Last November, amonth after his 32nd birthday, Rene Gonzalez moved with his wife and two youngdaughters from Miami to Cape Coral, a wetlands community whose canals haveearned it the nickname the Little Venice of Florida. In Miami the competitionin his chosen career—nutritional supplement sales—was fierce, and Cape Coraloffered a less congested marketplace. He opened a small store, Just Add Muscle,in a strip mall near two gyms. "Opening the store is the first step,"Gonzalez says in his native Massachusetts accent. "What I really hope to dois open my own manufacturing company. That's my dream: to franchise this storeand manufacture my own supplements and then sell them in the stores."
Gonzalez has nobackground in chemistry or nutritional science. His previous job was restoringcars; before that he was in the Marines. What he knows about sportssupplements—those pills, powders and drinks marketed to athletes and would-beathletes—he learned from using them (initially as a chubby adolescent hoping toadd muscle) and from reading articles in magazines and online. Except for hisown experiences, there is nothing to suggest that he is qualified to offeradvice on supplementation, let alone to design and manufacture his own line ofproducts.
Gonzalez's dream,however, is not as fanciful as it would appear.
Thesports-supplement world has many power brokers whose origins are as improbableas Gonzalez's. They have risen along with an industry that in three decades hasgrown from a niche business serving iron-heaving behemoths to a broad-basedjuggernaut with nearly $20 billion in U.S. sales in 2007, according to theNutrition Business Journal. As more and more players are revealed to have takenperformance-enhancing drugs—Dodgers slugger Manny Ramirez being only the latestexample—potent products line the shelves of Wal-Mart, Rite-Aid and 7-Eleven,more than 5,400 GNC stores and Vitamin Shoppes, and independent stores likeJust Add Muscle.
Despite the moveinto the mainstream the industry remains fertile ground for kitchen chemistswith little or no formal education in science or nutrition—and in somenotorious cases former steroid users and dealers (page 57). They help decidewhat compounds go into the fat-burners, muscle builders and preworkout drinksconsumed annually by an estimated 33.5 million Americans. Many of thoseconsumers flock to supplements that revolutionized sports training, likepowdered creatines, which provide the muscles used for explosive movements withconcentrated fuel found in meats and fish.
But questionsabout the industry arose anew in December, when six NFL players were suspendedfor four games each by the league after testing positive for a banned diureticin the weight-loss pills StarCaps. Then in January, Philadelphia Philliesreliever J.C. Romero, who won two World Series games last fall, received a50-game suspension from baseball for testing positive for androstenedione—orandro, used most controversially by Mark McGwire—which Romero blamed on 6-OXOExtreme, an over-the-counter supplement marketed as a testosterone booster.Earlier this month the Ontario-based manufacturer MuscleTech issued a voluntaryrecall of Hydroxycut, a weight-loss aid and workout booster that comes in avariety of forms and whose sales topped nine million units last year. Therecall came after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) linked Hydroxycut,which is still available in many stores, to 23 cases of liver damage includingthe death of a 19-year-old boy.
In a 2007 study ofsupplements sold in the U.S, the screening company Informed-Choice found that25% of the 58 supplement samples it tested contained steroids or stimulantsbanned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). Six years earlier, a studyfunded by the International Olympic Committee found that 15% of the 634supplements it examined would likely cause an athlete to test positive.Michigan-based NSF International now screens supplements for MLB, the PGA andthe NFL, and marks those not containing banned substances with an NSF seal. Butonly a dozen companies have volunteered their products for certification, andNSF can only vouch for the specific batch it tests.
There is a simplereason that the industry has become, in the words of Darryn Willoughby,director of the Exercise and Biochemical Nutrition Laboratory at Baylor, aPandora's Box of false claims, untested products and bogus science. To sell anytype of food or drug, a company must submit to scrutiny from the FDA. Thatscrutiny once applied to supplements such as concentrated milk, egg and soypowders, which fed the demand for nonperishable food additives during World WarII. But in 1994 Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act(DSHEA), which allowed supplements—broadly defined as vitamins, minerals,herbs, amino acids and other products that don't contain approvedpharmaceutical drugs and don't claim to treat diseases—to be sold with no proofof effectiveness or safety, and without approval from the FDA (page 59). Thatlegislation, heavy with lobbyists' fingerprints, razed virtually every barrierto entry into the marketplace.
