Ever heard of deer antler supplements? They are the perfect example of the fine lines supplements that often walk between being legal or illegal, banned in sport or not.
We investigate so you can make an informed decision on these or other supplements you may consider.
Oliver Catlin is the President of BSCG (Banned Substances Control Group) and possibly the world’s leading expert in dietary supplement certification.
Wherever there’s a story, it’s wise to start at the beginning.
Deer antler has a long history of use in Traditional Chinese Medicine and has been used to decrease fatigue, improve sleep and appetite, and aid in stress management.
It has been sold at herbologists and various natural product stores in edible form for decades. In animal tests, deer antler has been shown to increase oxygen uptake in the brain, liver and kidneys, and increase red and white blood cell production.
Traditionally, it is available in the form of antler slices, powders, and extracts. In the dietary supplement marketplace, where it has become popular over the last few decades, it is available in encapsulated form as an ingestible product and also has been marketed as a spray or liquid product designed for liposomal absorption.
Ingestible deer antler products are made by grinding the actual deer antler velvet and antler into powder form and encapsulating it.
These products tend to market themselves in line with traditional uses and applications.
Another side of the deer antler industry focuses on the fact deer antler naturally contains small amounts of insulin growth factor 1, or IGF-1, a hormone banned in sport.
These products are typically available in a spray form or liquid form and advertise concentrated amounts of IGF-1. With names like IGF-1+, these products are often marketed as anti-aging and/or performance- enhancing agents and are offered in different dosages of IGF-1.
The liquid forms often carry claims that the IGF-1 is delivered to the body through liposomal absorption, meaning it would be absorbed through membranes in the mouth, as opposed to having to enter the body through ingestion and digestion.
In its natural ingestible form, deer antler velvet qualifies as a legal dietary ingredient under the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) in the U.S. This is due to it being a substance used to supplement the diet as part of traditional medicine practices, a part of the food supply prior to 1994, and not chemically altered.
In other countries like Australia and New Zealand, it has been reviewed as a therapeutic good and is more widespread in commerce.
Whether the spray forms are legal is unclear. Research has shown that many of the sprays and liquids on the market are adulterated with human IGF-1 in order to bring the products up to the concentrated levels claimed. In the U.S., if human IGF-1 is added to a product, it would no longer be a legal dietary supplement, as it would be considered to be adulterated with an unapproved drug.
If deer antler velvet is somehow concentrated to contain high levels of deer IGF-1, such a product may be legitimate.
The legal issues are fascinating and should be considered, as a large part of the deer antler liquid marketplace is likely driven by products that do not qualify as legal dietary supplements.
We point this out but leave it to the FDA and other authorities to address.
The confusing place deer antler holds in the realm of drugs in sport and how it came to be is an interesting example of the issues that may be of concern to athletes and is the deeper issue we want to examine.
DEER ANTLER IN SPORT
The hoopla started with a spray form of deer antler called The Ultimate Spray, marketed by Sports with Alternative to Steroids (SWATS) that was involved in an NFL player David Vobora’s positive drug test for the steroid methyltestosterone in 2009.
Vobora had the spray he used tested, and it was found to be contaminated with methyltestosterone—which was not on the label, nor represented to be in the product.
Vobora won a $5.4 million ruling against the company. Two years later we tested the spray at our nonprofit/ NGO Anti-Doping Research as part of a media investigation for The Post Game in 2011 and did not find methyltestosterone.
This highlights an important point: that one batch of a product can be contaminated and another batch of the same product clean, something that athletes need to consider.
The case prompted MLB and NFL to issue warnings to players regarding the use of deer antler. Interestingly, the MLB warning did not focus on the IGF-1 issue but rather on the issue of methyltestosterone contamination. The NFL warning meanwhile concentrated more on the IGF-1 issue and questioned the appropriateness of its players or coaches representing a product that was marketed as an IGF-1 product.
The deer antler saga continued as high-profile athletes and teams were discovered to be using deer antler spray. It rose to Super Bowl proportions with Ray Lewis in the NFL and the Alabama NCAA football team brought the issue front and center in collegiate sport.
Professional golfer Vijay Singh admitted to using a deer antler spray, resulting in the PGA accusing him of a doping violation. After years of legal manoeuvring, this case was finally settled before trial.
