Moe Moses hates pre-workout supplements. That might sound odd for a man whose Auckland-based supplement chain offers 43 versions of the fitness potions and powders online. However, his opposition is genuine enough.
The Herald visited two of Moses' Xtreme Nutrition stores during a hidden camera trial and attempted to buy the strongest pre-workouts. At both Xtreme stores staff refused to sell our reporter a pre-workout.
At the Manukau store undercover reporter Morgan Tait was told the products were essentially just high doses of caffeine and that she should "go and have a cup of coffee". In the other three stores the Herald visited all sold what they claimed were strong pre-workouts with no questions asked.
Testing revealed that one of those products, Frenzy, contained the banned psychoactive ingredient DMBA. A second product sold to the Herald, Mesomorph 2.0, was the subject of an advisory from Australia's anti-doping authority ASADA as it contains up to three substances banned during athletic competition.
The third pre-workout, Ritual, was found to contain mainly caffeine and a substance called phenethylamine, which are neither illegal nor proven to be effective exercise enhancers.
Roger Ventura says pre-workout supplements contain "stupidly toxic amounts of caffeine". Photo / New Zealand Herald
Roger Ventura, a professional wrestler and health buff who operates the Albany Xtreme store, gave Tait an extended lecture of the evils of pre-workouts and the legislative failures that allow the products to be sold. "They are all as bad as each other so it doesn't really matter which one you use as they are all the same," Ventura told Tait.
"The reason that they make you lose weight is that they have stupidly toxic amounts of caffeine. It drives you mental so you train like a crackhead. When you come off it your activity level [drops] and your appetite [increases] and that's where you put the weight back on and some more. It's also very, very detrimental to your hormone levels. It raises estrogen so you are going to bloat and have more water retention.
"It is not an area I feel good about selling to my customers, especially females, just because of the damage it will do later on. If you insist on a pre-workout you are probably best to go to the shop across the road."
Not much of a sales pitch, considering the rows of alluringly coloured, enthusiastically named containers (Beast Mode, X-Speed Hardcore or Monster Pump) adorning Xtreme's shelves.
Everything Ventura utters, says Moses, he learned from him. A former muscleman turned promoter who admits to having used steroids to get to the top in the cut-throat world of professional bodybuilding (he twice placed in the top 10 in Mr Olympia, the sport's pinnacle event), the 41-year-old Lebanese-born immigrant is an unlikely character to find occupying the moral high ground in the world of ingested exercise aids.
Our meeting at Xtreme's central Auckland head office, almost a month after Tait filmed Ventura, begins in bizarre fashion. I've approached Ventura to discuss publishing the video footage. He refers me to Moses and phones ahead.
Inside the Wellesley St office, which doubles as a superstore, four people, none of whom appears to be a customer, stand eyeing me suspiciously. I ask for Moe - who competed under the name Moe El Moussawi, owns property under the name Moses and, according to documents lodged with the Companies Office, has a legal name of El Moussaoui Hussein - and am directed to a large man in his 20s who is standing behind the counter.
It's clearly not Moe (it's actually bodybuilder Alma Clayton), but I play along until the real Moe, who is standing to my left, outs himself.
"I know what you are saying, it looks hypocritical," he says of Xtreme's vast online range and extensive in-store displays of pre-workouts.
Moses insists his disdain for one of his key product ranges is genuine. "All caffeine does is dehydrate you," he huffs. "People are so stupid."
The problem is that many of his image-obsessed customers are in search of a miracle in a bottle. And they are gullible, falling deeply for the marketing around pre-workouts. He stocks them because without pre-workouts a potential customer wouldn't even set foot in the door.
Once the customer is inside the shop, his sales staff can direct them away from pre-workouts to other products. Much the same concept applies online. "If you don't have pre-workouts on your website you might as well not have a website," he says.
Moses' transformation from steroid-pumped body building champion to championing the clean-up of the supplement industry still seems a bit of a stretch. "You give me a cup and I'll piss in it," he says. It's the only way he can really prove he is clean.
Moe Moses hates pre-workouts so much, that he sells the products he despises most at cost. Photo / Supplied
With the supplement business estimated to be worth US$30 billion ($40 billion) globally each year, it's no surprise Moses is doing okay. But he stands by his claim they are bad for Xtreme's bottom line.
Not only are they ineffectual, they occupy a place in the market that was once the preserve of several more lucrative products Moses insists are vastly more effective. He hates pre-workouts so much, Moses says, that the products he despises most he sells at cost.
The suspiciously cheap price acts as a turn-off for people seeking potency in a bottle. This article, Moses says, is a waste of time. All it will do is stimulate pre-workout sales.
