BMJ/BBC: “Striking lack of evidence” to back up claims for popular sports brands

A joint news release from the BMJ and the BBC states: (Sorry I can’t do more than post the news release for now.  I’m traveling.)

With the biggest sporting event in the world just a week away, a joint
investigation by the BMJ and BBC Panorama has found that there is “a
striking lack of evidence” to support claims about improved performance and
recovery for many sports products like drinks, trainers and protein shakes.

The investigation reveals new research carried out by the Oxford Centre for
Evidence Based Medicine and the BMJ, and published in the online journal
BMJ Open. It concludes that no sound evidence could be found to support
claims made by some of sport’s biggest brands and that it is “virtually
impossible for the public to make informed choices about the benefits and
harms of advertised sports products.”

The findings are also highly critical of the methods used by the European
Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to regulate these marketing claims. Dr Matthew
Thompson, Senior Clinical Scientist at Oxford University’s Department of
Primary Health Care Sciences, told the Panorama investigation these methods
are based on “very meagre” research, supplied largely by manufacturers
themselves. He would like to see “a more scientific and rigorous approach”
to assessing the basis of food claims in Europe.

Their findings are part of a joint investigation by the BMJ and BBC
Panorama which tests the science behind the marketing hype of this
multibillion-dollar industry and suggests we could be wasting our money on
these products.

Full details will be published on and broadcast on Panorama “The
Truth About Sports Products” on Thursday 19 July at 8pm on BBC One.

The investigation also explores the role of sports drinks companies in the
“science of hydration” and questions their links with some of the world’s
most influential sports bodies in a bid to gain public trust in their
products and persuade ordinary people they need more than water when they

But Arthur Siegel, Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard University,
says we are being misled about the dangers of dehydration and industry
advice to “stay ahead of thirst” when, in fact, drinking too much of any
liquid can be fatal.

A team at Oxford University tested the evidence behind 431
performance-enhancing claims in adverts for 104 different sports products
including sports drinks, protein shakes and trainers.

If the evidence wasn’t clear from the ads, they contacted the companies for
more information. Some, like Puma, did not provide any evidence, while
others like GlaxoSmithKline – makers of Lucozade Sport – provided 174

Yet only three (2.7%) of the studies the team was able to assess were
judged to be of high quality and at low risk of bias. They say this absence
of high-quality evidence is “worrying” and call for better research in this
area to help inform decisions.

Many top sports scientists support this view. Professor Tim Noakes from the
University of Cape Town says that while sports drinks may be helpful for
elite athletes, the drinks companies rarely study ordinary gym goers. Many
also contain high levels of sugar.

Yet sports drinks like Lucozade, made by GlaxoSmithKline, and Powerade,
made by Coca Cola – the official drink of the 2012 Olympics – are sold in
supermarkets and will soon have the European stamp of approval that they
“help maintain endurance performance.”

GlaxoSmithKline also runs a school science programme, aimed at 11-14 year
olds, looking at things like the advantages of sports drinks over water, as
part of its involvement in the Olympic anti-doping operations.

Dr Matthew Thompson from the Oxford team is also concerned about rising
levels of obesity among children and young people. He says anything that
suggests sports drinks are good for us “could completely counteract
exercising more, playing football more, going to the gym more.”

But not only is industry telling us we need specially formulated drinks to
exercise, it is also telling us how to drink, with advice like “stay ahead
of your thirst” when the evidence suggests it’s best to drink when you’re

Some manufacturers have even suggested that sports drinks can protect
against the effects of hyponatremia (a drop in the body’s salt levels
caused by over-drinking) when experts are clear that drinking too much of
any liquid can be dangerous.

The Oxford team were also unable to find good quality evidence to support
claims that special trainers reduce injury, although for decades the
industry focus has been on creating specialised shoes which aim to reduce
the risk of injury by cushioning against impact and controlling pronation –
guidance which the NHS supports.

Sports injury expert, Professor Irene Davis of Harvard University argues
that “there is no evidence for prescribing [tailored] footwear”. This view
is supported by evidence from a recent study by the US military – the
biggest sports footwear study of its kind. Soldiers were divided into two
groups – one of which was prescribed neutral shoes and the other received
shoes tailored for their feet.  “They found absolutely no difference
between the groups in terms of injury patterns”, says Professor Davis.

Benno Nigg, a leading expert in the biomechanics of running shoes who has
worked with the major sports brands for over four decades, also told
Panorama that his recent research confirms that “the most important
predictors for injuries are distance, recovery time, intensity and those
type of things.” Shoes, he says, are “minor contributors.”

Similarly, Carl Heneghan, who led the research team at Oxford Univeristy
found “no evidence” to support claims that protein shakes or supplements
boost performance and recovery any more so than eating a diet that’s rich
in protein and carbohydrates. Nutritionist, Professor Mike Lean describes
protein shakes as “a rather expensive way of getting a bit of milk.”

“These misleading messages filter down to everyday health advice by
company-sponsored scientists who advise high-profile sports bodies,”
explains Deborah Cohen, BMJ Investigations Editor. “For instance, fear
about the dangers of dehydration has become gospel and now influences what
and how we drink when we exercise. It’s a triumph of marketing over

The investigation concludes: “For now, the evidence we do have seems to be
leading us to a rather common sense and affordable solution. Eat a well
balanced diet, drink water, find some comfy shoes, and get out there and
exercise regularly.”

Weighty Matters blogger Dr. Yoni Freedhoff reacted:

“wow. Wow, WOw, WOW!

What words would you use to describe a situation where one of the world’s most prominent medical journal publishes, not just one article critical of a specific category of food, but seven such articles, and where those articles come to the conclusion that the food is being marketing on the basis of food industry funded hype and collusion?

I’d use the words, “Thank You”!

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Comments (2)

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Gerard Blair

July 20, 2012 at 10:02 am

Good analysis of the evidence here

Gerard Blair

July 20, 2012 at 10:02 am

Good analysis of the evidence here