Testosterone Wars

A seller of dietary supplements is succeeding by promising power to the aggrieved.

A competitor in the Tough Guy adventure race  (Oli Scarff / Getty)

There has always been money in testosterone, but especially now. The world is awash in ads for products that “enhance” and “support” testosterone levels. They promise health and virility. They are predicated on the contested assumption that there is a widespread dearth of testosterone—that more problems lie in scarcity than surplus.


Among these products is a potion known as Super Male Vitality. A single two-ounce vial costs $59.95. (The “retail” price on the seller’s website is given as $69.95, but that price has been conspicuously crossed out.)

For buyers who are not convinced by the discount and the phallic applicator and the promise of some kind of superior maleness, there is the question of what this product is. Its seller claims: “As men age, they may often experience a slow-down in vitality, energy, and overall wellness,” so Super Male Vitality is “specifically designed to assist the body in regulating proper balance to create superior vitality in males.”

The liquid is a mix of widely available herbs. The reason many people seem to believe it creates superior vitality in males is that the liquid is sold at a store called Infowars—which you may know as the media business owned by Alex Jones, who you may know as the man who takes his shirt off and yells a lot, and who believes that the massacre of children at Sandy Hook was a hoax, and who has said tap water is “a gay bomb.”

Jones was in the news this week regarding an interview with NBC’s Megyn Kelly, which was diffusely criticized for the fact of even giving air time to Jones. He is often described as a media personality or commentator, and his radio show is widely syndicated, and his videos have been seen millions of times online––though he distances himself from “the media” in any sense. He might better be described as a provocateur, then—a person in the business of getting attention.

At some point, of course, that attention needs to be turned into money. That seems to be where Super Male Vitality and the rest of Jones’ health business comes in. Buzzfeed reported last month that according to multiple former Infowars employees, the supplements were what really turned Infowars into a “media empire” that caters to conspiracy-minded consumers, estimating annual sales in the tens of millions of dollars. (It’s not just Super Male Vitality: Infowars also sells a product called Brain Force Plus, and another called Caveman, which will invite users to “rediscover the human blueprint, and experience the power of cutting edge science.”) One former employee said Jones “can sell 500 supplements in an hour.”

These supplements seem to be more than a part of the business model, but the core of it. Infowars does not operate like a newspaper or magazine, by selling ad space to third parties.

Last month in New York magazine, Seth Brown detailed that Jones makes no money from selling ads on his radio show, which amounts to a widely syndicated four-hour infomercial for supplements. “An examination of his business seems to indicate that the vast majority of Infowars’ revenue comes from sales of these dietary supplements. Infowars isn’t a media empire—it’s a snake-oil empire.”

Infowars didn’t reply to my request to discuss some products’ health claims and sales. Though a representative did tell me that in the future I should address questions about the supplement business to an account called whistleblower@infowars.com, the existence of which seems like an admission of something.

The store itself is heavily fortified with legal caveats for its health claims, like “The information contained in the Website is provided for informational purposes only, and is not meant to substitute for the advice provided by your doctor or other health care professional.”

So to be clear: The information is for informational purposes only.

Though even this is not quite true. The fine print actually says that the act of reading the information absolves Infowars and Alex Jones of any responsibility for conveying that information. (“By using this site for any purpose whatsoever, including reading, browsing, studying … you are agreeing to indemnify Infowars … from any claims or responsibility for anything which may result there from, and you accept sole responsibility for any legal, medical, or financial liability which may occur as a result of your usage of the pages on this site.”)

The company is not responsible for the information, or for the act of selling products that make unsubstantiated health claims. You the reader are responsible for the act of using the page. This is the sort of setup for which consumer protection exists. Of course, Jones rants against all sorts of consumer-protection measures, entities, and ideas. He has a vested interest in it remaining that way.

It was in fact because of an expensive campaign of fear-of-government-mongering by the supplement industry that Jones and others are able to sell these medicinal concoctions without the government getting in their way. The 1994 Dietary Supplements Health and Education Act effectively lets anyone sell medicine––so long as it’s not explicitly medicines, but ingestible non-food products that claim to improve health. More specifically, a product can’t be sold to treat or cure a specific disease, as pharmaceuticals are, but a supplement can claim to provide health, vitality, cardiovascular support, joint functionality, brain wellness, et cetera.

The law has led to much consumer confusion and piles of money wasted on products that may or may not be offering “support” or “vitality” or “enhancement.” But it has been a boon for industry. Instead of paying hundreds of millions of dollars to bring a product to market as a vetted pharmaceutical, anyone can go to market with a potion or pill or whatnot. This is acknowledged in a dark grey font on a black background on Infowars: “These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.”

Meanwhile much more visibly, right next to the product, buyers are assured: “As always, we offer what we have researched and believe to be the highest quality selection of products for you and your family that have been developed along with the advisory of top doctors and experts.”

Only one doctor and/or expert is named on the site. He is referred to as Dr. Edward Group, and he is the person credited with inventing the Infowars supplement concoctions. It was he who “created the most powerful herbal male hormonal support product on the market,” Super Male Vitality. And it was Group who explained in an Infowars Youtube video called “The B12 Conspiracy” that “everyone is deficient in B12 because of all the pesticides and everything else that's been sprayed on the soil.” Infowars also sells vitamin B12 (as most pharmacies do for a few dollars). Though the Infowars product is called Secret 12, and it costs $29.99.

I find no leading expert who agrees that all people are deficient in B12—or even that many people are. In particular cases, a B12 supplement may be beneficial—but this is a discussion for a particular patient with their particular doctor who knows their particular case. Apart from certain few other cases—vitamin D in certain people, folic acid in pregnant females, vitamin C in 18th-century transoceanic seamen—supplements do not help us.

Group is a chiropractor. He is pictured on his web site in a white coat and scrubs, signifying to clients some belonging in the medical profession. His website lists multiple media appearances, the recurring theme being opposition to “Western medicine.” For example, he told The New York Times in 2009, “Western medicine is treating the symptoms instead of addressing the root cause.”

This is a mantra of “alternative” and “naturopathic” healers. It’s, of course, true. Like Jones’s conspiracy theories, it’s based in truth and plausibility. But it can be true that the U.S. health-care system is built around a fee-for-service model that ignores the causes of disease—and it can simultaneously be true that the answer to the problem is not to spend your money on Super Male Vitality or other “dietary supplement” pills, powders, and potions.  They risk providing a false security and distract from addressing the root cause of disease. And it is not a discussion to be had with a doctor who also sells supplements—much less at exorbitant markups.

Yet worse than all this is that these sales tactics are predicated on sowing distrust in what is actually known. The near consensus of actual leading experts is that eating mostly minimally processed plant-based foods is the best way to keep a body nourished. If there are indeed effects of certain herbs on human testosterone levels—a plausible concept—it is not likely necessary to pay exorbitantly for ultra-concentrated vials. In addition to lack of evidence, the product’s validity is undermined by the fact that Infowars also sells a potion called Super Female Vitality. It does not mention testosterone. The list of ingredients is almost identical.

Though it ends in ellipses.