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
DAVID EPSTEIN, GEORGE DOHRMANN
, 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 (
). 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