Brace yourself: This one might hurt your head, and not from some geranium hangover.
In the 1940s, Eli Lilly developed and patented a nasal decongestant known as Forthane. The chemical compound at play goes by several scientific names, but the most common — and the name now appearing internationally on banned substance lists — is methylhexaneamine (MHA). For several years now, industry experts have seen the storm clouds developing around MHA, and in 2010 those clouds turned downright ominous.
The World Anti-Doping Agency banned MHA in 2010, but a similar compound, tuaminoheptane, was banned back in 2008. Athletes in Jamaica, Nigeria, Portugal, South Africa, Belgium, Greece, India and Australia have failed in-competition drug tests thanks to MHA, prompting the Australian Anti-Doping Authority to issue a direct statement to sporting federations and elite athletes in October warning against use of supplements containing MHA. The Washington Post, working with the Catlin Consortium — Don Catlin, MD founded the first anti-doping lab in the United States and supervised drug testing at the Olympic level — brought MHA to national attention back in 2006, but recent history seems to have taken little notice. Speaking to the Post, Catlin said of MHA: "The chemical structure is similar to amphetamines and ephedrine. In this class of drugs, everything depends on the dose. Take enough of it and your heart rate and blood pressure will go up and you can die."
More bad news: Patrick Arnold, the steroid designer behind the BALCO scandal that snared Barry Bonds, really likes MHA, at least when he's not in prison. Through his companies (Proviant Technologies, ErgoPharm and E-Pharm) and his trademark on Geranamine (an invented name), Arnold's reputation for line crossing gave MHA serious traction in the pre-workout category of sports supplements. According to Anthony Almada of GENR8, pre-workout products are one of the hottest in the industry, amounting to approximately $100 million in annual sales. Should geranium extracts and MHA go the way of ephedra, not only does the entire sports nutrition category suffer another devastating stain to its beleaguered reputation, but companies, stores, websites and gyms could go out of business. The biggest seller in pre-workout is Jack3d, featuring geranium stems, from USP Labs. Arnold's E-Pharm offers ClearShot, an energy drink including both Geranamine and caffeine.
One of Patrick Arnold's particular skills seems to be the rediscovery of forgotten stimulants in long-lost medical journals and esoteric research studies of questionable repute. Think of androstenedione, andro, the steroid that surfaced in East Germany in the 1970s before undoing baseball legend Mark McGwire in the '90s. The Lilly patent on Forthane dates back to 1944, and speaks directly to MHA as a vasoconstrictor in league with ephedrine and amphetamine. That patent, as well as its original purpose and scope, has long since expired. Furthermore, NBJ obtained a copy of the research Arnold cites in support of MHA as a natural ingredient present in geranium oil from the Journal of Guizhou Institute of Technology, in which a possible typo — hexanamide is referenced, not hexanamine, and that "d" is important to chemists — calls the entire relevancy of the data into question. We could not locate an institute of technology at Guizhou University to even attempt a call.
Does MHA exist naturally in geranium oil? Aside from the evidence out of Guizhou, science has not yet made the link. The ingredient appears frequently in topical applications and as fragrance in perfumes, but not as an ingestible. Without Guizhou, the legal basis for including MHA in dietary supplements begins to crumble, rapidly and dramatically. NBJ contacted the FDA for comment about geranium extracts in supplement products and received the following from a spokesperson: "FDA is aware of the ingredient but we do not have any direct evidence that would lead us to conclude that it is unsafe." It's also worth noting that even if geraniums produce oil containing MHA, they do so at amounts less than 1%. What happens when less scrupulous manufacturers isolate the compound, produce it synthetically, up the dosage, and the wrong gym rat dies as he punishes the iron a bit too hard?
New Zealand might hold the answers. The island nation is grappling with a next-generation party pill epidemic, in which DMAA — dimethylamylamine, a derivative of geranium oil — surfaces in combination with caffeine to produce psychoactive effects and adrenaline rush. The New Zealand Health Ministry has reported several adverse events from products known as "Sunrise" and "Hummer," including stroke and brain hemorrhage. The Dominion Post, a national newspaper, reports: "It is believed DMAA was first synthesized in the 1940s as a nasal decongestant and is also found in dietary and bodybuilding products." In November, New Zealand added DMAA, also known as MHA, also known as Forthane, to its restricted substance list.
Frank Jaksch runs ChromaDex, an analytics and testing company with expertise in botanicals and big clients in sports nutrition. Geranamine is clearly on his radar. "It was a failed drug, basically," says Jaksch. "It's not the most pleasant compound, but we see it appearing more and more frequently, especially in the energy beverage category. It's a scary beast. We think the whole Geranamine story will end badly, and the industry just doesn't need another story like that."
It's hard, however, to envision a happier ending, with $100 million at stake in an industry notorious for its inability to self-police. Sports nutrition seems to be strutting its renegade feathers yet again. "All clues indicate that the MHA in use in the supplement market right now is chemically synthesized," says Almada. "It is not coming from geranium oil, and that's adulteration. Several studies suggest this, as do the economics. To produce these purported levels of pure MHA from geranium oil would increase the price beyond measure, by a factor of at least 10 to 20. If you buy geranium extract, you're buying a big mirage." If you buy geranium extract, as a consumer or manufacturer or retailer, you might be buying a dangerous mirage soon to vanish before industry's eyes.