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WHAT YOU DON'T KNOW MIGHT KILL YOU
DAVID EPSTEIN
May 18, 2009
SUPPLEMENTS Would-be experts and untested products feed a $20 billion obsession with better performance across all levels of sports
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May 18, 2009

What You Don't Know Might Kill You

SUPPLEMENTS Would-be experts and untested products feed a $20 billion obsession with better performance across all levels of sports

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When asked about Monsterdrol, Gonzalez explained that his product is a legal prohormone and that it was sold to him as such by the Texas manufacturer. However, a certificate of analysis that Gonzalez obtained from Research Triangle Park Laboratories in Raleigh and posted on his store's website shows his product to have this chemical formulation: 2a-17a-dimethyl-5a-androstane-3-one-17b-ol, which Catlin identified as the designer anabolic steroid methasteron. (That formulation also appears on the bottle itself.) While methasteron is not on the DEA's list of controlled substances, the FDA sent letters in 2006 to a manufacturer and a distributor of methasteron, warning both that if they continued to market the drug as a dietary supplement, they risked a visit from the feds.

Gonzalez says that he won't sell Monsterdrol in his store to a customer under 21, and maintains that many retailers sell supplements with the same formulation. Indeed, SI identified several other over-the-Internet products with the chemical formulation for methasteron on their labels. One of the other methasteron products that SI obtained had been sold by Rockhard Formulations, founded in 2003 by strength coach Zack Barnard. (The company has changed ownership since SI 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 the business because of the liability. Unfortunately, athletes get a hold of [steroid and prohormone supplements], and it's coming up as a positive test. I don't want that on my shoulders.... I'm not affiliated with it anymore, and I'd never condone it."

Testing positive for an anabolic steroid shouldn't be the foremost concern for a methasteron user. A paper published last year in the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology chronicled five cases of liver damage among previously healthy young men who used dietary supplements that contained methasteron; none took them for more than four months. Catlin himself was involved in a separate case in which a healthy 28-year-old man used methasteron for two months and was transformed into what Catlin describes as a jaundiced "yellow boy with IVs running out of him."

After receiving his order of Monsterdrol, Gonzalez participated in a conference call in January with prospective customers arranged through the message boards at EliteFitness.com. "If it's the first time you're going to be using an anabolic [agent], this stuff is not the way to go. It's kind of like trying to light a cigarette with a blowtorch," Gonzalez told his audience, adding that Monsterdrol is "stronger than the illegal stuff."

During Gonzalez's conference call, one of the moderators instructed prospective buyers to take milk thistle with Monsterdrol. It was good advice. Milk thistle is believed to protect 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 2007 Bill Obermeyer, a former FDA scientist, analyzed a dozen milk thistle products as vice president for research at ConsumerLab.com, an independent company that tests nutritional products. Half of the products contained significantly less of the liver-protecting complex silymarin than the labels claimed, and one was contaminated with lead—bad news if you're counting on the stuff to protect your liver from, say, Monsterdrol.

"To me," Obermeyer says, "we're doing what the FDA should be doing, but they just don't have the manpower to do it."

Dr. Scott Connelly is sitting in a leather chair near a bank of 30-foot, floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the harbor from his Newport Beach, Calif., home. The house is a spacious example of modernism, with sharp lines and minimalist decor. Told that his house should be on the cover of a glossy shelter magazine, Connelly says matter-of-factly, "I believe it was."

Connelly invented the first mainstream sports supplement, MET-Rx, in 1993. Yet he is dismayed by the turns the business has taken. "It is lamentable to me some of the stuff that has made it into the industry," he says. "I get e-mails from people every day, asking, 'Does this [product] do what they say it does? Is it harmful?' Consumers are completely confused."

It took Connelly 20 years to perfect the formula for the meal-replacement supplement that would become MET-Rx. He first thought of it while working on his thesis as an undergraduate studying neurophysiology at Boston University. While completing a fellowship at Stanford Medical Center in intensive-care medicine, he began manufacturing the product, which he engineered for its potential in the treatment of critically ill patients. One study, which appeared in the Journal of Burn Care and Rehabilitation, found MET-Rx effective in helping burn victims gain weight.

His invention became a sensation only "because of happenstance," he says. While at Stanford, he wondered how MET-Rx—whose ingredients include protein, vitamins and amino acids—would work on healthy individuals hoping to gain muscle. He gave it to a few San Francisco 49ers and other professional athletes. One of them mentioned the product to Bill Phillips, a bodybuilder who published a newsletter on nutrition, The Anabolic Reference Update, out of his home in Golden, Colo. Phillips asked Connelly to do a field study involving some of his subscribers. "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 de facto distributor."

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