Explainer: Are sports supplements worth the money?

Cosmos Magazine


Cosmos is a quarterly science magazine. We aim to inspire curiosity in ‘The Science of Everything’ and make the world of science accessible to everyone.

By Cosmos

An energy drink laced with amino acids and electrolytic water has taken the world, specifically younger age groups, by storm, but like most supplementary products, the devil is in the detail.

Amid reports of kids clamouring to get their hands on ‘Prime’ drinks, created by popular YouTubers Logan Paul and KSI, parents might well wonder what’s inside the bottle.

Prime’s ‘energy’ drinks are banned in Australia due to their excessively high caffeine content, but its ‘hydration’ label is caffeine-free and available on the shelf.

The product that can be sold in Australia predominantly consists of water, with salts and small doses of vitamins A, E, B6 and B12, and 250 milligrams of a ‘BCAA blend’.

These ingredients are not wholly different from most of the ingredients in competitor drinks like Gatorade and Powerade: all consist mainly of water, plus combinations of citric acid, potassium and sodium (the electrolytes), flavouring, artificial sweeteners, stabilisers and certain vitamins.

Most of the beneficial components of these drinks – the vitamins, electrolytes and water – are readily available from a balanced diet.

Sports drinks were originally developed in the sixties and seventies to help athletes replace the water and salts lost in competition. For most people, particularly children, the benefits of well-marketed products like Prime are less clear.

“For an athlete who exercises for a long period of time, taking an energy drink is really, really useful,” Dr Evangeline Mantzioris, director of the nutrition and food sciences degree at the University of South Australia, tells Cosmos.

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“But the thing we’ve got to remember about these Prime drinks is they don’t actually have an energy source … there’s no sugar, and about 40 kilojoules worth of carbohydrate, which is next to nothing for an athlete.”

Little benefit and possible risk

The caffeine-heavy Prime drink – only available in the US – exceeds the allowable limit of caffeine in energy drinks allowed by the Australia Food Standards Code.

And there’s good reason for the ban. One expert study showed evidence for increased anxiety among children aged 9-13 when consuming around 120mg of caffeine each day. Caffeinated ‘Prime’ contains almost twice this.

In Australia, adults are recommended to limit their caffeine intake to 200mg a day and regulators allow no more than 320mg of caffeine per litre in energy drinks.

Caffeinated Prime contains more than 560 milligrams per litre – hence its ban – and downing a single can would meet that 200mg-per-day limit.

That 200mg is also the recommended daily limit for pregnant women globally, but there is emerging research suggesting stricter limitations or having mothers avoid caffeine altogether may be beneficial to a developing foetus.

What about BCAAs?

Often, sports and health supplements will market the presence of isolated BCAAs (branch chain amino acids) in their products.

Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, which are associated with a range of functions in the human body, including tissue repair and development. Three of these – isoleucine, leucine and valine – are the BCAAs.

But people can obtain these through a range of complete protein foods, including animal products like meat, eggs and milk. Even the Australian Institute of Sport says consuming proteins of “high biological value” – such as those available in food – are more beneficial than getting supplements with isolated BCAAs.

So if Australia’s premier athlete development organisation isn’t sold on the marketed benefits of supplements containing isolated BCAAs, surely it’s of little benefit to amateurs. Prime contains just 250mg worth of BCAAs, effectively a quarter gram of incomplete protein.

So should we look to old-fashioned protein supplements to boost performance?

An aisle over from the energy drinks, a shopper is likely to come across the boldly-branded pots of the protein supplement industry.

Some indications suggest protein powders alone are worth US$20 billion globally – a pretty penny for what is, essentially, dehydrated milk extract.

Protein powders promise big muscles or even just a better post-exercise recovery, and brand ambassadors from athletes to YouTube celebrities can easily be found promoting these bars and shakes across all sorts of multimedia advertising.

Typically, these are made by taking whey – the liquid by-product of cheese production – and concentrating the protein component. This is achieved by pressing whey through a series of filter membranes which remove most of the water. The result is a product of around 80% protein, plus remaining fats and sugars from the milk. Protein can be further isolated from these other substances by using an ion exchange process.

These are then mixed in with emulsifiers, preservatives and flavouring to make a tasty powder you can shake up with water.

Protein is an important molecule for repairing muscle, so when you down even a simple glass of milk, you’re topping up your body’s protein levels. The same can be said for chewing through a steak or biting into tofu.

