The unofficial history of sports supplements in the USA - Part I

The unofficial history of sports supplements in the USA - Part I

Originally published by (2001)

By Garrison Kane

This is a story that had to be told. As most everyone who's been involved with bodybuilding for any appreciable amount of time knows, the business of supplements has a history fraught with deceit and deception. The very term "snake oil," a colloquial expression used to describe any fraudulent product, stems from the days of the traveling salesman of the nineteenth century who sold "tonics" and "elixirs" to gullible townsfolk with the promise of increased vigor and vitality. The marketing strategies of today's hucksters may be more sophisticated, but the message is the same:

If you want more ___________ [fill in the blank...muscle, hair, stamina, sex], then buy this product!

When people are hopeful to the point of desperation, they're willing to take desperate measures. That often means paying any price. And the people doing the selling know this.

Nowhere is this premise more prevalent than in the industry of bodybuilding supplements. We've seen them come, and we've seen them go. Ambiguous terms like "adaptagens" and "metabolic optimizers" that were major "buzz words" just a few years back appear amusingly quaint compared to the more scientific terminology currently in vogue. Then again, it's a good bet that, ten years from now, we may all be laughing at how seriously we debated the superiority of "ion-exchanged, ultra-low temperature, micro-encapsulated protein" with "non-denatured, triple cross-flow filtrated, long-chain, oligopeptide-bonded, enzymatically-hydrolyzed protein isolate!"

In the beginning

To get a better perspective on how all of this got so out of control, let's take a look back at a time when Joe Weider and Bob Hoffman dominated the supplement industry. Both of these men controlled virtually every aspect of bodybuilding merchandising. Of the two, Weider saw the greater potential in promoting "muscle stars," whereas Hoffman's affinity leaned more towards weightlifting contests. Weider's gamble of scooping up the most genetically gifted bodybuilders paid off big time. He placed them under contract with the stipulation that they would unquestioningly pay allegiance to the "Weider philosophy," which essentially meant that Weider could put any words in their mouth that he saw fit. Those words were most often an all-encompassing endorsement that gave all credit of said star's success to using Weider products.

Although some of the original participants in these agreements have since blasted Weider's smarmy ways, there were no "arm-twisting" tactics employed. They knew what they were getting into. Business is business. Arnold Schwarzenegger was well aware of this and was more than willing to enter into an agreement with Weider. Arnold was also shrewd enough to take it for what it was worth a stepping stone.

Weider had become so powerful that he eventually became the only game in town. In fact, his magazines at the time, Muscle Builder/Power and Mr. America, only ran ads for Weider products! Hoffman held on, but both of his magazines (Muscular Development and Strength and Health) and his supplement line were soon running a distant second in sales to the Weider empire. Dan Lurie, a circus strongman from a daytime TV show in the 1950s ("The Sealtest Hour"), attempted to ride the crest of growing interest in physical fitness. He distributed a knockoff product line direct to department stores, thereby bypassing the "hardcore" market and cashing in on the general public, instead. He was nothing more than a small-time nuisance to Weider and Hoffman.

Despite the varying marketing tactics of Weider and Hoffman, their supplement products were pretty much the same. Besides vitamin pills, desiccated liver tablets, brewers yeast, and other health-related substances (some of dubious value), the crux of their supplement line was protein. They each tried every conceivable way to sell as many versions of the same protein product as possible. A weight gain formula was something to be used in addition to one's regular meals. A "weight loss" product was used in place of a meal. It was the same thing with only the application altered. (Not unlike the "mass" version and the "lite" versions of the same product being used today.) Be it pills, powders, or canned drinks (which tasted awful), both Weider and Hoffman used the same source for all of their protein products, soy. It was over 90% protein. It mixed well. It was flavorless...and it was cheap.

Supplements meet science

While Weider cornered the supplement-buying public by utilizing his magazines to bombard the readers with articles that always seemed to get around to plugging a Weider product, there was a young nutritionist/chemist who was taking the concepts of supplementation a lot more seriously. Irwin Johnson believed that the first food we ingest to induce growth, mother's milk, would also encourage more muscle growth in adults. Enzymes found in milk, such as colostrum and lactoferrin, were also thought to have powerful immune system-enhancing properties. He came to the conclusion that cow's milk did not have the same amino ratios that human milk possessed and set about "manipulating" the amino acid complex by mixing specific amounts of dried whole egg into the whole milk protein.

