Testing Supplement Efficacy

How do you know if something, anything from a car to a blender to a vitamin supplement, works? You test it in a manner consistent with the way it’s going to be used, using specific, relevant measures of performance, and evaluate it according to those parameters.

Unfortunately, many equine nutritional and performance-enhancing supplements did not undergo such testing and evaluation before being put on the market. It’s not legally required that they be proven effective. If there is valid research on a product, you have to interpret the results to see if it did work and if the results can be extrapolated to your horse’s situation.

Kenneth H. McKeever, MS, PhD, Rutgers University, presented “Does it Work? Testing the Efficacy of Feed Supplements” at the 2002 Kentucky Equine Research Equine Nutrition Conference. He outlined several principles by which you should judge any research on a product’s efficacy. The first questions to ask, he said, are the following:

  • Is the purported performance-enhancing product safe?
  • Is it legal or illegal?
  • Is it effective or ineffective?
    “The best way to answer this question (the third) is to collect data during a competition or race against peers,” McKeever said. “However, those types of field studies have a great deal of experimental variation and require large numbers of subjects to determine if there are beneficial effects.” Since horses for experiments are hard to come by and expensive to keep (compared to smaller research animals), most equine research involves small numbers of animals in laboratory conditions. McKeever recommended that the following questions be asked when planning and evaluating performance-enhancing supplement research:
  • Is there a sound biochemical or physiological basis for claims that a product can improve performance?
    (For example, does the efficacy claim support or contradict established metabolic physiology and nutritional knowledge?)
  • Does the horse utilize the substance in the same way as other species?
    (i.e., do we know the best route of administration, bioavailability, and pharmacokinetics, or action of drugs in the body?)
  • Has the product been tested in horses using properly designed studies?
    (For example, were methods acceptable, repeatable, accurate; was the study controlled, blinded, and randomized; and were the measured parameters appropriate?)
  • Is there specificity as far as the types of tests used to evaluate the effect on performance?
    (i.e., is the breed of horse appropriate and do the test simulate the competition? For example, you wouldn’t want to use Shetland ponies to measure a product’s efficacy for enhancing racing performance.)
  • Are proper statistical methods being used, and are they interpreted correctly?
  • If the studies have been designed and conducted properly, have the results been interpreted properly?
    (For example, are the results being applied to the correct type of activity?)

“The most common problem associated with the marketing of these products is an excessive reliance on anecdotal information gained from testimonials,” McKeever stated. “Equine sports nutrition should use the same sound scientific principles (as those used in human sports medicine) to provide information to horse owners and trainers.”

About the Author

Christy M. West

Christy West has a BS in Equine Science from the University of Kentucky, and an MS in Agricultural Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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