Ultimately, protein shakes are either replacing or supplementing your existing diet.

So that means they work, right?

The simple answer, says sports dietitian Gaye Rutherford, is yes. But do you really need it after a workout? That answer is a little more nuanced.

Rutherford works closely with the Tasmanian Institute of Sport, advising emerging athletes how to manage their nutrition requirements. Dietitians, she says, recommend a food-first approach to performance athletes, so it should be good enough advice for amateur sportspeople and gym goers.

“Food first is always a fantastic approach because the benefit that food-first gives you is the other vitamins and minerals, fibre or carbohydrates that come along with consuming a food source,” Rutherford says.

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What protein supplements can offer, however, is a quick fix for someone who might need a top-up, on the go. That might be a professional athlete who’s nipping from a gym session to a massage or team briefing, or simply someone who’s hit the gym before work and is heading straight into the office.

“It’s fortunate that we live in a world where protein supplements exist and we can use those as an additional option if life, or busyness, or whatever was in the mix, meant that you really weren’t going to be able to get protein for a couple of hours,” Rutherford says.

“[But] it’s not going to prevent you from getting the best out of yourself if they [supplements] aren’t part and parcel of your daily nutrition experience.”

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Credit: Kelly Sikkema via Unsplash

Dietary supplementation can have benefits beyond the brawn, but beware

Dr Vincent Dalbo is an exercise physiologist and senior lecturer at CQUniversity, who studies training impacts on professional and semipro athletes.

The only sports supplement he says he’ll use is a protein concentrate.

“It’s simply to help me get my protein requirements in for the day, because I find it easier to consume my daily protein requirements utilising protein powder, than without it,” Dalbo says.

But he points out this type of nutritional supplementation can also benefit those who aren’t seeking muscle gain for an athletic outcome.

Protein is essential for muscle development and repair. But muscle damage occurs with day-to-day use – not just pumping gym iron.

And for older people who might struggle to meet all their nutritional requirements, a heightened risk of injury and muscle function decline may develop. In these cases, carefully managed supplementation might be beneficial.

“Older adults who struggle to meet protein requirements: protein supplementation can be valuable for them,” Dalbo says.

There are potential drawbacks to supplementation though.

Dalbo and other dietary experts Cosmos spoke to warn against buying products with “proprietary blends”. While these might offer molecules that can provide some benefit, there’s no guarantee you’re getting a beneficial dosage.

“So with a proprietary blend, the company just has to tell you what ingredients are [inside], and they’ve got to list them from the most abundant to the least abundant, but you don’t know the actual dose,” Dalbo says.

“They can have something in the blend that’s known to be effective, like creatine, but the dose they put in could be less than the dose that you need for it to be effective.”

Protein is an important molecule for repairing muscle, so when you down even a simple glass of milk, you’re topping up your body’s protein levels.

On top of that, protein that isn’t used by the body continues circulating and, eventually, breaks down into glucose sugar in a process called gluconeogenesis– literally the creation of glucose. Like all sugars, those glucose molecules that don’t get used end up being stored as fat, further emphasising the importance of ‘doing the work’ required to put protein to good use.

Very expensive wee

Just as unused protein might eventually end up on the hips, excess vitamins or minerals not used by the body are excreted in the urine. 

It’s these possibilities that often lead to the critique that supplementation leads to expensive wee: what the body doesn’t need, it disposes.

Mantzioris says that a carton of iced coffee would be a good enough source of most nutrients needed to fuel a non-professional athlete looking to refuel after a workout, or top up their energy stores.

“The bonus is that it’s actually got calcium in it, and it’s got phosphorous in it, so it’s got all those other nutrients the body needs,” she says.

For human existence, nutrition has been obtained through food consumption – not in isolation through powders and mixed liquids.  So while some people can benefit from consuming protein, carbohydrates and fat in isolated forms, most will get what they need from their diet.

As a rule, Mantizoris recommends a healthy diet, and points to the nation’s dietary guidelines as a good starting point. For those that want a performance benefit, consistent protein consumption throughout the day should do the trick. 

“I know the Australian dietary guidelines are perceived as a bit humdrum and boring by the general public, but there it lists the quantities of proteins and carbohydrate foods that you need to consume.

“You don’t need any special products, it’s all there, in the food, and the bonus is the food gives you the extra nutrients that we need.”

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