All it takes tobecome a sports supplement dealer is a little money and a phone call, like theone Gonzalez placed last year to a supplement manufacturer in Texas. Gonzalezordered bottles of a muscle-building product that he named Monsterdrol, whichwere then made, packaged and marked with Gonzalez's label, Supplements911. Whenshowing a visitor around his store in February, Gonzalez pointed to a bottle ofMonsterdrol and described it as "your typical prohormone product." Asteroid prohormone is a substance that the body converts to an anabolicsteroid; andro is an example. But Dr. Don Catlin—CEO of Anti-Doping Research, aLos Angeles--based nonprofit that hunts down new performance enhancers, and theformer director of the UCLA Olympic Analytical Laboratory—says that Monsterdrolis in fact methasteron, an anabolic steroid that, while not on the controlledsubstance list of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), is "Number 1on my danger list."
Yet Monsterdrolcan be purchased off the shelf at Just Add Muscle, available to anyone underthe Florida sun, and on Gonzalez's website, available to anyone anywhere.
Supplementcompanies follow the Wright Brothers rule: You're flying until you crash. Inthe 1990s ephedra was the golden herb of the supplement industry. It was soldin more than 200 products that purported to do everything from boost athleticperformance to burn fat to intensify sex drive. In 1999 some 12 millionAmericans consumed products containing ephedra.
But the dangers ofthe herb became apparent in 2001. On July 31, Minnesota Vikings tackle KoreyStringer, who had been using an ephedra supplement, died of heatstroke intraining camp. Three days later Northwestern University safety Rashidi Wheelerdied of an asthma attack after a conditioning drill. He too had been taking anephedra supplement. The American Association of Poison Control Centers laterreported that 64% of the calls it received in 2001 about herbal products—or1,1178 in all—concerned adverse reactions to supplements containingephedra.
The herb'sbanishment from the U.S. market was sealed two years later when BaltimoreOrioles pitcher Steve Bechler, who was using an ephedra product to lose weight,collapsed and died during spring training. "[Bechler] was a fat guyexercising in the heat," argues Jack Owoc, CEO and founder of thesupplement manufacturer and retailer Vital Pharmaceuticals (VPX) in Davie,Fla., echoing a common sentiment in the industry that ephedra was safe if usedproperly. (Stringer, too, was overweight.) VPX exploded to prominence with thehelp of energy and weight-loss products containing ephedra. Nonetheless, whenOwoc saw a federal ban looming—it came in April 2004—he did what anyone whosurvives in the supplement industry does: He reinvented his business.
A former highschool science teacher who began by selling supplements out of the front of hishouse in 1993, Owoc invested in a 14,000-square-foot plant and churned outRedline, a potent ephedra-free energy and weight-loss drink available not onlyat GNC and Vitamin Shoppe but also at Wal-Mart and 7-Eleven. Thanks largely toRedline, VPX is doing a nine-figure business and last year expanded, purchasinga 90,000-square-foot facility. Meanwhile, companies with less prescientleadership, like once-mighty Twinlab, which had its chips on ephedra-basedRipped Fuel—a supplement used by Stringer—have suffered a deep decline or evenfolded.
Owoc survived andis now to the sports-supplement industry what Willy Wonka was to the candy biz:eccentric, bursting with energy (as he sips a VPX BANG!) and in command of afactory full of less-musical Oompa-Loompas who make reality of his imaginativenutritional notions. A drug company, like Pfizer or Merck, typically needseight years to get a product from the lab to the consumer. In a mere twomonths, a VPX energy drink can go from Owoc's brain to machines that each churnout 230 bottles a minute—and then to store shelves.
He spends much ofhis time sampling from a rainbow of liquids. On an afternoon earlier this year,Owoc drew a few cc's of a Day-Glo-red substance into an oral syringe anddropped them into his mouth. The connoisseur of energy drinks clicked histongue a few times and delivered his verdict. "You gotta go higher on thecinnamon," he told a technician in a shin-length white lab coat, "andmore sweetener. And no mint. You're killing me with the mint."
