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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Hoodwinking Health Articles
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Forrest H. Nielsen

A recent issue of the Grand Forks Herald contained an ad insert that is a classic example of deceptive information about a nutritional supplement for the purpose of making an unscrupulous profit. This insert promoted chromium picolinate as a safe and effective dietary supplement that could perform a number of wondrous things including decrease weight, reduce excess body fat and build muscles. The false statements and misleading uses of scientific information in the article were too numerous to point out here so I will describe only the more blatant ones to show that the truthfulness of even professional looking articles needs to be verified.

First the person in the insert photo is not Dr. Gary Evans, as stated. Also, neither Dr. Evans or Dr. Richard Anderson are employed by the Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center (GFHNRC). Since 1986, Dr. Evans has been associated with the promotion of chromium picolinate as a nutritional supplement through organizations other than the GFHNRC.

One of the more objectionable methods to make health claims look more legitimate is to contend that they are supported by reputable research organizations. In the insert, both the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the GFHNRC were used in this manner. The article implied that USDA and the GFHNRC patented the use of chromium picolinate for reducing body fat, increasing lean body mass, reducing elevated blood sugar and lowering elevated blood cholesterol.

The truth is that the USDA has only one patent that can be associated with chromium picolinate. At the GFHNRC it was found that metal picolinates are better absorbed than mineral salt forms. This resulted in a 1982 patent for the process of synthesizing metal picolinates. The patent does not mention chromium picolinate, and thus does not make any health claims for it.

In 1986, the supplement supplier company, Nutrition 21, licensed the patent from USDA. This authorized Nutrition 21 to continue the development of uses for chromium picolinate. Nutrition 21 was involved in the patenting of chromium picolinate for the health claims in the ad insert.

Stating that the USDA and GFHNRC instead of a supplement company were responsible for the patents probably was not done because the health claims most likely would have been questioned by prospective buyers of the supplement. And they would have been right to do so. For example, the statement that chromium picolinate promotes fat loss and preserves muscle mass has not been supported by rigorous scientific experiments.

One of those experiments done at the GFHNRC showed that a supplement of 180 micrograms of chromium as the picolinate or as the chloride, compared with a placebo, for 8 weeks did not improve strength or increase muscle mass in men participating in a weight-lifting program. Studies at several other reputable research institutions such as the University of Massachusetts and Pennsylvania State University have given similar results. In simple terms, most studies have found chromium supplementation to be ineffective for increasing muscle mass, strength gain and athletic performance.

The weight loss claims for chromium picolinate are even more preposterous. In one study on which the claims are based, the average weight loss was 2.8 pounds after 10 weeks of supplementation. This study did not control physical activity or food intake which could explain the loss. In another study used to support weight loss claims, the participants reduced their calorie intake and consumed more dietary fiber in addition to taking chromium supplements. So it is impossible to know which factor or factors caused the loss. In a third study, data had to be manipulated by making adjustments for calories burned in reported daily activities in order to find a significant weight loss. Even then, the weight loss reported for a 400 microgram per day chromium supplement for 3 months was only 2 pounds better than when the supplement contained no chromium. None of these studies supports the astonishing claims for weight loss with chromium picolinate supplementation. Not mentioned in the ad insert is a fairly well-controlled study showing that chromium picolinate supplementation resulted in a significant weight GAIN in young obese women. In brief, there are no data from well-designed studies to support the claim that chromium picolinate supplementation is an effective weight loss program.

Several supplementation studies suggest that chromium deficiency is not as common as some reports indicate. The insert implied that 90% of the population was not consuming adequate amounts of chromium. This implication can be made because the intake at which chromium is low enough to induce changes responsive to chromium supplementation is not well established. However, some data indicate that an intake of less than 20 micrograms per day is inadequate for good handling of sugar (glucose) by the body.

Based on dietary surveys, some Americans are routinely consuming inadequate amounts and would benefit from an increased intake of chromium. The best and most enjoyable way of doing this is by eating a varied diet with good sources of chromium. Processed meats, liver, whole grain products including some ready-to-eat bran cereals, pulses such as dried peas, lentils and beans, some vegetables including broccoli and mushrooms, and spices are some of the best sources of chromium. If you insist on taking a supplement for "insurance" or "peace of mind," a separate chromium supplement is unnecessary. A multivitamin-mineral supplement containing chromium will do.

Last Modified: 10/23/2006
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