When I was in college, I was dating a total workout turkey. You know, the type of person who’s got a pull-up bar on every door frame and pours protein powder into their raw egg smoothie.
Eventually, his compulsively healthy lifestyle guilted me into ending my 21-year stint as a filthy slob, and I started some semblance of a workout routine. It was a pathetic endeavor at first: I’d run half a mile, curl a 5-pound dumbbell, take an obligatory gym mirror selfie, and then call it a day. I never had the energy to pump heavy iron or sweat an arsenal of bullets; at least until I was introduced to pre-workout supplements.
Once I popped that powdered pick-me-up into my Gatorade, I became the female vision of fitness: a feminine Arnold Schwarzenegger capable of running a marathon and squatting a school bus. What was it about this potent supplement that could gloriously invigorate me, improve my endurance, and quell any muscle fatigue?
Turns out, it was meth.
Ordinarily, pre-workout supplements are simple cocktails of caffeine, creatine, and amino acids. The caffeine energizes, the creatine amplifies strength, and the amino acids prevent weariness and promote recovery. Mix all those components, dose a half an hour before a workout, and exercising is almost effortless. The supplements are convenient concoctions for athletes looking to enhance their abilities and bums who need a bit of motivation. In either case, the ambition to maximize our workout potential is precisely why dietary supplements have grown into a 32 billion dollar industry. The supplement I purchased was called "Craze," and it was the highest rated pre-workout formula among hundreds of options on Bodybuilding.com. Customers raved about how it made their workouts infinitely more efficient.
Craze was one of countless products manufactured by Driven Sports, a sports supplement company founded by Matt Cahill. Cahill is a self-proclaimed supplement designer who has flourished in his industry despite an ominous history of shady business dealings.
Cahill’s sketchy practices first began fostering public attention in 2002, after a teenage girl died of an overdose from taking a few too many of his weight loss drugs. Leta Hole purchased the weight loss supplement online from Cahill’s business, entirely ignorant of the diet pills’ highly toxic ingredients. The diet pills contained a dangerous substance known as DNP, a chemical pesticide that garnered popularity as a weight loss drug in the 1930s, until its consumers began going blind and well, dying. To get ahold of the chemical, Cahill reached out to a landscaping supply company using a fake name and falsely claimed that he was a landscaper purchasing DNP for use only as an insecticide. Cahill and a friend then packaged the DNP with baking soda into capsules to sell as a weight loss supplement. In the face of Leta’s death, Cahill was convicted of the felony charge of bringing a misbranded drug to market and was imprisoned for just two years.
Cahill got out and brought Craze to the market in 2011. After only a couple years on GNC shelves, a number of athletes who took this pre-workout began to fail their drug tests — their results were coming back positive for amphetamines. The US Anti-Doping Agency began running laboratory testing on samples of Craze, and found amphetamine compounds in what’s labeled as an “all-natural” supplement. At the release of these findings, Driven Sports stopped the production of Craze and retailers tore any remaining stock off their shelves.
This direct evidence that Cahill was selling highly hazardous supplements yet again exemplifies an even bigger issue — that there is little to no regulation of dietary supplements that could have stopped him. The Food and Drug Administration, which the American public ordinarily trusts to ensure the safety of our food and drugs, conducts no testing of dietary supplements before they’re sold to the public. Cahill is a testament to the troubling lack of oversight in the dietary supplement industry, where products can be sold without testing or government approval and people with criminal history, even convicted felons, can operate freely.
Among the estimated 150 million people in the United States who take dietary supplements, most are blissfully ignorant that their supplements have no promise of safety. This may be why the New England Journal of Medicine found that at least 23,000 emergency room visits each year can be traced to use of unregulated dietary supplements. For example, a number of hospitalizations can be linked to supplements containing GHB, also known as the date rape drug. Athletes and bodybuilders utilize GHB to increase muscle mass and release HGH (human growth hormone), but face an extremely high risk of overdose in doing so.
Daniel Fabricant, director of the Food and Drug Administration's dietary supplements division, warns, “People need to be aware that supplements aren’t drugs. We don’t approve them prior to them going to market, so the consumer has to be very careful in that marketplace.” He goes on to explain that under federal law, supplements are classified as food products, which don’t have the same strict standards of regulation as over-the-counter and prescription drugs. Just like food products under FDA regulation, dietary supplements are assumed to be safe unless proven otherwise.
The fucked up consequence of this classification is that the FDA can't inspect a company's manufacturing process until it has reasonable evidence that its products are injuring people, which means a multitude of people need to be harmed before the FDA can step in.
"What we generally have to do to intervene is we have to show that a product is harmful, is unsafe under all conditions of use, which is a significant scientific burden," Fabricant says. "So it doesn't happen overnight."
And this, ladies in gentleman, is how I ended up spending a year of my life unknowingly drinking liquefied meth. I overlooked the shaky hands, occasional heart palpitations, and waves of anxiety the pre-workout afflicted me with because I wanted to maximize my workouts. Ironically, in trying to become healthier, I swallowed a substance remarkably hazardous to my health.
So, what can you do to keep yourself from the same fate? Don't blindly trust that the vitamins and supplements sold at your local GMC are wholesome and harmless. Consider the drug’s claims carefully, and keep in mind that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Thoroughly research the ingredients of your supplements and if you’re still unsure, discuss them with your doctor. Because unfortunately, in the current climate of FDA regulation, the burden of ensuring the safety of your supplements falls not onto them, but onto you.