Sports drinks and supplements: what’s fact and what’s fiction?

Go into any convenience store or supermarket in Japan and you are likely to find a wide selection of brightly packaged nutritional drinks and supplements that are supposed to help you train longer and recover quicker. These items, which previously targeted niche markets such as gyms and health shops, now appeal to a much wider audience including both very serious and more casual sports enthusiasts.

Yet as competition grows, so does the skepticism. According to a joint investigation by BBC’s flagship investigative journalism show “Panorama” and the British Medical Journal (BMJ) last year, there was a “striking lack of evidence” to back up claims made by many of the makers of these nutritional products. So how do we know what brands to trust?

The truth is that it is very difficult. For ordinary members of the public it is virtually impossible to measure the effectiveness of nutritional products. What we need is clear, scientific data that shows the impact that these items are having on our bodies. That is what establishments like Ajinomoto, the first company to conduct extensive research into amino acids, have been trying to provide.

“I think it is our scientific background and knowledge that gives us a big advantage over our rivals,” says the PR manager for aminoVITAL in Ajinomoto’s Amino Division, Miwa Katayama. “We have many scientists constantly developing and helping to improve our products. If you look at two of our most well known items – aminoVITAL PRO 3600, which mixes 12 amino acids together, and aminoVITAL GOLD 4000, which blends nine – they both required years of study and testing before they could be sold. Other companies may not be going to those lengths.”

The aforementioned items are said to give athletes sustained muscle energy while also accelerating muscle recovery. Sounds like a great slogan to put on their labels, but the problem is that here in Japan, food companies are prohibited by law from actively promoting the health benefits of these nutritional products. This stands in stark contrast to places like America and the United Kingdom, where a brand like Lucozade can advertise how its isotonic performance fuel “will take you faster, stronger for longer.”

What we need is clear, scientific data that shows the impact that these items are having on our bodies.

In this country, for non-pharmaceutical companies, the message has to be more subtle, which means consumers are not being painted a clear picture as to the benefits of these items. Another issue is that many sports drinks look and taste very similar. If you removed the labels from bottles of Pocari Sweat, Aquarius, and Kirin Loves Sports drinks, you would have a pretty tough time recognizing the difference among them – in fact, even the labels look pretty much the same. Adding fruit juices like orange or grapefruit is an option; however, according to Katayama this “relatively shortens their shelf-life,” and that is why so many brands opt for something simple.

Standing out from the crowd is, therefore, not easy and that is why brand endorsements have become so important. It is one of the reasons why Gatorade has cornered the market in America. In order to play like your NFL hero you should drink Gatorade like him: a simple, but very effective marketing tool. In Japan aminoVITAL seems to be a particularly popular choice for the country’s biggest sports stars, attracting names such as Keisuke Honda and Kosuke Uchimura.

In 2012 Ajinomoto struck an agreement with the Japan Olympic Committee (JOC) to develop an advanced type of aminoVITAL only for members of the Japanese team at the London Olympics which was called London Special, and later launched commercially as GOLD 4000. However, Associate General Manager Hiroyuki Miyoshi points out that “many national teams bought aminoVITAL PRO 3600 and sent it back home for their athletes.”

These are clearly items trusted by sporting professionals, people who require peak performance over sustained periods. That is all well and good, but what about those of us who go for the occasional jog or just take part in some light activities at the weekend: do we really benefit from taking these supplements? Kenji Abe, who works in the Sports Nutrition Department at Ajinomoto, believes that we do, even if we don’t notice it.

“These items are having a positive effect,” he tells us. “However, it is difficult for members of the general public who don’t train so much to fully appreciate those effects. Top athletes, on the other hand, heavily work on their muscles everyday. They are more sensitive to changes that take place in their bodies and they therefore have a greater understanding of how these products work.”

No doubt the debate concerning the legitimacy of sports drinks and supplements will continue to rumble on. There are companies out there providing useful scientific data, while others appear to be lacking in that area. Yet even with all of these uncertainties, consumer demand for these items appears to be growing, even if many of us don’t fully understand the impact that they are having on our bodies.

Image: K_Gradinger/Flickr

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