Johnson was also the first supplement manufacturer to understand the importance of hormones in the development of muscle tissue, and he discovered that the fat in milk could increase hormonal production. For this reason, he recommended that his protein be taken with cream. He insisted that no one implementing his program should eat fruit of any kind! The nutritional authorities at the time scoffed at Johnson's theories and were convinced that the liberal use of cream would add unwanted fat. As it turned out, Johnson's clients were losing fat at an alarming rate! What Johnson was advocating was strikingly similar to what is now known as the ketogenic diet. Variations of Johnson's plan are known as the Atkins diet, the Zone diet, and the high-fat diet. Whatever the name, it was a low-carb, high-protein, high-fat strategy for ultimate muscle growth and optimum fat loss, and it worked.

Health faddists, celebrities, and professional bodybuilders from around the country flocked to Johnson for his expertise and his protein product. Training guru Vince Gironda, as well as IFBB stars like Larry Scott, Frank Zane, Dave Draper and, yes, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who all received Weider supplements at no charge, were paying top dollar for Johnson's "mother's milk" protein.

Johnson was an eccentric man and a staunch believer in the occult. On the advice of his astrologer, he was told that, in order to be successful, he would need to change the amount of letters in his name and add more "R"s. By the time Johnson was ready to sell his product nationwide, it carried his new name, Rheo H. Blair.

Those "in the know" may have been aware that the Rheo Blair brand of protein was far superior to the cheap soy powder used by Hoffman and Weider, but Weider had the money and, therefore, the influence. Blair was of little threat. Weider, with his stable of stars, now being led by the charismatic Arnold Schwarzenegger, was riding high! With the release of Pumping Iron in 1976, gym memberships soared! This was a boon to bodybuilding but a mixed blessing to bodybuilding manufacturers since the sales of home gym equipment declined! Supplements now became the focal point of all sales pitches within the muscle magazines. But the supplement business had an even stiffer competitor, anabolic steroids.

The breakfast of champions

In the early 1980s, steroids had amassed manic popularity among professional and nonprofessional bodybuilders alike. They were abundant and available. The cost of one hundred Dianabol was less than that of a Weider Mega Pak box of vitamins. Want to take a guess as to which produced more muscle? As more and more reports of steroid abuse prevailed, the government stepped in and branded all anabolics as controlled substances. This was a perfect opportunity for supplement manufacturers to "fill the gap." As Dan Duchaine has said:

"People really wanted drugs but were too scared to buy them."

Many bodybuilders who wanted to maintain their "drug-free" status still wanted "drug-like" effects.

Mysterious sounding compounds started coming out of the woodwork or, more specifically, Russia. Americans had always suspected that the Russian athletes were privy to "super nutrients" that gave them the competitive edge. Supplements with steroidal sounding names, like Retibol, Mesobolin, Diosterol, and Dicobalone 5, emerged faster than the research on them could be evaluated. New supplement companies started springing up and turned a handsome profit by marketing these substances with the promise of "steroid-like" gains. There was Smilax and Dibencozide and Gamma Oryzanal. We saw DMG, Inosine, Inositol, Boron, plus a host of herbal and glandular extracts, all with purportedly peculiar ergogenic and anabolic properties. At first, the Weiders ignored the "Johnny come latelys," but it soon became apparent that they were going to have to move over and let the new kids on the block in on a piece of the action. The competition had arrived, and it was here to stay.

All in the family

It was right around this time that a small family-owned company had a brainstorm. An entrepreneur named Tom Ciola came up with the idea of using all of the popular ingredients and combining them in a freeze-dried glandular protein base (yum). Herbs like yohimbe were added for their "stimulative" effect so the consumer would "feel" the concoction working. He called it Hot Stuff, and it became an overnight success. Hot Stuff flew off the shelves! Stores couldn't restock fast enough. It seemed as if a supplement finally had been developed that mimicked the effects of steroids. Was it a synergistic effect of all the combined nutrients that made Hot Stuff so effective? Or was it something more?

There have been accusations alluded to by several unrelated sources (who wish to remain anonymous for obvious reasons) that in order for Hot Stuff to "make sure" that its initial release would create a stir, it had to contain an additional ingredient not listed on the can. Something that would leave no doubt of its effectiveness in the user's mind. Something that would bring them back for more. Rumor has it that this "something" was methyltestosterone.