Nearly everyenergy and weight-loss drink contains some combination of the industry's go-tostimulants: yerba maté, green tea, yohimbine (a stimulant found in yohimbe treebark) and good old-fashioned caffeine. The amount of each ingredient is part ofa secret "proprietary blend," according to labels, though the caffeinecontent is occasionally listed—a shot glass of Redline, for example, has aboutas much caffeine as a can of Coke. For Owoc, all the mixing and taste-testingis part of his constant quest to stay ahead of the competition: Get somethingto market, get it there fast and make sure it tingles. As he puts it, you haveto "feel it working."
What you"feel" working with a drink like Redline is thermogenesis, or theproduction of body heat. Consuming stimulants is like shoveling coal into alocomotive furnace, speeding up the body's metabolism so more energy is burned.One form of thermogenesis is familiar to anyone who has been to a game atLambeau Field: shivering. The tiny muscle contractions use energy to generateheat and warm the body. "It is a physiological fact that when you shiver,your body releases a large amount of stored body fat in an attempt to bringbody temperature back to normal," reads Redline's marketing materials,which play up the product's ability to induce shivering.
For a persondrinking a Redline in a gym, however, shivering does generate heat, but it hasnothing to do with bringing body temperature back to normal. "Some peopleget jittery from stimulants," says Judith Alsop, director of the Sacramentodivision of the California Poison Control System. Alsop says that between 2004and '06, her office received 10 calls from Redline users reporting symptomsfrom jitters to vomiting. (Four checked into emergency rooms, but none sufferedlasting harm.) VPX says that if people use the drink as indicated, they shouldexperience no adverse reactions.
"They'remarketing the side effects as the intended effect, so if someone gets tremors,they think, I'm just shivering and losing weight," says Alsop. Shiveringmay aid weight loss slightly, but even a tiny increase in body temperature—bothfrom the shaking and increased metabolic rate—can be disastrous during a summerworkout. "Football players get on the field at 98 degrees, and it's normalfor them to get up to 103 or 104," says Sandra Fowkes-Godek, director ofthe HEAT Institute at West Chester (Pa.) University. "If they start at 100or 101 and get to 105, they can have a potentially catastrophic event."
Each eight-ounceRedline bottle notes that one serving is four ounces and has a warning thatreads, NOT FOR USE BY INDIVIDUALS UNDER THE AGE OF 18 YEARS. But such warningsare lost on the prime consumers. As Alsop says, "We've found that young mendon't read labels."
How does an ideafor a supplement go from the brain of Rene Gonzalez or Jack Owoc to a mall nearyou?
Companies thatoutsource manufacturing, as Gonzalez's does, are in the vast majority, and theyusually rely on the manufacturer to obtain ingredients. Those that make theirown products, such as VPX, order most of their raw materials from abroad, oftenfrom Asia.
Materials fromoverseas arrive with a certificate of validation from the exporter. "[But]you have to treat that like just a piece of paper some guy in China wrotesomething on," says Patrick Arnold, who before he rose to fame as the BALCOchemist, popularized the andro supplement that was in McGwire's locker in 1998.Says Arnold, "If you are serious about quality control, you have to testeverything."
Somemanufacturers, like VPX, rigorously screen the raw materials they receive;others trust the suppliers, at the consumer's risk. Balanced Health Products,the manufacturer of StarCaps, said its supplement was probably contaminated byraw materials imported from Peru. "Like any business, there are companiesyou can trust to do the testing and those that you cannot," saysArnold.
Once the materialsare in hand, a large manufacturer, like VPX, can decide what to mix togetherand call a supplement. Gonzalez's options, on the other hand, are more limited.Because the size of his order won't be large enough to warrant its ownproduction run from the manufacturer, he can only commission a so-called"me-too" product, essentially a copy of an existing supplement in themarketplace that he then brands with his label.
To make a brandrise above the crowd, though, a company can't just churn out another basiccreatine or whey protein. It takes a different formula, or the real jackpot:the inclusion of a novel ingredient. It is during the race to create somethingnew, when supplement makers spend hours poring over science and nutritionjournals—sometimes using themselves and their coworkers as guinea pigs forexperimental formulas—that they're likely to jump the gun and embraceingredients that have proved neither safe nor effective.
