growing testing lab, I offset the stresses of work and life with a strict regimen of boot-camp-like exercise. That said, I am also guilty of trying to alleviate my self-induced fitness “hardships” and enhance my physical abilities with a barrage of novel sports supplements, specifically powdered pre-workout sports nutrition supplements and post-workout supplements.

During a vigorous workout, it is not uncommon for muscles to experience a small amount of damage. That produces the sore feeling some of us either seek as a prideful/macho sign of progress or use as an excuse to avoid working out in the first place. It is possible to offset this soreness by consuming protein (a glass of milk or a protein bar) afterward. However, a new family has moved to the block called “pre-workout boosters” (PWBs) and “post-workout drinks” (PWDs) that are changing the landscape for the fitness enthusiast on a global scale.

The evolution of this product category has been cyclical over the years all the while claiming to produce energy, increase hydration, and promote muscle recovery. Botanical ingredients have been a part of this evolution in some way the entire time.

In the beginning, the PWBs and PWDs were dominated by performance-boosting ingredients like caffeine, beta-alanine, nitrous oxide, creatine, and a little (or in some cases, a lot) of ephedra. When ephedra became a four-letter word, the search began for safer alternatives. Formulators decided to include some botanicals, like green tea or guarana, in what seemed to be an effort to naturalize the product and to even neutralize
the potential negative connotation of the synthetic ingredients.

Now it seems that those botanicals have been rendered down to “botanically derived” ingredients like caffeine from green tea and/ or guarana. Don’t be tricked by these ingredients: many of them are custom plant extracts heavily focused on the caffeine fraction. These ingredients may not be green tea or guarana, rather, caffeine possibly from green tea, or guarana, or some combination—there is no easy way to confirm the caffeine’s origin without the proper testing.

Lately, it’s hard not to read about this genre without coming across the new troublemaker on the block, methylhexaneamine (MHA)/dimethylamylamine (DMAA), mixed with our old friend caffeine. These are being offered in dangerous levels. In some cases, these products are fortified with such ingredients without the end user’s awareness (or consent), potentially causing serious health risks. While they are sought after for their thermogenic or stimulant effects, the FDA isn’t shy to quickly call out and remove products found to contain such ingredients.

In the background, there is a new movement of “clean” PWBs and PWDs flying the vegan flag of health. While these appear to be on the right side of the track, they still push a lot of the usual suspects: caffeine-containing botanicals and/or an array of amino acids and salts. All these choices, coupled with the changing landscape of sports supplements, make me ask myself this question: “If I need to be fortifying my nutrition with supplements (that may or may not be deemed healthy in a year’s time) in order to perform at a high level, is it possible I shouldn’t be attempting to perform at a high level? Is this natural?”

A sports nutrition product manufacturer should be able to answer this question by showing the safety of its product, backed by scientific research, third-party certifications, and lab testing

Regardless of the trends, I still believe in the age-old saying of caveat emptor: Buyer Beware. Manufacturers, consumers—everyone actually—need to read those labels and understand them.


Categories: Analytical Testing, Botanical Identification, Product Verification/Validation