As you wandered by the nutrition supplement store on your way to the combination Pizza Hut/Taco Bell, you probably wondered who the hell shops there and what they’re even buying. Surely, protein powder isn’t that in demand? You’re right: It’s not. As a guy who used to work at one of those stores, I can assure you there is way more to these “health” products than bulk-up shakes and that most of the products are actually terrible for you.
#6. We Don’t Know Shit About What We’re Selling You
Without Googling, do you know what fenugreek is good for? Or how about St. John’s Wort? No? Congratulations, you are exactly as qualified to work at a nutrition store as every one of its employees.
I worked at a corporate nutrition store for more than a few days, so you would think at some point someone would have given me a class, book, or even some hastily scrawled index cards on what this crap is for. But, when I asked the manager (yes, the goddamn manager) about the products, here’s what I got: “I don’t know! Just read the labels.”
” … shit.”
Even if we did know what the products were for, it’s not like we could legally tell you. We’re not licensed trainers or dietitians, just a bunch of reasonably fit guys and girls who applied for a retail job. As a 20-something with a broad chest, I got hired on the spot, because no one wants to buy fat-burning pills from a fat guy — even if that fat guy is a nutrition encyclopedia. (Hey, those who can’t, teach.)
#5. We’ll Sell You Shit We Know Doesn’t Do Anything
Only 21 percent of supplements actually contain the product on the label. So, what do these other mystery pills contain? Little more than “cheap fillers like powdered rice, asparagus, and houseplants, and, in some cases, substances that could be dangerous to those with allergies.”
“I know it’s counterintuitive, but, when you crunch the numbers, it’s cheaper to use black mamba venom than water.”
For example, you’ve heard of “detoxing,” right? We have a plethora of supplements that people think will eliminate toxins from your body, which makes about as much sense as eliminating the ram from your rama-lama ding-dong. Your liver is very good at eliminating toxins, and anything you take will be gone from your body in a few days. The companies know this, so some of them even formulate their products to make you poop out plastic and turn your sweat brown, just to make it seem like the “toxins are coming out.” Turns out they know how to squeeze more from you than just money.
#4. Our Products Can Mess You Up
We are taught to sell you stuff not because it will help with your goals, but because we need to sell it. For example, a woman once came in and told us she needed a good meal replacement because she was trying to maintain her weight. My coworker, a guy who had been working there for more than a year, sold her a mass gainer instead, something that is sold to men who are trying to bulk up.
“Well, Dana, your weight is still a bit high, but your delts are frickin’ sweet.”
And why? Because the manager had told us that we needed to sell a certain number by the end of the day, and because we get commission. You can easily make up to $100 in one shift, provided that you have no soul and will sell a supplement that makes women lactate to unsuspecting male customers trying to gain muscle. Those of you who did Google “fenugreek” know that’s not a joke. Fenugreek is given to women to promote lactation, but, oddly enough, it’s also added to products called “testosterone boosters,” which are primarily sold to bodybuilders. Don’t believe me? Here’s one, and this one, and this one, too!
Even when tested in a lab setting, this product was found not to increase testosterone levels in human subjects. On the contrary, they found that fenugreek leads to a drop in DHT serum levels, which is a chemical important for the prostate. What’s more, this herb has also been shown to cause infertility in fucking rabbits to the point that fenugreek had, ” … more of a toxicity effect in the male rabbits. In males, testis weight was reduced, with evident damage to the seminiferous tubules and interstitial tissues … In addition, the plasma concentration of the androgen hormone and sperm concentrations were halved in the treated animals.”
“Damn. At least with steroids, your balls might swell back once you stop taking it.”
Oh, and about St. John’s Wort? It’s sold primarily as a natural herb to help with depression and anxiety, but it’s also been shown to cause liver and kidney damage in rat fetuses and newborns. And, no, that shit is not on the label.
