6 Now Illegal Drugs You Used to Be Able to Buy at GNC

They even used to sell literal lettuce wrapped in rolling papers as a nicotine alternative in the 1960s
6 Now Illegal Drugs You Used to Be Able to Buy at GNC

Through generation after generation of supplementation, General Nutrition Centers has remained the touchstone against which all of its presumably less-reputable competitors are measured. From the cleanliness of its stores to the assumed avoidance of quackery in its product lines, GNC has differentiated itself from its ostensibly seedier rivals. But the true difference between GNC’s manufactured image and the reality behind the brand is striking. GNC’s reputation has been so thoroughly whitewashed over the years that most people forget that it was the same supplement company that once tried to sell Bravo cigarettes — literal lettuce wrapped in rolling papers — as a nicotine alternative back in the 1960s.

See, there were ads for it and everything.

In each decade of its operation, GNC was often among the first retailers to offer products making dubious health claims, and frequently the company most reluctant to pull supplements from shelves in the face of evidence that the substances therein might cause some sort of serious debilitation. To that end, here are six times GNC sold drugs and other supplements that are now illegal… 

Laetrile aka ‘Vitamin B-17’

Dually marketed to an anxious public as both a miraculous energy booster and a cure for cancer, laetrile — branded and marketed as “vitamin B-17” — was created by Ernst Krebs Sr. and Ernst Krebs Jr. by extracting a serum from apricot kernels. In the process, the Krebs magnified the quantity of hydrogen cyanide present in those apricot kernels, thereby administering a concentrated dose of toxicity to consumers. 

The claim that laetrile was a vitamin produced by a common fruit was a strategic step to bypass the Food and Drug Administration, as byproducts of natural food are far more difficult to regulate. Multiple versions of laetrile were eventually produced with names that danced around its identity as a fruit derivative containing a faux vitamin, including “Aprikern” and “Bee-Seventeen.” 

In fairness, when the FDA finally moved to conclusively ban laetrile under great public protest, GNC was one of the first companies to pull laetrile from its shelves, although it quickly and hilariously made the move to start selling “apricot kernel oil” as an “energy snack” instead.

There are a startling number of apricot products being sold in our energy aisle.

Pangamic Acid aka ‘Vitamin B-15’

With their first effort to produce a spurious B vitamin thwarted by the FDA, the Krebs went right back to work to produce pangamic acid, which they quickly designated as “vitamin B-15.” Once again, the Krebs had difficulty proving the essentiality of their “vitamin,” but consumers lapped it up after hearing that it had supposedly been approved and authenticated by Soviet scientists. Not to mention, by the early 1980s, pangamic acid was promoted by no less of an authority than Dr. Robert Atkins — developer of the famous Atkins Diet — as a cure for headaches, high cholesterol, alcoholism and depression. 

As an athletic supplement, the phony vitamin was touted as an accelerant in helping athletes recover from exercise because of its supposed role in carrying oxygen to blood cells. On the strength of this claim, Muhammad Ali’s personal doctor, Richard Passwater, claimed that B-15 enabled Ali to rapidly recover from his anemia. With such transcendent endorsements, B-15 became a top-selling supplement at GNC, and when its identity as a vitamin was questioned, manufacturers slapped the word “calcium” on it and now declared it to be a mineral.

Whether you call it vitamin or mineral, it might give you cancer all the same.

The FDA eventually banned the sale of pangamic acid, along with any of the various substances that claimed relation to the phony vitamin, primarily because at least one of its formulations was proven to form cancer-causing nitrosamines when it made contact with saliva. Despite this, GNC continued to accept orders for pangamic acid by mail until all iterations of B-15 were eventually cleared from the marketplace.

Ginseng Gold™ Panax Ginseng

In the spring of 1997, teachers at New York’s Penn Yan Central School District noticed that their students were dozing off in class with increasing regularity. While investigating these slumberous occurrences, it also caught their attention that their students all seemed to have vials of liquid ginseng in their possession.

The teachers confiscated the vials and called the police, who noticed the unmistakable scent of alcohol wafting from them. When the assorted vials were sent to New York’s state labs for further analysis, the corresponding report declared that the alcohol content ranged from 5 to 25 percent. This was made particularly alarming by the glaring absence of alcohol on the list of the vials’ ingredients.