In April 2013 the Herald produced a series documenting the effects and dangers of new generation performance-enhancing growth hormone peptides. While the series demonstrated that the drugs were effective, the underlying message was that they were not safe and taking them was like playing Russian roulette with a syringe.
A Ministry of Health report prepared for then Associate Health Minister Tony Ryall in June 2013 noted a "surge" in peptide imports after the publication of the Herald's series.
Moses also insists the Herald is focusing its investigations in the wrong area. There are bad people in the health and fitness business doing much worse things than flogging dodgy pre-workouts.
Frenzy contains a subtance that's chemically related to an ingredient of party pills. Photo / Supplied
Having been in the supplement game since its inception around 20 years ago, Moe most certainly knows what goes on. The problem, he says, lies with a law lacking teeth and government officials lacking the knowledge or inclination to clean up the industry.
"They wait for people to die before anything happens," says Ventura. "The industry is not regulated. You've got the food industry here and the pharmaceutical industry here and no one wants to touch supplements. The food industry says that supplements are not a food and the pharmaceutical industry says that supplements are not a medicine."
When it comes to regulation and enforcement, it's far from clear which government agency should be taking the lead.
The Ministry of Health provided the following explanation: "If the products could be described as 'supplemented foods' then the Ministry for Primary Industries would be the appropriate regulator, if they fall within the definition of 'dietary supplement' under the Dietary Supplements Regulations 1985 then Medsafe is likely to have an interest.
"Further, products containing ingredients that are included in Schedule 1 of the Medicines Regulations 1984 are likely to be regarded as medicines and would be of interest to Medsafe and products containing controlled drugs would likely be a police matter."
"It's legal to sell [pre-workouts]," says Ventura, "and sometimes we have people come in who know what they want. Some guys come in and say 'I'd like Beast Mode please'. No worries. I sold one earlier today. Cash or eftpos, cheers. See you later. But as soon as someone asks my advice I would rather not lie. I would rather not sell you a pre-workout. I'd rather sell you nothing than rubbish."
What's in that supplement?
Illicit drugs, controlled medicines and psychoactive agents have all been found in exercise supplements. Here's a selection of ingredients:
1 DHEA (Dehydroepiandrosterone)
Regulatory status: Falls under Medicines Act. Only legally available with a prescription.
Popular brand names: Dianobol, Hardcore Muscle Max, Her Solution, Rock Hard Any Time, Life Extension.
A steroid hormone used in infertility treatment, DHEA is marketed in supplement form as a workout booster, sexual performance aid, life extending, youth giving all-round wellness aid. It is not known whether DHEA is safe for long-term use. Some researchers, however, believe DHEA supplements may raise the risk of breast cancer, prostate cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. Forty-nine seizures referred to Medsafe between January and August last year.
2 DMAA (Methylhexanamine)
Regulatory status: Class C controlled drug.
Popular brand names: Ripped Freak (since reformulated without it), Oxy Elite Pro, Jack 3D.
Marketed as a nasal decongestant in the US before being withdrawn in 1983. Banned in NZ in 2012. The US Federal Drug Administration says side-effects include the "narrowing of blood vessels and arteries, which can elevate blood pressure and may lead to cardiovascular events ranging from shortness of breath and tightening in the chest to heart attack". Linked to death of a New Zealand airman during a workout and a runner in the 2012 London Marathon.
3 DMBA (1,3-dimethylbutylamine, AMP Citrate or 4-amino-2-methylpentane citrate)
Regulatory status: Banned psychoactive substance.
Popular brand names: Frenzy, OxyTherm Pro, Decimate Amplified.
A chemical cousin of DMAA. The only known studies of its effects were conducted on cats and dogs in the 1940s. Supplements containing DMBA have been banned here.
4 AMPHETAMINE ANALOGUES
Regulatory status: Class C controlled drug.
Popular brand names: Craze, Detonate, Gaspari Detonate, Final Cutz, Green Stinger.
Craze was widely available here but was withdrawn after tests revealed it contained a substance very similar to methamphetamine. Both Craze and Detonate listed a substance called dendrobium as an ingredient. Champion British body builder Rob Riches blamed Craze for a failed drugs test.
5 CITRUS AURANTIUM (Oxedrine, synephrine)
Regulatory status: Prescription medicine if the recommended daily dose is greater than 30mg.
Popular brand names: Detonate XT.
A derivative of the Seville orange plant, citrus aurantium is promoted as a weight loss aid and appetite suppressant. Australia's medicines safety watchdog warned mixing oxedrine with alcohol or energy drinks could lead to heart attacks.