Chromium is a popular nutrition supplement which has been on the market for decades. If you’re a dieter, bodybuilder, or have diabetes, you’ve probably even tried it to give you a little jump start to your fat loss or blood sugar control. But new evidence suggests it might not be as safe as we once believed.
A recent Australian research study from the University of New South Wales and the University of Sydney found that chromium can be converted into a cancer-causing form once it enters cells.
Chromium is a trace element that comes in two forms: 1) trivalent chromium (III) which is sold in over-the-counter nutrition supplements; and 2) hexavalent chromium (VI) which is known to be carcinogenic (cancer-causing) to humans.
Latest Chromium Safety Research
In the present study, researchers treated isolated animal fat cells (adipocytes) with trivalent chromium and then applied a high-powered x-ray beam. The results showed that chromium can be oxidised within the cell and transform to the carcinogenic form.
Before we all lose our heads, it’s also important to note that these findings pertain to isolated fat cells in a laboratory and what happens in a living human being might be different.
The authors acknowledged that more work still needs to be done in a real-life setting: “Animal studies that mimic long-term oxidative stress have yet to be conducted. In light of these findings, there is a need for epidemiological studies to ascertain whether CrIII supplements alter cancer risk.”
The high doses sold to consumers could also be cause for concern (the devil is in the dose). Though the recommended daily intake for adults ranges from 25 to 35 micrograms, many chromium supplements on the market contain nearly 10 times this amount.
On a positive note, the very small trace amounts found naturally in food do not appear to pose any health risk.
The recent findings highlight the need to consider the benefits versus potential risks of supplements. A 2013 systematic review and meta-analysis in the journal Obesity Reviews concluded that whilst chromium supplementation causes statistically significant reductions in body weight compared to a placebo, the magnitude of the effect is small and the practical relevance of the results are unknown.
Joe Cannon also wrote a comprehensive research run-down on chromium which points out the overwhelming lack of evidence that it simply doesn’t work.
In other words, you’re unlikely to get much bang for your buck. You can spend your money on chromium supplements, but even if it “works” and causes you to lose an extra 300 grams on the bathroom scale, it probably isn’t going to prevent a heart attack or cure your diabetes.
Blood Sugar Control in People With and Without Diabetes
Chromium has been hailed a hero for its purported ability to improve glucose levels in people with diabetes. A systematic review in the journal Diabetes Care found no significant effect of chromium on blood sugar or lipid levels in people without diabetes, but did see improvements in those with diabetes. However, the findings were limited by poor study quality, differences in methodology and results, and a lack of consensus on assessment of chromium status.
When it comes to dietary supplements, you need to remember that it’s not always a win-win situation. The risk is never zero and, if you choose to look for a “health in a pill” solution, there might be health risks down the road.
The supplement industry is largely unregulated and products can be sold without having to be proven safe, effective, or that what’s on the label is what’s in the product. Regulatory agencies generally don’t tend to pay attention to supplements unless the dead bodies begin stacking up (as in the recent OxyELITE Pro case).
Chromium has been on the market for a long time now, and if the findings from the Australian study are the same in free-living humans, then dieters who’ve been taking these pills for a long time could plausibly be at increased risk of cancer (particularly if there is already an underlying predisposition).