I was lucky enough to visit the Reflex Nutrition Science Park with my colleague Rachel Comer this month for what was an eye opening experience. I have to admit that despite many years of working with nutrition products I have never really considered the production process behind them! Only now, having donned the attractive white coat and blue hair net (no there is not photographic evidence) can I actually appreciate what goes into each and every tub of powder and supplement capsule that I dish out.
We jumped straight into a factory tour, starting with the supplement rooms. There were automatic and manned semiautomatic machines that filled hundreds of capsules instantaneously with powder on a round disc, locked the two parts together, punched and sealed them into blister packs and boxed them up ready to go. The importance of cleaning and dust extraction was highlighted as part of this process as it involved the operator sweeping all the excess powder off the tray and returning straight back into the batch. They have to take dust very seriously not just to avoid it mixing with powders, but we were told the story of how one food factory in the past exploded due to the density of dust particles that had built up in the air. Health and Safety has to be taken very seriously around here.
Then there were the 4 ton blenders! They spanned two levels of the factory floor just to mix the powder products. Before they can be used the ‘small ingredients’ must be weighed out by hand in their own special room to an accuracy of three decimal places. Consider the nutritional labels of these products that state the contents of x milligrams per every 100g of powder for all of these small ingredients (all the amino acids, vitamins, minerals, enzymes etc). Some of these can actually be harmful if incorrect amounts are consumed, hence the importance of the accuracy and the use of red warning labels for such ingredients.
So with all that effort how can they ensure equal amounts of each of these small ingredients make their way out of the blenders and into each tub? And mixed evenly throughout the product so that every serving does actually contain all the ingredients? That is something we may take for granted when reading the nutritional breakdown on these products. Whilst it cannot be absolutely 100% guaranteed, a coloured dye is used to test the spread of how evenly everything mixes together. Once again the cleaning process is of the utmost importance between every different product and flavour that is rotated around production in each blender.
The powder is funnelled out of the blender automatically into each tub on the conveyor belt below, which control checks the weight of each tub, scans for metal levels, heat seals the lid and sprays on batch information all within one run. It was the same in another unit producing the new R bars, with raw ingredients shaped, weighed, wrapped, sealed and boxed all in one flow. These highly secretive ingredients are censored from visitors and taking pictures in this unit is strictly banned, as explained by their owner John Phillips on the website:
“It’s taken me two years to make this happen and I’m not about to let our competition understand how we’ve done this. You need to think outside of the box, it’s not a case of simply putting a line together and throwing the ingredients in. If it were that easy all the big contract packers would have made these bars already! There are unique processes involved that I’m very secretive about, and they will remain secret.”(https://www.reflex-nutrition.com/protein-bars/r-bar-protein-bars-go-into-full-production)
However, the entire process for all the products does not just start at the Science Park as I realised when we were shown another warehouse full of the raw ingredients; stacks of sacks full of the likes of pure whey from France and creatine from Germany. This is when the complexity of doping and supplement contamination really hit home. Even when facilities and their processes are assessed for banned substances and accredited (https://www.reflex-nutrition.com/hfl-drug-tests) there are raw materials from other sites, even other countries, to consider.
And to those in elite sport the site accreditation alone is probably not enough. Here is an example of a company producing products to the highest food standards with their own in house chemist rigorously testing their ingredients, using tighter limits internally than actually set externally by governing bodies. A company with ‘a sole aim of producing the finest supplements available’ and certainly no doping agenda, as per the majority of nutrition companies out there. And yet the first question from any practitioner working in elite sports (myself included) with regards to any of the products: “But is it batch tested?” The pressure and responsibility on practitioners in terms of drug testing means we need the safety net of the third party doping certification to fall back on. Some talk about the responsibility falling on the athletes themselves but often in reality we are the ones who make the judgement. How often have you had an unknown product from a health shop land on your desk and have to decide if it is a risk or not? Sometimes the grey area between food product and supplement makes this a difficult decision.
So despite being an accredited site with well controlled production, which I have even witnessed in person, I still feel able to only use the specific products that have been batch tested in a further process. We feel limited despite common sense screaming at us that the products will be safe of any listed ingredients and contamination, and certainly no more dangerous than other food products that athletes might buy from shops, eat in restaurants or even buy on holiday – surely these are all more dangerous sources than such a quality controlled factory?! Finally, we are even reminded on the UKAD website (UK Anti-Doping) that even the Informed Sport programme is only a ‘risk minimisation programme’ and it is ‘not possible to provide a 100 per cent guarantee that any supplement is totally free of contamination’. http://www.ukad.org.uk/athletes/performance/supplements
Some people advocate staying clear of ALL products and supplementation to avoid any risks relating to doping; on the other hand others argue we are in fact limiting performance and should allow doping. That of course is an entirely different can of worms! It seems for the time being nutrition companies must work with third party accreditation processes to help protect all those athletes and practitioners who strive to maximise performance legally. Ultimately, my afternoon away from the training ground not only opened my eyes to the processes of nutritional production, but the complexities of doping control and site accreditation.