I remember the moment when the schizophrenic nature of the supplement industry became clear to me. I’d spent most of my adult life in that industry, preaching the promise of better health in nutrition. I believed in the products. I still do. But in that moment of clarity, I came to question so much of what I’d held as the central mission of the trade.
I was standing in a retail store, a chain that focused on supplements. On one side of the store, I looked out on a wall of shelves, packed with the ingredients I could believe in: products developed, produced and sold to improve health, create a lifestyle of health.
On the other side of the store, I saw something very different. I saw tubs of powders and bottles of pills that I could only call “anti-health.” The labels bore the ripped physiques of bodybuilders I knew were drenched in steroids and illegal drugs. The marketing-made claims were impossibly and irresponsibly bold. This was the spectacle of sports nutrition.
And it made me sick.
It was also my job. It was how I earned a paycheck.
Until I walked away.
Before that happened, before I left to launch a cleaner venture, I saw things that were surely questionable and sometimes criminal. I saw protein spiking, flagrant disregard for potency and purity, principles surrendered to profit. In short, I saw bottom feeders doing anything for the bottom line.
And no matter how I protested, I was one of them. I can’t defend that. I looked from one side of the store to the other, and I kept doing my job, not forever but for too long.
I remember an executive bragging about spiking protein powder with tyrosine. They laughed about fooling the tests. They won contracts based on price, and anything to get to that price was acceptable.
I saw companies ignore microbial testing procedures in the rush to fill orders and win more contracts. Shelf life testing took time, and time, in their minds, cost money. They looked at testing as spending money and not making money. They’d boost the preservatives and hope for the best.
Claims were another point where economics won over ethics too many times. These were companies that hired legal and regulatory teams, examined their recommendations, and then ignored them. I saw it over and over again. They knew they could double their sales if they crossed the lines, and they knew the penalties would be light and long-in-coming. I saw companies that knew how to time the enforcement cycle and be ready to close up shop when FTC and FDA started sniffing around. I remember one outfit that burned through a half dozen companies with the same product and the same claims.
That was their built-in business strategy.
Bold and brazen
In some cases, it went beyond credibility and defied simple math. A label would declare 120 g of amino acids that somehow fit into 100 g of protein. It was ridiculous, but it showed how little regard they had for the rules and the basic responsibilities of commerce.
And then there was the outright criminality. I never saw it first hand, but it’s obvious to anybody who has glanced at the sport nutrition shelves that the products are either intentionally tainted with steroids and other drugs or they are implying illegality with marketing that more than winks at an illicit allure. People bragged to me. They would say their product had “the real stuff” in it and they would justify it with the “everybody’s doing it” defense. They would claim they’d discovered a steroid that “nobody knows about” and talk about winning a scientific arms race with FDA.
I didn’t want to be part of that race. I didn’t want to be part of any of it. I’d argued with the decisions I thought were wrong and I’d lost jobs over it. I didn’t want to surrender my integrity for another paycheck. I didn’t want to be part of the problem.
I remember my wife telling me to stop trying to change people who didn’t want to change.
So, I walked away.
A different path
I have my own company now. I don’t pay steroid injecting bodybuilders to flex on my labels. I have worked at companies that spent more on marketing than product. We barely have a marketing budget. We’re not selling ripped abs and bulging biceps. We’re selling health.
We buy branded ingredients from companies I trust. We don’t piggyback on the science with ingredients that haven’t been studied. It’s more expensive. It cuts into the margins, but it doesn’t cut into our integrity. We are giving the customers what they want: health. If they want shortcuts and steroids, other places have them. They can find them in some other part of the store, the darker corners that I hope will shrink over time as customers, especially Millennials, get more educated and demand more transparency and more responsibility.
I’m not proud of the places I saw our industry go or my steps on those dark paths.
But I’m hopeful about where it could go next.
NBJ End-of-the-Year Sale
This article is republished from the “Dark Issue” of the Nutrition Business Journal, a subscribers-only chronicle of the latest sales and trend data matched to expert insight from voices in the nutrition industry. For information on purchasing subscriptions, market reports and data charts at end-of-the-year discounts, go to nutritionbusinessjournal.com or contact NBJ Business development manager Cindy Van Schouwen at firstname.lastname@example.org or (303) 998-9305