IS DEER ANTLER BANNED?
The substance IGF-1 is banned in sport, but deer antler is not.
However, if a deer antler product is adulterated with concentrated amounts of IGF-1 designed for liposomal absorption, it could constitute a doping violation or otherwise influence a drug test.
This distinction is what causes confusion. The Alabama football team situation is likely the reason the NCAA is the only sporting group to include deer antler as an example of IGF-1 on its banned substance list. Whether deer antler is banned in sport in practice and whether its use could lead to a doping violation comes down to whether any IGF-1 that is present is absorbed and whether other drug contaminants like methyltestosterone are present.
When it comes to IGF-1, deer antler is not the only common food or supplement to naturally contain IGF-1.
Many animal food products like red meat, eggs or milk and other common dietary supplement ingredients like whey protein or colostrum contain IGF-1 or other growth factors that are banned in sport, yet consuming them does not result in doping violations.
When it comes to absorption of IGF-1, scientific publications have explored the topic with the results briefly summarized as follows. IGF-1 and other similar growth factors are absorbed intact by babies as an important part of the growth process; however, adults do not absorb these hormones through ingestion as intact proteins.
This has been demonstrated by radiolabelling IGF-1 and testing for it after ingestion. So, when IGF-1 is ingested in the form of deer antler, whey protein, colostrum or other foods, it is not absorbed by the body and should not lead to or be construed as a violation of drug-testing regulations.
Therefore, ingestible deer antler products should be acceptable for athletes. Conversely, using a spray form of deer antler concentrated to contain certain amounts of IGF-1 that is delivered through liposomal absorption would likely constitute a doping violation, because if the product works as claimed the banned substance IGF-1 would be absorbed by the body intact.
IS IGF-1 DETECTABLE?
Currently, there is no test for the detection of IGF-1 introduced worldwide in sport drug testing but this is not to say that the anti- doping community can not detect it, as there are numerous publications that demonstrate the ability to do so.
IGF-1 is used as an important marker for human growth hormone detection in WADA testing currently.
The challenge in creating an effective method to detect IGF-1 doping is in distinguishing exogenous, or foreign, IGF-1 from the endogenous, or natural, form in our bodies.
The deer antler example illustrates how difficult it can be to interpret whether a dietary supplement is legal or illegal, banned in sport or not based on a label review alone.
With deer antler, an ingestible form is legal and legitimate while liquid forms are likely adulterated and could be interpreted as doping agents. This reality may not be apparent to an athlete or even to well-meaning qualified reviewers.
Ultimately, label review does not protect against contaminants like methyltestosterone that may infiltrate supplements; only ongoing certification and testing can offer that protection.
As with all dietary supplements, we recommend athletes only use batches or lots of products that have been certified by a reputable third-party to be free of banned substances.
We operate a program called BSCG Certified Drug Free® that conducts on-going testing of individual product lots to ensure they are free of banned and dangerous substances and acceptable for athletes to take. Programs like ours have a searchable database where you can input a product lot number from a package to make sure it has been tested. Checking to verify that your lot has been tested is one of the most important steps you can take as an athlete, even with products that carry a seal from a third-party.
Products like deer antler emerge from the dietary supplement and natural product industries seemingly daily.
Products based on traditional medicine or herbal extracts are growing in popularity as brands and manufacturers seek innovative new ingredients.
As they do, issues over legality and acceptability for athletes and other consumers will continue to present themselves as they have with deer antler, geranium oil extract and more.
A perfect example currently is the uproar and intrigue in the burgeoning CBD and hemp product industry where issues abound over whether positive drug tests or unwanted psychoactive effects may be experienced along with questions over the presence of heavy metals, pesticides or other contaminants. Never a group to shy away from complex issues, BSCG recently introduced Certified Hemp and Certified CBD certification programs that address banned substance concerns, label claims and contaminants, and GMP compliance for hemp and CBD products and their consumers.
As a leading third-party certification provider, BSCG is proud to do its part to help answer complex questions through our certification programs and discussions.
Our various programs help differentiate reputable brands dedicated to quality control and consumer safety from others in the industry, and help offer athletes and other consumers products they can trust.