LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — Can you find the perfect body in a bottle?
Conventional wisdom says no.
Still, there’s always someone seeking a shortcut.
"Everyone is always trying to seek that magic pill. It's just trying to sell you the dream but at such a detrimental, dangerous cost," says Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Personal Trainer Jennifer Trevino, who was "just kind of speechless" when we showed her the label on Dark Energy pre-workout.
Pre-workout products are marketed to people looking to lose weight and build muscle. The supplements promise to boost focus, energy and athletic performance.
Dark Energy contains the ingredients DMAA and DMHA -- stimulants that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says are illegal to sell and use as dietary supplements.
DMHA, the less controversial of the two, is labeled an "unsafe food additive" and products containing it are considered "adulterated" by the FDA.
DMAA was previously approved as a nasal decongestion drug, but that's no longer the case. In fact, the FDA no longer recognizes DMAA for any kind of medical use.
As Trevino explains, "It's kind of like really close to these amphetamine, methamphetamine drugs," which the FDA considers particularly dangerous when combined with caffeine like in Dark Energy.
The FDA says it can raise blood pressure and lead to cardiovascular problems ranging from shortness of breath and tightening in the chest to heart attack and death.
Dark Energy is labeled as a "research product" that's "Not for human consumption."
"As a consumer, we expect to be able to go into any place and expect, well, if it's on the shelf it's got to be at least semi-safe, right? Because they wouldn't sell it if it wasn't," Trevino surmised.
But we found they would. And they did.
Our photographer went undercover to nutrition stores across the valley asking about Dark Energy.
At Survival of the Fittest on West Sahara Ave. between Lindell Road and Decatur Boulevard, we had no trouble finding the product.
A store employee calls it "That crazy stuff" and goes on to explain, "You're talking about DMAA -- 100 milligrams of DMAA and 400 milligrams of caffeine. People really don't know what's in it. If you take it, it's crazy. But DMAA, what it does, it's pretty much considered a drug. It's what they took out of a lot of supplements. The government banned it and whatnot. I think it's still banned actually."
When we ask about the label warning, "Not for human consumption," he replies, "They still sell it, you know, people are crazy so, they're going to buy it regardless. I'm just doing my job of telling you what it is and if you want to try it, I suggest half a scoop. If you want to go full scoop, go ahead, that's on you. Me personally, I wouldn't take it."
Other stores we checked, like GNC on Flamingo and Fort Apache roads, said you won’t find it there.
An employee told our undercover photographer, "Oh, no, we don't sell that. That has DMHA and DMAA in it which are illegal. Those are banned substances. We don't sell that."
But he acknowledges, "It's super popular right now. It's blowing up on the internet."
At Vegas Discount Nutrition on Grand Canyon Drive and Flamingo Road, a salesman told our photographer, "Ooh, yeah, Dark Energy. Um... So, we don't have that one."
But he offers another product that also contains the illegal DMAA.
"The only one we have with DMAA, which is the strongest nootropic, is IrAte."
The FDA has been warning about DMAA for a decade, including issuing warning letters and seizing products from facilities that don't voluntarily destroy them or agree to stop making them.
As far back as 2013, the FDA had received 86 reports of illnesses and death associated with supplements containing DMAA. The illnesses reported include heart problems and nervous system or psychiatric disorders.
"People are going to get around and try to sell products in loopholes for as long as they can until they get pulled off shelves," said Trevino.
When we asked the Southern Nevada Health District about what we found, they went to see for themselves.
At Survival of the Fittest on West Sahara Avenue, inspectors found 11 containers of Dark Energy on shelves. They issued a cease-and-desist order, a fine and told the store to destroy the product.
At the location on Charleston and Lamb boulevards, the person in charge told the inspector they "Used to sell the Dark Energy pre-workout a few months ago but stopped due to three customer complaints ranging from making consumers feel too jittery to causing an upset stomach."
We returned to the East Charleston Boulevard Survival of the Fittest after the Health District had been there and asked again about Dark Energy.
An employee told our undercover photographer, "We cannot have it no more. It has a substance that is not... It's banned. The DMAA."
But then, she proceeds to sell us a different product called Sharp AMX, which contains both DMAA and DMHA.
"I'm still gonna give you the receipt in case you feel like nauseous or something."
"So this one won't be technically illegal? This is okay to buy and sell?" our photographer asked.
She answered, "It's still... But I'm pretty sure if they did research on these pre-workouts they might find the same thing."
Survival of the Fittest owner Jimmy Arellano would not go on camera.
On the phone, he said he didn't know Dark Energy said "Not for human consumption" on the label and his employees didn't tell him. He admits not doing his own research and relying on what distributors say in what he describes as a volatile and ever-changing industry.
Arellano added that his family-owned business would never knowingly sell something illegal or dangerous and they've cleared their store shelves of all the banned products, pledging to be more diligent in the future.
Vegas Discount Nutrition also says it removed DMAA- and DMHA-containing products from their store shelves after our visit with the hidden camera.
Dietitian Jenn Trevino says consumers should do their own research.
"Seek out maybe a doctor, dietitian -- their kind of expertise -- not so much the salesperson at the store because again, they're not experts. They're selling a product."
Bottom line, she says our bodies don't need the external stimulants in pre-workout products and the more you take, the more dependent you become.
"We want to keep our bodies as clean as possible. Allow them to work how they're supposed to work."
The FDA says consumers who believe they've been harmed by using a DMAA- or DMHA-containing product should contact their doctor as well as the company whose name and contact information should be on the product label.
It should also be reported directly to the FDA through the Safety Reporting Portal.