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Supplement companies follow the Wright Brothers rule: You're flying until you crash. In the 1990s ephedra was the golden herb of the supplement industry. It was sold in more than 200 products that purported to do everything from boost athletic performance to burn fat to intensify sex drive. In 1999 some 12 million Americans consumed products containing ephedra.
But the dangers of the herb became apparent in 2001. On July 31, Minnesota Vikings tackle Korey Stringer, who had been using an ephedra supplement, died of heatstroke in training camp. Three days later Northwestern University safety Rashidi Wheeler died of an asthma attack after a conditioning drill. He too had been taking an ephedra supplement. The American Association of Poison Control Centers later reported that 64% of the calls it received in 2001 about herbal products—or 1,1178 in all—concerned adverse reactions to supplements containing ephedra.
The herb's banishment from the U.S. market was sealed two years later when Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler, who was using an ephedra product to lose weight, collapsed and died during spring training. "[Bechler] was a fat guy exercising in the heat," argues Jack Owoc, CEO and founder of the supplement manufacturer and retailer Vital Pharmaceuticals (VPX) in Davie, Fla., echoing a common sentiment in the industry that ephedra was safe if used properly. (Stringer, too, was overweight.) VPX exploded to prominence with the help of energy and weight-loss products containing ephedra. Nonetheless, when Owoc saw a federal ban looming—it came in April 2004—he did what anyone who survives in the supplement industry does: He reinvented his business.
A former high school science teacher who began by selling supplements out of the front of his house in 1993, Owoc invested in a 14,000-square-foot plant and churned out Redline, a potent ephedra-free energy and weight-loss drink available not only at GNC and Vitamin Shoppe but also at Wal-Mart and 7-Eleven. Thanks largely to Redline, VPX is doing a nine-figure business and last year expanded, purchasing a 90,000-square-foot facility. Meanwhile, companies with less prescient leadership, like once-mighty Twinlab, which had its chips on ephedra-based Ripped Fuel—a supplement used by Stringer—have suffered a deep decline or even folded.
Owoc survived and is 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 a factory full of less-musical Oompa-Loompas who make reality of his imaginative nutritional notions. A drug company, like Pfizer or Merck, typically needs eight years to get a product from the lab to the consumer. In a mere two months, a VPX energy drink can go from Owoc's brain to machines that each churn out 230 bottles a minute—and then to store shelves.
He spends much of his 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 and dropped them into his mouth. The connoisseur of energy drinks clicked his tongue a few times and delivered his verdict. "You gotta go higher on the cinnamon," he told a technician in a shin-length white lab coat, "and more sweetener. And no mint. You're killing me with the mint."
Nearly every energy and weight-loss drink contains some combination of the industry's go-to stimulants: yerba maté, green tea, yohimbine (a stimulant found in yohimbe tree bark) and good old-fashioned caffeine. The amount of each ingredient is part of a secret "proprietary blend," according to labels, though the caffeine content is occasionally listed—a shot glass of Redline, for example, has about as much caffeine as a can of Coke. For Owoc, all the mixing and taste-testing is part of his constant quest to stay ahead of the competition: Get something to market, get it there fast and make sure it tingles. As he puts it, you have to "feel it working."
What you "feel" working with a drink like Redline is thermogenesis, or the production of body heat. Consuming stimulants is like shoveling coal into a locomotive 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 at Lambeau Field: shivering. The tiny muscle contractions use energy to generate heat 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 bring body temperature back to normal," reads Redline's marketing materials, which play up the product's ability to induce shivering.
For a person drinking a Redline in a gym, however, shivering does generate heat, but it has nothing to do with bringing body temperature back to normal. "Some people get jittery from stimulants," says Judith Alsop, director of the Sacramento division of the California Poison Control System. Alsop says that between 2004 and '06, her office received 10 calls from Redline users reporting symptoms from jitters to vomiting. (Four checked into emergency rooms, but none suffered lasting harm.) VPX says that if people use the drink as indicated, they should experience no adverse reactions.
"They're marketing the side effects as the intended effect, so if someone gets tremors, they think, I'm just shivering and losing weight," says Alsop. Shivering may aid weight loss slightly, but even a tiny increase in body temperature—both from the shaking and increased metabolic rate—can be disastrous during a summer workout. "Football players get on the field at 98 degrees, and it's normal for them to get up to 103 or 104," says Sandra Fowkes-Godek, director of the HEAT Institute at West Chester (Pa.) University. "If they start at 100 or 101 and get to 105, they can have a potentially catastrophic event."