This is an excellent question and may be one of the most valuable to consider. I’ll be the first to admit that the number of ingredients and products that are developed on a yearly basis is remarkable. The rapid growth rate of the industry makes the process of understanding seem virtually impossible what ingredients, products, etc. may be worth your while. Through many of the books and papers I’ve read and written, many of my colleagues recommend an approach that considers safety and scientific evidence related to its use. From these two major areas, categories are developed:
On the science side of things, I would prefer for individuals to focus much of their efforts, time and money centered around products that fall into the first category. While a cynic could say that of course I would feel that way because then it justifies my existence as a sports nutrition researcher, these people also have to take note that my feelings are similar to those of physicians, nurses, other medical or allied health professionals and even the media. Take for example three products that I feel clearly fit into this category: creatine monohydrate, whey protein or protein supplementation and caffeine. All three have withstood the test of time that were embattled with criticism on many levels, but as it currently stands now are three of the most well-researched and commonly used dietary supplements available to the consumer. In fact, a relatively new professional organization devoted to solely to promoting the development and understanding of sports nutrition that I am actively involved, the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) (www.sportsnutritionsociety.org) has published complete and comprehensive position statements on these topics. They are excellent reviews by the literature and each are free to download and use and referenced herein (creatine , protein  and caffeine ). Category one is reserved for those ingredients that are safe, highly researched and effective. In my opinion, few other ingredients belong in this category. This is of course outside of making sure you are getting an appropriate balance of energy for what your currently level of activity demands.
Remember if you will, the topic and answer centers largely upon a philosophical approach to evaluating and assessing various ingredients. The danger of not using this approach is that you can easily become a victim of marketing and advertising or if you depend on a friend for advice they may be falling victim to the marketing as well. Also, if you go to someone at the gym who looks the part you are pitting yourself against their genetics and that may not be a fair trade off. In a similar respect, be cautious and aware of information on the internet. At the very minimum, if a website is spouting off about all kinds of awesome things and doesn’t provide any references you can almost bet their information is coming from less than thought-out areas. But I digress…
Outside of category 1 and category 4, the interpretations become more subjective. How much research is enough to move it from one area to another? That all depends on you, but I’m a “show me the data” guy so I like to see at least 4-5 papers published within the last 5 years. Without getting into all of the potential members of each, category 2 is reserved for things like glutamine, carnitine and other amino acid supplementation. All three of these items have plenty of published data to support or refute their use. In some instances, like carnitine, it is very challenging for a profit-based company to develop a carnitine product that delivers a dose that can have a physiological effect and still be priced in a range that will sell at a profit. Like it or not, a company has to make money and I think most consumers understand and respect that fact. I think we’ll also agree that people will get up in arms when the company’s approach becomes considered reckless and appears to care less about their consumer and more or only about their bottom line.
Another example of category 2 is glutamine. A great deal of research exists for glutamine is clinically diseased or sick populations to support its use. The disease or sickness places a great deal of stress on the body and in these situations it appears additional glutamine can be helpful. Whether or not its supplementation in healthy people will be helpful or not can largely depend on your training and recovery habits, regular diet, genetics, etc. In short, it may be a gift from God from some people (and I’ve met people who feel this way about glutamine) while others may think it’s garbage. In summary, a category 2 product in my mind has a good deal of research and oftentimes the research is a mixed bag of outcomes. These can lead to a great deal of confusion because companies can and do market the positives (as they have every right to do), but yet it may be something about their dosing and price points or something about your body and regular lifestyle that may or may not make it effective. Generally, the more research you do and self-experimentation for 4-6 weeks at a time, you’ll get a better handle on what might benefit your efforts, but only start with those items that have some literature to support their use.
Category 3 items are similar to category 2 in that there is research available and none of it suggests it may unsafe or be associated with common adverse events. The big difference is the amount of research that is available. In my mind, category 2 products will have a good deal of research, while this isn’t necessarily the case with category 3. They may be new kids on the block, i.e., a new ingredient or a new formulation, etc. In my opinion it is products in this category where the consumer needs to be the most guarded. A great deal of hype and marketing can be generated from only one or two studies that may or may not have even been done in circumstances which are relevant or similar to what your body goes through and/or needs during exercise. Products oftentimes don’t stay in this category for long because they either get some more developed research support and move to category 2 or fail to receive objective support and fall to category 4.
A current (very current) example of a category 3 ingredient would be amino acids chemically modified to have nitrate groups added to them (i.e., amino nitrates). Personally, I think it’s ‘too soon to tell’ and that’s not a criticism against people or anyone who feels otherwise. Some preliminary evidence is available that has shown nitrate supplementation to improve tolerance to high intensity exercise  and the metabolic efficiency of exercise . In addition, non-exercise studies have shown that nitrate-modified molecules may transport into the circulation faster making it possible that amino acids bound to a nitrate may absorb faster. The data supports these suggestions, but no studies have investigated this particular area and for that reason they are ‘too soon to tell’. Products in this category are oftentimes where companies will heavily market as the next big hit, the latest and greatest thing. Using this approach, evaluating the entire scenario, asking me a Q/A on www.1stphorm.com about them, etc. will be a way for you to get some objective feedback.
The last category is easy to assign members as they are either not safe or simply don’t work. Sure, you can spend your money on them, but they might be harmful or just as worse they may not do anything for you. For example, I would put ephedra supplementation in this category because of its potential to be unsafe in certain situations. Before you scoff at me, I will tell you that I was a big fan of ephedra in my graduate school days and I still have graduate students that take it now, but the FDA did find enough evidence to ban it (whether you agree with that or not) and for that reason you should approach with caution. On the other side of this category (ineffective), you have reports of silica supplementation altering recovery during intense exercise. Regarding silica, one published study by the manufacturer showed an effect (surprise, surprise) while every other study has failed to show any effect. Regarding boron supplementation, I’ll best summarize its place by reciting what one of my former graduate mentors used to say, “Boron is for morons!”.
So there is my recommended approach. The next problem is you are thinking, “How am I supposed to find the necessary information to make these decisions?” I have three answers for you: 1) submit a Q/Ato www.1stphorm.com and I’ll try to answer, 2) do your own research and look on the ISSN webpage and contact one of the authors on any of the author lines of the ISSN position stands. I know all of those individuals on a personal and professional level and can say most will not be bothered with answering a question from a consumer who wants to make a good decision about using a new product. Just take note we all are very busy, get right to the point of your question and ask your question (no stories please about how you used to a pro athlete or 30 pounds lighter) and 3) A very comprehensive list of authors within the sports nutrition world (a Who’s Who list really minus a few notables) recently reviewed and published a document that utilized this approach to classifying supplements and ingredients. This document is intended to be comprehensive scientific overview of many of the products currently available in the sports nutrition world. This document is also free for all to read download and read . It would be an excellent read for a science perspective on many of the available ingredients, botanicals, etc. that are currently being used in products on the market today. Finally, be patient and know that if you are training regularly, intensely and follow an improved diet your body will naturally stimulate processes that will make you stronger, leaner and better. When it comes time to add a product, gather valuable background information about it and make an informed decision. Good luck!
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