A few years agosupplement makers turned ecdysterone, an insect development hormone, into allthe rage. The leap that companies made was spelled out in the ecdysteroneinformation page at Bodybuilding.com, the leading online-only supplementpurveyor: "Could there be some correlation between insects' superiorstrength ratio and this compound? What would the effects be on vertebrates suchas mammals? If we had the proportionate strength of an ant, for example, wecould easily pick up a car." A Bodybuilding.com article by a former chiefof research for a major nutrition company called ecdysteroids the"Steroidal Holy Grail."
Except ecdysteronedoesn't have any effect on humans. "Studies in my lab have shown thatecdysteroids are completely innocuous in mammals," says Ronald M. Evans, aprofessor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego."Spinach, for example, is loaded with [ecdysteroids], but these moleculesprovide no muscle-building properties in humans."
Instances in whichsupplement makers have moved faster than science, or dodged it entirely,abound. For example:
• A 2003 studyclaimed that an extract of brown seaweed binds to and blocks myostatin, aprotein that tells muscles when to stop growing. Companies such as Biotest andChampion Nutrition rushed brown-seaweed-extract supplements to market. Aftertwo later studies debunked the seaweed-as-muscle-builder theory, TimZiegenfuss, one of the authors of the pro-seaweed study and now a Biotestscientist, conceded in an online interview with the website Testosterone Musclethat "the science was just so promising that we just didn't follow theprocess like we usually do in terms of stringent testing.... [The supplementcompanies] were in too big a hurry to get it to market."
• Some oral sprayor liquid products claim to contain human growth hormone. Whether they do or donot is unimportant, since HGH is a very large molecule that is not effectiveunless taken by injection and can be legally obtained only with aprescription.
• Ginseng has beenused in China for thousands of years, as many supplement makers will inform aconsumer looking for a boost in the gym or on the field. But a fewwell-designed scientific studies, according to UC Berkeley's Wellness Guide toDietary Supplements website, have found no proof that ginseng enhances energylevels or athletic performance.
• Almost everysports-supplement store sells products that contain the steroid prohormoneDHEA, which is legal but banned by the NCAA, the NFL, the NBA and WADA. DHEA ismarketed for everything from muscle growth and fat loss to antiaging. Levels ofDHEA in the body do decline with age, but in scientific studies on thousands ofsenior citizens, supplemental DHEA failed to improve muscle mass or brainfunction. Studies have, however, documented side effects, including facial hairgrowth in women and breast enlargement and elevated blood pressure in men, inaddition to a number of dangerous interactions for those also takingprescription drugs.
Even some of thebiggest names in supplements can find themselves embroiled in debates about thescientific basis of their product claims. At issue in an ongoing class actionlawsuit in California is whether Bioengineered Supplements and Nutrition (BSN),the official supplement provider of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, falselymarketed products as containing its breakthrough ingredient: creatine ethylester malate, or CEM3. CEM3 was touted as one of the components of BSN'smuscle-building N.O.-XPLODE, a product that was so successful when it waslaunched in 2004 that BSN doubled its staff to about 60 employees within ayear. (In 2007 the company was named the 27th-fastest-growing private companyin America by Inc. magazine, with $80.8 million in revenue and a three-yeargrowth rate of 3,027%.) "You probably can't go into any store in the worldwhere [N.O.-XPLODE] is not a top seller," says James Tracy, BSN's marketingdirector.
But whether CEM3even exists is at the crux of the lawsuit. In expert depositions JonathanVennerstrom, professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the University of NebraskaMedical Center, testified that the claimed structure of CEM3 is chemicallyimpossible to make, and Richard Chamberlin, a chemistry professor at UC Irvine,testified that BSN's patented process for synthesizing CEM3 "almostcertainly would produce none." BSN told SI that the lawsuit "does notchallenge the effectiveness or quality of the products," and that "BSNno longer sells those formulations."
Some supplementmakers, prohibited by cost and their lack of expertise from creating novelingredients, fall back on what they know works and sells: anabolic steroids andprohormones that have not yet been added to the DEA's list of controlledsubstances.
The policing ofthese designer compounds has become a cat-and-mouse game between retailers andthe feds. Andro and its prohormone cousins were added to the federal controlledsubstances list in 2004. Supplement makers responded by engineering newprohormones; whether one is technically legal depends in part on how chemicallyand pharmacologically similar it is to a controlled substance. "Designerdrugs are hard to keep up with," says Rusty Payne, a DEA spokesman."We're adapting and evolving, and the bad guys are doing the same thing toevade us."