#3. We Can Legally Sell Steroids
Looking for a cheap thrill? Go to your local nutrition shop and tell them you want to buy DHEA. Congratulations, you just bought steroids!
Now, to be fair, this steroid, also known as androstenolone, is legal to sell, according to the Anabolic Steroid Control Act Of 2004. However, that’s only because of some sneaky legal gymnastics that got it grandfathered in. It has the same horrific side effects, such as increased aggression, abnormal heart rhythm, and liver problems. And, yes, if you get caught pissing it, you will be fucked. In 2011, O.J. Mayo of the Grizzlies was suspended from the NBA for 10 games after taking an over-the-counter supplement that contained DHEA. The worst part is that you may not even know you’re taking it, because sometimes it’s included in products under a different name. Try this one, or this one, or maybe even this one.
“What about this protein powder?”
“Okay, well I’ll just have some bottled wa-“
Then, there’s human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG). This is a hormone produced in the placental tissue of pregnant women that suppresses appetite. It was all the rage with fad dieters for a few minutes before receiving the ban-hammer in 2011. But, “banned” doesn’t mean stores won’t sell it. In 2012, an undercover reporter in the Quad City area in Illinois went to a local Complete Nutrition store to ask for hCG, where she was told, “Technically, we’re not supposed to sell it, but I’ll still sell it to you … Actually, I got to go in the back and grab it.”
And at a local GNC:
“‘Do you guys have hCG?’ asks our photographer. ‘Yeah, we do, we have the drops right here,’ said the GNC employee.”
Before shiftily looking around and opening his trench coat.
“Did you have to be naked underneath, too?”
#2. Products Are Recalled And Banned All the Time (But, We Can Get Around It)
On my first day on the job, I found four boxes of pills stacked in the back. My manager insisted, even without me asking, that I not, under any circumstances, sell those to customers. I figured out later that it was a recalled product. It happened again less than a month later. There was a popular fat-burner called Shredz — we sold a standard as well as a special women’s formula. One day, I came in and found them in back of the store. I asked my coworker what happened, and he told me there were reports of people taking them and getting seizures. Of course, it’s off the shelves, so it shouldn’t be a problem, right? Well, then I noticed that we were still selling the women’s formula, which has the same damn ingredients.
Now with pink dye, that’s perfect for your lady chemistry!
Then, there’s a group of products called “preworkout.” They’re basically the closest you can legally get to meth. This one, called Methyl Drive, has ingredients that mimic both amphetamines and adrenaline. We can sell that to anyone as long as they’re over 18. The ingredient that mimics amphetamine is r-beta-methyl-tea (otherwise known as B-methylphenylethylamine) and the one that mimics adrenaline is isopropyl-norsynephrine. If you take enough of this, you will die. And you can buy as much of it as you want! Because …
#1. The FDA Is Toothless
Do you recall when Dr. Oz was being questioned by the Senate? Around that same time, John Oliver of Last Week Tonight referred to the imbalance of power held by the FDA compared to supplement companies, reporting, “[The FTC] give[s] great deference to the FDA on whether a company’s health claim can be supported. The problem with that is the FDA has little authority to investigate the contents, until people are already getting sick from them.” In other words, they can sell you stuff that could potentially kill you, but, until it does, they will keep selling it.
“But, in the meantime, we need to recall this incredibly useful arthritis drug that is safer than aspirin.”
And sometimes even after. Take for example, DMAA, a banned substance used in many workout supplements. It has contributed to at least five deaths and 86 reports of adverse effects. In 2013, the supplements Jack3d and OxyElite Pro were still sold in stores like GNC. It took a civil complaint for seizure from the U.S. Attorney for western Pennsylvania to finally back down. Even then, GNC spokesman Greg Miller still said, “GNC believes that DMAA is a safe, legal dietary ingredient.” A lot of supplements today still have DMAA or DMAA-like ingredients.
But, hey, it’s all worth it to get pumped without eating a bunch of carrots and shit, right?