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Last November, a month after his 32nd birthday, Rene Gonzalez moved with his wife and two young daughters from Miami to Cape Coral, a wetlands community whose canals have earned it the nickname the Little Venice of Florida. In Miami the competition in his chosen career—nutritional supplement sales—was fierce, and Cape Coral offered 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 do is open my own manufacturing company. That's my dream: to franchise this store and manufacture my own supplements and then sell them in the stores."
Gonzalez has no background in chemistry or nutritional science. His previous job was restoring cars; before that he was in the Marines. What he knows about sports supplements—those pills, powders and drinks marketed to athletes and would-be athletes—he learned from using them (initially as a chubby adolescent hoping to add muscle) and from reading articles in magazines and online. Except for his own experiences, there is nothing to suggest that he is qualified to offer advice on supplementation, let alone to design and manufacture his own line of products.
Gonzalez's dream, however, is not as fanciful as it would appear.
The sports-supplement world has many power brokers whose origins are as improbable as Gonzalez's. They have risen along with an industry that in three decades has grown from a niche business serving iron-heaving behemoths to a broad-based juggernaut with nearly $20 billion in U.S. sales in 2007, according to the Nutrition Business Journal. As more and more players are revealed to have taken performance-enhancing drugs—Dodgers slugger Manny Ramirez being only the latest example—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 like Just Add Muscle.
Despite the move into the mainstream the industry remains fertile ground for kitchen chemists with little or no formal education in science or nutrition—and in some notorious cases former steroid users and dealers (page 57). They help decide what compounds go into the fat-burners, muscle builders and preworkout drinks consumed annually by an estimated 33.5 million Americans. Many of those consumers flock to supplements that revolutionized sports training, like powdered creatines, which provide the muscles used for explosive movements with concentrated fuel found in meats and fish.
But questions about the industry arose anew in December, when six NFL players were suspended for four games each by the league after testing positive for a banned diuretic in the weight-loss pills StarCaps. Then in January, Philadelphia Phillies reliever J.C. Romero, who won two World Series games last fall, received a 50-game suspension from baseball for testing positive for androstenedione—or andro, used most controversially by Mark McGwire—which Romero blamed on 6-OXO Extreme, an over-the-counter supplement marketed as a testosterone booster. Earlier this month the Ontario-based manufacturer MuscleTech issued a voluntary recall of Hydroxycut, a weight-loss aid and workout booster that comes in a variety of forms and whose sales topped nine million units last year. The recall came after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) linked Hydroxycut, which is still available in many stores, to 23 cases of liver damage including the death of a 19-year-old boy.
In a 2007 study of supplements sold in the U.S, the screening company Informed-Choice found that 25% of the 58 supplement samples it tested contained steroids or stimulants banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). Six years earlier, a study funded by the International Olympic Committee found that 15% of the 634 supplements it examined would likely cause an athlete to test positive. Michigan-based NSF International now screens supplements for MLB, the PGA and the NFL, and marks those not containing banned substances with an NSF seal. But only a dozen companies have volunteered their products for certification, and NSF can only vouch for the specific batch it tests.
There is a simple reason that the industry has become, in the words of Darryn Willoughby, director of the Exercise and Biochemical Nutrition Laboratory at Baylor, a Pandora's Box of false claims, untested products and bogus science. To sell any type of food or drug, a company must submit to scrutiny from the FDA. That scrutiny once applied to supplements such as concentrated milk, egg and soy powders, which fed the demand for nonperishable food additives during World War II. 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 approved pharmaceutical drugs and don't claim to treat diseases—to be sold with no proof of effectiveness or safety, and without approval from the FDA (page 59). That legislation, heavy with lobbyists' fingerprints, razed virtually every barrier to entry into the marketplace.
All it takes to become a sports supplement dealer is a little money and a phone call, like the one Gonzalez placed last year to a supplement manufacturer in Texas. Gonzalez ordered bottles of a muscle-building product that he named Monsterdrol, which were then made, packaged and marked with Gonzalez's label, Supplements911. When showing a visitor around his store in February, Gonzalez pointed to a bottle of Monsterdrol and described it as "your typical prohormone product." A steroid prohormone is a substance that the body converts to an anabolic steroid; andro is an example. But Dr. Don Catlin—CEO of Anti-Doping Research, a Los Angeles--based nonprofit that hunts down new performance enhancers, and the former director of the UCLA Olympic Analytical Laboratory—says that Monsterdrol is in fact methasteron, an anabolic steroid that, while not on the controlled substance list of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), is "Number 1 on my danger list."
Yet Monsterdrol can be purchased off the shelf at Just Add Muscle, available to anyone under the Florida sun, and on Gonzalez's website, available to anyone anywhere.