The government isalready working to ban more prohormones, and though the FDA does not havepremarket approval power, it does test products when concerns arise. (A monthafter the six NFL players were suspended because of the banned diuretic inStarCaps, the FDA announced that 69 weight-loss supplements had been found tocontain unlisted drugs. The FDA warned consumers but doesn't have the authorityto issue a recall without the manufacturers' cooperation.) The approach to takewith prohormones, says a person who works directly with retailers at a largesupplement-manufacturing company, is to "make your money in the next fewmonths and get out of it."
The market forover-the-counter or over-the-Internet products containing steroids andprohormones, in the words of the manufacturing-company employee, is "the15-year-old boy to the 25-year-old [man] who just is, like, I don't want totake steroids, and I heard this is going to make me have great [muscle]gains."
When asked aboutMonsterdrol, Gonzalez explained that his product is a legal prohormone and thatit was sold to him as such by the Texas manufacturer. However, a certificate ofanalysis that Gonzalez obtained from Research Triangle Park Laboratories inRaleigh and posted on his store's website shows his product to have thischemical formulation: 2a-17a-dimethyl-5a-androstane-3-one-17b-ol, which Catlinidentified as the designer anabolic steroid methasteron. (That formulation alsoappears on the bottle itself.) While methasteron is not on the DEA's list ofcontrolled substances, the FDA sent letters in 2006 to a manufacturer and adistributor of methasteron, warning both that if they continued to market thedrug as a dietary supplement, they risked a visit from the feds.
Gonzalez says thathe won't sell Monsterdrol in his store to a customer under 21, and maintainsthat many retailers sell supplements with the same formulation. Indeed, SIidentified several other over-the-Internet products with the chemicalformulation for methasteron on their labels. One of the other methasteronproducts that SI obtained had been sold by Rockhard Formulations, founded in2003 by strength coach Zack Barnard. (The company has changed ownership sinceSI obtained the supplement and now sells a different product line.) In March,weeks after he sold the company, Barnard said that he "got out of thebusiness because of the liability. Unfortunately, athletes get a hold of[steroid and prohormone supplements], and it's coming up as a positive test. Idon't want that on my shoulders.... I'm not affiliated with it anymore, and I'dnever condone it."
Testing positivefor an anabolic steroid shouldn't be the foremost concern for a methasteronuser. A paper published last year in the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterologyand Hepatology chronicled five cases of liver damage among previously healthyyoung men who used dietary supplements that contained methasteron; none tookthem for more than four months. Catlin himself was involved in a separate casein which a healthy 28-year-old man used methasteron for two months and wastransformed into what Catlin describes as a jaundiced "yellow boy with IVsrunning out of him."
After receivinghis order of Monsterdrol, Gonzalez participated in a conference call in Januarywith prospective customers arranged through the message boards atEliteFitness.com. "If it's the first time you're going to be using ananabolic [agent], this stuff is not the way to go. It's kind of like trying tolight a cigarette with a blowtorch," Gonzalez told his audience, addingthat Monsterdrol is "stronger than the illegal stuff."
During Gonzalez'sconference call, one of the moderators instructed prospective buyers to takemilk thistle with Monsterdrol. It was good advice. Milk thistle is believed toprotect the liver from some of the harmful side effects of anabolic steroids.But in the supplement industry, not all milk thistle is created equal. In 2007Bill Obermeyer, a former FDA scientist, analyzed a dozen milk thistle productsas vice president for research at ConsumerLab.com, an independent company thattests nutritional products. Half of the products contained significantly lessof the liver-protecting complex silymarin than the labels claimed, and one wascontaminated with lead—bad news if you're counting on the stuff to protect yourliver from, say, Monsterdrol.
"To me,"Obermeyer says, "we're doing what the FDA should be doing, but they justdon't have the manpower to do it."
Dr. Scott Connellyis sitting in a leather chair near a bank of 30-foot, floor-to-ceiling windowsthat overlook the harbor from his Newport Beach, Calif., home. The house is aspacious example of modernism, with sharp lines and minimalist decor. Told thathis house should be on the cover of a glossy shelter magazine, Connelly saysmatter-of-factly, "I believe it was."
