The small office/warehouse of Natural Product Solutions in Timonium hardly suggests the national reach of the dietary supplement company, or the bigger things to come in 2015: agreements that could double its range, and a new spokeswoman who is a national brand name in advice on sex and relationships.
The men who own the company say they prefer running the eight-year-old operation lean: They now have four employees, including the president and vice president, but they might add two or three this year.
They've been riding a rising tide of dietary supplement sales, as Americans — despite the often skeptical views of medical doctors — seek help outside conventional medicine.
Most of the company's VirMax products, which are made of herbs and naturally occurring chemicals, are designed to enhance sexual experience for men and women, treat the effects of prostate enlargement and boost energy.
The line is not just for baby boomers. Natural Product Solutions sells a one-dose, two-pill package of its "Maximum Male Enhancement" meant mostly for men between 18 and 40.
Asked why men that age would need this sort of help — the pills are meant to treat erectile dysfunction and enhance sensation — President/CEO Marty Gallant said "sex can always be better."
Consumers clearly like dietary supplements, natural and otherwise. The consulting firm McKinsey & Co. last year valued the U.S. vitamins and supplements market at $23 billion, and projected it would grow 5 or 6 percent a year through 2017.
Doctors interviewed for this story said there's not sufficient evidence that supplements such as VirMax products can boost sexual function and testosterone levels.
Gallant said the products have worked for him and, judging by sales, for many others. He's a husky man of 64 who, along with Travis Pendergast, 35, vice president of sales, started Natural Product Solutions after leaving a similar company run by a urologist in Baltimore County who had lost his license to practice medicine. Gallant declined to name the doctor, who has since died.
Gallant gives Pendergast credit for the recent round of good sales news: agreements scheduled to take effect in the next three months to place VirMax products in CVS drug stores, Kmart and Walmart, the world's largest retailer.
Gallant and Pendergast figure those deals alone should add about 10,000 stores to what they say is their current roster of 30,000, including Walgreens, Rite Aid, Giant and Harris Teeter. They've also forged a partnership with Kretek International, a California company that distributes cigars and other products to convenience stores, and which could put VirMax into another 30,000 to 50,000 stores by the end of the year.
They also hope to raise the company's profile with their new spokeswoman, Laura Berman, host of "In the Bedroom with Dr. Laura Berman," on the Oprah Winfrey Network and a frequent guest on "The Dr. Oz Show."
Berman — who holds a doctorate in health education, has published eight books and is on the faculty of the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University — is to make her first appearance on the company's behalf at a trade show in Baltimore next month.
She said her role is to promote Natural Product Solutions, and to "normalize the conversation, to take away some of the shame and the secrecy around the issue" of sexual dysfunction among men and women.
She does not claim the products are a sure cure for sexual dysfunction, but she said their ingredients have been shown to be effective, and could, along with good nutrition, represent a "first line of defense."
The company's biggest sellers are the "Natural Male Enhancement," known in the two-pill package as "8 Hour for Men," and "Testosterone Booster." Also in the lineup are "VirMax for Her," meant to enhance sexual experience for women, "Prostate Health Formula," and more recently, an energy booster and a formula designed to control blood sugar.
All the products, made at Gemini Pharmaceuticals in Commack, N.Y., are available without prescription for up to $24.99 for a month's supply.
Gallant said the introduction of the blood sugar treatment reflects the company's approach to developing products.
"What drives what we do is what the pharmaceutical companies are doing," he said. "Now they're introducing products for diabetes."
As he sees it, people are worried about prescription drug side effects and willing to try alternatives promising a "natural" approach.
Gallant said the company doesn't claim its supplements "cure" anything. Pendergast said the products are meant "to take what your body does naturally and just help do it better."
The growth in supplement sales comes despite the lack of clinical evidence of results required for prescription drugs by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. To sell supplements in the United States, makers must show that they are safe, and that the claims they make for them are not false or misleading, but they don't need the agency's approval.
Pendergast said all the ingredients used in VirMax products have been vetted through studies, even if not the rigorous process, including clinical trials, that the FDA requires for prescription medications. He and Gallant say that a clinical trial of the male and female "enhancement" formula conducted in 2000 found the product more effective than placebos. The study was not published in a peer-reviewed medical journal.
Information compiled by the Mayo Clinic on herbs used to treat erectile dysfunction shows that there's limited evidence that ingredients in VirMax products — including L-arginine, Ginseng, Ginkgo and epimedium, or Horny Goat Weed — are effective.
Dr. Tobias Kohler, assistant professor of urology at Southern Illinois University, doesn't dismiss herbal remedies out of hand, but he said they have not been proved effective.
Supplement companies, he said, "take advantage of the desire of men and women to have an easy solution for serious medical problems."
He said products such as VirMax are based on the false premise that you can select some of the many substances engaged in complex biochemical reactions — many of which are not understood — put them in a pill and replicate the reaction.
Dr. Michael J. Naslund, a professor of urology at the University of Maryland Medical Center, said he knows of no "scientific or medical" evidence that the ingredients listed for VirMax's Testosterone booster play any role in the body's productions of testosterone.
Gallant said he's had very good results himself with VirMax after his own prostate surgery several years ago. He said the thousands of retail stores that carry VirMax don't care about clinical trials — and neither, it seems, do many consumers.
"We have people who buy our products year after year," said Gallant. "If it didn't work, they wouldn't."