Most ubiquitous amongst them was the Ginseng Gold brand of panax ginseng, which was directly manufactured by GNC, was sold exclusively in GNC retail locations and had an ABV level of 15.7 percent. GNC quickly pulled the product from its 3,000 stores, and a spokesperson declared that the product “is very definitely not marketed toward children,” while adding “we’ll correct the label or the process.” In the end, GNC wound up killing their liquid panax ginseng offering outright, possibly after deciding that no one would want to drink it while remaining sober.

If ginseng is supposed to give me energy, why are my eyelids suddenly so heavy?

Herbal Phen Fen

It all started in 1997 when the drug Fen-phen — a combination of the drugs fenfluramine and phentermine — was riding a wave of popularity as a prescription weight-loss pill. Since not everyone could be bothered to wait for a doctor’s prescription while enough unwanted pounds hugged their waistlines, alternative versions called “Herbal Phen-Fen” were created and sold in stores like GNC. It was a bizarre case of a supplement being openly advertised as a prescription-free reproduction of a legal and popular drug. 

Things were going swimmingly until the legitimate drug received a ban from the FDA after it was proven to damage patients’ heart valves. Fen-phen users, of course, immediately stormed GNC stores and began purchasing Herbal Phen Fen by the caseload. Most of those customers were disappointed to learn that the ingredients of Herbal Phen Fen were not fenfluramine and phentermine as they had hoped, but were in fact ma huang and St. John’s wort. 

No one was left with much time to be disappointed, however, as the FDA moved rapidly to force Herbal Phen-Fen out of the marketplace, pointing out that the product’s manufacturers were clearly capitalizing upon a name that intentionally confused consumers into believing they were purchasing a banned drug.

We’re here to help you bypass that pesky requirement of a doctor’s prescription.


By the time of the kerfuffle over Fen-phen, the FDA was already in the process of taking a serious look at one of the active ingredients in Fen-phen’s herbal replacements. The plant known as ma huang, a contributor to Herbal Phen Fen, is the root source of ephedrine, which was a substance companies were pairing with caffeine and selling in a number of energy-boosting capsules. Ephedrine was also the foremost suspect in an alarming number of seizures, strokes and heart attacks suffered by customers hoping to capitalize on its fat-burning prowess. 

Herbal Ecstacy, an early mixture of ephedrine and caffeine

Through its spokespeople, GNC intimated that the majority of the 155 deaths that had been demonstrably linked to ephedrine use were the result of unhealthy people failing to abide by products’ warning labels and take them responsibly. Then Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler died of heat stroke with ephedrine in his system, and GNC did an abrupt about-face and yanked all products containing ephedrine from its more than 5,000 stores.

Methylhexanamine aka DMAA

Amusingly, methylhexanamine — popularly known as “DMAA” — was sold for nearly half a century as a nasal decongestant before it became a popular fitness supplement. Wary consumers should have been at least a little bit suspicious of the drug’s return to the marketplace when it was revealed that Patrick Arnold, the infamous chemist involved in the BALCO steroid scandal, had trademarked his own version of DMAA. Then again, given the success of BALCO’s clients, many people probably took Arnold’s involvement as a sign that the drug actually worked as advertised.

DMAA was rushed onto shelves as an early successor to ephedrine as a fat-burning aid. The problem was, DMAA’s stimulating properties were the result of constricted blood vessels that made it more difficult for the human heart to pump blood. As such, suspicious deaths attributed to DMAA mounted, as did lawsuits. This time, the FDA was beaten to the punch by the U.S. military, which instituted a ban on DMAA products in 2010. Several sports authorities and international governments followed suit over the next couple of years, leaving DMAA with very few safe havens by the time the FDA took action.

By “Super Thermogenic,” do you mean that you’re going to close my blood vessels? 

While not outright banning DMAA since it has some usefulness — like, you know, as a nasal decongestant — the FDA made it illegal for companies to sell and market any products containing DMAA as dietary supplements. 

Acting very much like the publicly-traded company it had become in 2011, GNC decided to play it both ways: They agreed not to restock any of the products containing DMAA, but didn’t yank any of the products that already inhabited their warehouses either. This meant GNC was actually behind Amazon in effectuating the removal of the dangerous supplements from the marketplace. 

When you’re trailing Amazon with respect to the ethics of keeping objectionable supplements out of consumers’ hands, that’s truly saying something remarkable.

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