Connelly inventedthe first mainstream sports supplement, MET-Rx, in 1993. Yet he is dismayed bythe turns the business has taken. "It is lamentable to me some of the stuffthat has made it into the industry," he says. "I get e-mails frompeople every day, asking, 'Does this [product] do what they say it does? Is itharmful?' Consumers are completely confused."
It took Connelly20 years to perfect the formula for the meal-replacement supplement that wouldbecome MET-Rx. He first thought of it while working on his thesis as anundergraduate studying neurophysiology at Boston University. While completing afellowship at Stanford Medical Center in intensive-care medicine, he beganmanufacturing the product, which he engineered for its potential in thetreatment of critically ill patients. One study, which appeared in the Journalof Burn Care and Rehabilitation, found MET-Rx effective in helping burn victimsgain weight.
His inventionbecame a sensation only "because of happenstance," he says. While atStanford, he wondered how MET-Rx—whose ingredients include protein, vitaminsand amino acids—would work on healthy individuals hoping to gain muscle. Hegave it to a few San Francisco 49ers and other professional athletes. One ofthem mentioned the product to Bill Phillips, a bodybuilder who published anewsletter on nutrition, The Anabolic Reference Update, out of his home inGolden, Colo. Phillips asked Connelly to do a field study involving some of hissubscribers. "Halfway through the study, which involved 600 individuals,people were recommending [MET-Rx] to their friends," Connelly says."But there was no commercial distribution. So I let Bill become the defacto distributor."
Phillips foundedMuscle Media 2000, a magazine popular among the gym crowd, and he began pushingMET-Rx to its readers. For many of the kitchen chemists who would come tocontrol their own supplement companies, the arrival of MET-Rx was a watershedmoment. The powder tasted horrible and was a chalky mess, but it worked. Manyof today's supplement makers talk nostalgically of the first time they took it.For some, Connelly's creation changed their lives.
The alliancebetween the scientist Connelly and the promoter Phillips was a short one.Phillips left MET-Rx in the mid-1990s and took control of Monterey,Calif.--based Experimental and Applied Sciences (EAS), building it into one ofthe industry's giants. Connelly sold MET-Rx in January 2000.
"I think atthe start, a lot of [supplement] companies had the model of pharmaceuticalcompanies," says Matt Vukovich, the clinical research director for EAS from1997 to '99, and now an associate professor in the Department of Health,Physical Education and Recreation at South Dakota State. But because supplementmakers can't patent their ingredients, a competitor could simply appropriatetheir research and development, making the pharmaceutical approach lesscost-effective. So, says Vukovich, "Today some of the biggest [supplement]companies are just big marketing departments."
At the Boca Raton,Fla., offices of BSN—which outsources its manufacturing—certified athletictrainers and nutritionists take calls from customers and recommend productswhile bright plasma screens track their performance stats. (Linda is leading ininbound calls, but Shawn averages more than $100 per sale.) Some supplementmakers may be chemistry dilettantes, but almost all of them have marketing downto a science. They use "steroid-bloated bodybuilders," as Connellycalls them, in magazine ads and include steroid shorthand (terms like deca anddrol) in the names of their pills. VPX includes a syringe-like device with someproducts to lend a hard-core feel.
Getting a producton the shelves of GNC remains the surest way to hit it big, and the quickestway to move it once it's there is by paying a "spiff," or commission,to GNC salespeople—from 25 cents to $8 for every tub or bottle they sell. As aresult, several former and current GNC salespeople told SI, unsuspectingcustomers are sometimes steered to a supplement that is inappropriate for theirneeds. "I once saw a guy recommend creatine for arthritis," says aformer general manager of a GNC store. No study has ever proved that creatinebenefits arthritis sufferers, and supplement makers are not allowed to pitchtheir products as medical remedies.
Kevin Mullins, a20-year-old kinesiology student at Maryland and a GNC sales associate, saysthat "if a guy comes in with a realistic goal, I say, O.K., let me put awaythe spiff product that helps me and get this guy the best products we have.[But] if there's a 20-year-old college student who just wants to look good andget laid, and he says, 'Yeah, man, I've got $120 to spend,' then he's not goingto stick with it anyway, so I might just help myself."