Methyltestosterone is an inexpensive form of orally absorbable testosterone that works quickly and effectively to raise strength and aggression. It's also extremely liver toxic. It would appear to be a good choice as an added ingredient for another reason: it's undetectable in a drug test. The "insiders" theory is that, even if the FDA somehow found out about the drug being used, all of the canisters would already be sold. An inspection of the National Health (makers of Hot Stuff) facility would show no wrongdoing. No evidence has ever been found to substantiate these claims. The rumors seem far-fetched, to say the least, but there was a period when Hot Stuff was pulled from the shelves for reasons that have always been mired in ambiguity. There was a "new and improved" version released shortly thereafter, but anyone familiar with the "first" Hot Stuff will tell you that the new one never quite duplicated the characteristic "kick" of the original.

Our own "Consumer Watchdawg," Bruce Kneller, has a theory that it may have been the National Health people themselves that started the whole methyltest rumor in an effort to make the product appear more "illicit" and, hence, more profitable. This would appeal to the hardcore bodybuilder "wannabes," thus generating more interest and a solid consumer base. I contacted the people at National Health in an effort for them to present their side of the story concerning these allegations. They never returned my calls.

Tijuana vice

Running simultaneously to the ever-changing tumult within the supplement industry was a flourishing black market. Steroids were still very much in demand, despite their illegality in many ways, because of their illegality. They had become "forbidden fruit." More and more bodybuilders became anxious to get their hands on the "real" stuff that Big Brother declared taboo.

One of the "main men" on the West Coast for steroid connections was Dan Duchaine. Dan was more than just a drug dealer, however. He and a friend, who was also an expert in performance enhancement, Mike Zumpano, had a keen interest in the science and chemistry of steroids, which led to their co-authoring the original "Underground Steroid Handbook." Mike chose to stay in the background, and his name was not mentioned in the book. He had already begun making plans to market his own legal supplementation. If the same money could be made legally, why take the risk of dealing in drugs? Duchaine soon followed suit but, in his case, it was too late. Duchaine eventually went to prison. After being released, he was arrested and convicted a second time for the possession of less than $100 worth of GHB.

Mike Zumpano was a master of technology. He invented the very first glucose polymer product (Metacarb). He was also the man who found an application for MCT oils, a fat that was treated by the body like a carb. When he presented a MCT/protein product to the Weider company, they thought it too weird and expensive. They passed. The Unipro company picked up on Mike's product (Carboplex), and he continued to develop others for the same company. But Unipro, according to sources, eventually stopped payment on Mike's royalties. He decided to start his own company, Champion Nutrition, and made improved versions of the products that he sold to Unipro. He exploited the weaknesses in the Unipro products, and this once industry-leading company gradually wasted away into a small operation on the brink of collapse. In the meantime, Mike Zumpano was living large, traveling about town in his Ferrari Testarrosa (paid for in cash).

Mike also had a hand in helping Dan Duchaine develop Ultimate Orange. A loophole in FDA regulations allowed herbal combinations of caffeine and ephedra to be used. Yes, they were drugs, but they were legal. Needless to say, Ultimate Orange had a very noticeable "energizing" effect!

Back to the future

At this time, a young entrepreneur was following in the wake of Dan Duchaine and attempted to establish himself as an authority of steroid use. He wrote a seemingly objective book on supplements that blasted products like Hot Stuff as being total garbage, but he spoke of a genius doctor that had developed a product that he called "the most incredible nutritional supplement ever developed!" Unfortunately, it wasn't available to the general public. You guessed it, Bill Phillips had reinvented the art of hyping supplements by generating a monumental interest for this specially engineered "wonder" food. Of course, we're speaking of Met-Rx.

What Scott Connelly, the developer of Met-Rx, had done was hardly quantum physics. He utilized the "mother's milk" concept developed by Rheo Blair and asked a professional food formulator to put it into a flavored pre-mix. (Any food-manufacturing company worth its salt employs several food formulators and, for a very small fee, you too can develop your own Met-Rx!) The formulator added aspartame in order to maintain sweetness and yet keep the sugar levels low and the protein content high. Ironically, Connelly didn't even get the stuff developed for bodybuilders or athletes. Legend has it that he produced it for hospital patients, but Phillips recognized the market potential of the stuff.

Met-Rx was hardly revolutionary, but Phillips' promotional tactics were a stroke of marketing brilliance! Yet, with the deluge of competition that continued to swarm the market at the time, there was still some doubt that the bodybuilding community would be convincingly hooked on Met-Rx. Phillips and Connelly had invested deeply in the promotion of Met-Rx and, if it didn't pan out, it would have been a financial disaster.

Did Met-Rx take a page out of the Hot Stuff file and add a little "something extra" to the formula to insure its effectiveness? We'll address this topic and many others, including the shady beginnings surrounding many of today's supplement manufacturers. Plus, the untold story behind the EAS empire, all in The History of the Supplement Industry Part II.