In a statement toSI, GNC said that "like many other retailers, GNC occasionally participatesin manufacturer incentive programs on a specific product.... We believe thatGNC's customers are informed and intelligent consumers who are not so easilyswayed."
MuscleTech is awell-known spiffer—offering up to $8 per sale, according to GNC employees—andone of the industry's most prolific marketers. (A recent 486-page issue ofMuscular Development included 62 pages of ads for MuscleTech products.) Duringa slew of lawsuits several years ago related to the company's no-longer-madeephedra products, some of MuscleTech's tactics were exposed. According to onesuit, one magazine advertisement included before and after pictures but failedto mention that the woman, Marla Duncan, was actually a fitness model. Nor didsome of the ads indicate that the before picture was taken shortly after shegave birth.
That was a minormisstep compared to MuscleTech's manipulation of the findings from clinicalstudies. In one instance the company allegedly tried to have subjects whodropped out of a study because of heart palpitations and high blood pressurenot counted in the data. MuscleTech's actions were so egregious that upon theJanuary 2003 settlement of one suit in Oklahoma, previously sealed documentswere released so the company's actions would be, in the words of the judge,"publicly known and incapable of repetition in future cases."
Today it remainsdifficult to differentiate scientific findings from a marketer's handiwork.Darryn Willoughby of Baylor says he is often approached by companies wanting tocreate only the illusion of a real study. "They might want to take 15 or 20guys, give them whey protein, have them train or whatever, and then do beforeand after measurements," Willoughby says. "Sure, they're going toimprove, but there's no control group to compare them against." Even whenhe does determine that a supplement increases energy or causes weight loss,Willoughby says it is impossible to tell which of the dozens of ingredients arecausing the effect. "It could just be the caffeine," he says. "Youdon't know."
Even supplementmakers that submit their products for independent testing have trouble escapingthe appearance of impropriety. In 2008 VPX funded a study by Willoughby on oneof its products, a fat burner called Meltdown, but only after it was already onthe market. That study appeared in the journal of the International Society ofSports Nutrition (ISSN) in December. The CEO of ISSN is Jose Antonio, who hadbeen an employee of VPX for almost a year before the study's publication."People often come back to me and ask how it got so convoluted,"Connelly says. "The truth is that nonsense sells really well."
Last July,Connelly introduced his first supplement since MET-Rx. Progenex, his newcompany, based in Westminster, Calif., released three protein products, but notbefore commissioning a study on the efficacy of the primary ingredient in eachone, which included three phases of testing—in human muscle cell cultures, withanimals and in human clinical trials. "One of my friends is ClintEastwood," Connelly says. "He always told me, 'You should try and makepeople rise to the level of your work.'?"
Not that heexpects that to happen. For now the industry remains the domain of theself-styled nutritionists and the pitchmen, where sales of Progenex's productsremain relatively slow while Rene Gonzalez's prospects—thanks to themessage-board buzz around Monsterdrol—are on the rise.
In one study, 25% of the 58 sports supplements testedcontained banned STEROIDS OR STIMULANTS.
Racing to create something new, manufacturers can JUMPTHE GUN and use ingredients not proved safe.
At the crux of one lawsuit is whether a popularMUSCLE-BUILDING COMPOUND even exists.
A former science teacher is to the sports supplementindustry what WILLY WONKA was to the candy business.
Now on SI.com
For FDA analyses and reports and a guided tour of a GNCstore, go to SI.com/bonus
Illustration by SLIM FILMS
THINKING BIG Gonzalez, formerly a car restorer, hopes to market his own supplement line.
TOMASSO DE ROSA/US PRESSWIRE
¬†SUSPENDED Series hero Romero blamed his positive test on asupplement.
STEPHEN J. CARRERA/AP (WHEELER)
GRIM LEGACY The deaths of (from left) Wheeler, Bechler and Stringer led to a U.S. ban on ephedra supplements.
FERNANDO MEDINA/GETTY IMAGES (BECHLER)
[See caption above]
AL MESSERSCHMIDT (STRINGER)
[See caption above]
MIX MASTER Owoc's red-hot Redline drink has turned VPX into a nine-figure business.