Buyer Beware!

These days it seems everybody is trying to look better and get stronger-and looking for an easy way to get there. Nobody knows this better than the health food/vitamin industry. Take a walk into your local health food/nutrition store and you will soon be inundated by all sorts of potions and powders touted to make one get stronger and be healthier. What may even be more harmful than the dubious advertising tactics of health food advertisers is the locker-room beliefs of some products – beliefs that are either the result of misinterpretation of data from scientific studies – or worse from the belief in the conclusions from poorly designed scientific studies.

The first substance up on out hit list is chromium picolinate. Chromium is an essential trace element in humans (Moore and Friedl, 1992) and is involved in the utilization of sugars for energy through it’s actions on the hormone insulin (Groff, Gropper and Hunt, 1995). For the past several months, chromium has been enjoying a success which is almost unparalleled in the health food industry. People rush to the stores to buy chromium because of it’s reported ability to burn fat and build muscle. But does it really do this? The answer, it turns out, depends on who you talk to. If you talk to the people distributing chromium, the answer is yes (Bachle, 1994); however if you look at the mass of well controlled scientific studies, the answer is no! In fact, practically all the data which says chromium (in the form or chromium picolinate) enhances performance comes from studies from the University of Minnesota — studies that have yet tobe submitted for scrutiny in scientific literature (Moore and Friedl, 1992).

While it is true that a single bout of exercise (for example, running a mile) does lead to enhanced chromium excretion in the urine (Anderson, 1989), it has never been proven that athletic performance is hindered by this heightened excretion (Moore and Friedl, 1992). I would be remiss if I did not warn you about one very recent and potentially dangerous outcome to using chromium — an outcome I am sure you haven’t heard of. In October 1995, both the New York Times and Washington Star ran stories about a study (Stearns, Wise, Patierno, Wetterhahn, 1995) done at Dartmouth College and George Washington University that found that chromium picolinate (the most popular form of chromium) produces chromosome damage. Both papers went on to say that when cells were exposed to “reasonable” doses of chromium picolinate, the chromosome damage was anywhere from three to 18 times greater when compared to cells exposed to other chromium compounds ( Jane E. Brody, New York Times, October, 25, 1995). Enhanced chromosomal damage means one may be at a greater risk of developing diseases associated with chromosomal aberrations, such as cancer!

The way chromium seems to cause problems is this: normally, chromium usually acts outside of cells, but when it is combined with an organic substance, like picolinate, it’s cellular absorption is increased which in turn increases the chances that it will get into the nucleus (or brain center) of your cells, which is where your chromosomes are located. In a personal correspondence with HF&F, the head researcher of the study, Diane Stearns, was quick to point out that while her study may not be totally applicable to humans, she went on to state that the tests used in the study were nationally accepted as legitimate tests for the cancer causing ability of a substance. She also points to the “growing amount of data” that shows that picolinate has damaging effects in cells, not only in the test tube, but also in animal studies as well (Email correspondence with Diane Stearns).

So, it’s not necessarily the chromium that is bad for you as much as it is the picolinate that it is attached to.  Many researchers agree that while chromium supplements will lower blood sugar in those who are chromium deficient, it’s effects on those who aren’t chromium deficient is minimal at best and is far outweighed by the detrimental effects that might result from it’s use (Dr. Jeff Harris, personal communication). And, as for chromium burning fat, thats just nonsense!

So, the bottom line on chromium picolinate at this time is: All the answers aren’t in yet, so if you are going to experiment with it, do yourself a favor and don’t use chromium that has picolinate in it. Rather, use a supplement like brewers yeast (Groff, Groppler and Hoff, 1995), which has the chromium but without the picolinate.

Next up is Vanadyl Sulfate. Vanadium (sold in the stores as vanadyl sulfate), may or may not be an essential nutrient (Groff, et al, 1995) and more research is warranted before a definitive answer can be given. Just as hemoglobin makes our blood red, vanadium makes the blood of some sea dwelling animals green (Moore and Friedl, 1992). In fact, one of the classic signs of overdosing on vanadium is a green color on the tongue (Moore, Friedl, 1992). Vanadium sulfate is one of those compounds often touted by bodybuilders as something that gives one the extra energy needed to get through tough workouts.

Interestingly, research has concluded that vanadium seems to work in the body like insulin does, helping the body make use of sugar for energy (Moore et al.; 1992 Groff, 1995). The down side to this is that the research was done on diabetic laboratory rats and the dosages given to them which seemed helpful, overlapped with the dosages that killed them (Bachelae, 1994)! And, as for those non-diabetic rats, vanadium did not effect them in any way (Moore, et al 1992). In addition, no research as of yet has been done in humans (diabetic or non diabetic) to see if vanadium has the same effect on glucose metabolism as it does in diabetic rats (Moore, et al, 1992). Therefore at this point, the bottom line on vanadium is, don’t waste your money.

Another substance worth mentioning is Boron. Boron has been called one of the biggest jokes played on athletes today (Moore and Friedl, 1992). Boron manufacturers are quick to point out “scientific” data which report that boron increases the body’s production of testosterone. In fact nothing could be further from the truth! All this boron hype began after the manufacturers of boron compounds misinterpreted the results of a poorly designed (Joe Cannon) government study (Bachle, 1994) — a study I might add that was done, not on bodybuilders or power lifters, but on post-menopausal women (Moore and Friedl, 1992; Bachle, 1994)! In fact, one study has cited evidence that boron may actually reduce the body’s production of testosterone (Moore and Friedl, 1992)! Therefore, the bottom line on boron is the same as for chromium and vanadium: Don’t waste your money.

Next up are glandulars. The term ‘glandulars” is an all encompassing generic term which, in a nut shell, refers to “ground up” body parts. Ancient Chinese beliefs held that eating ground up monkey testes could restore sexual vitality (Moore et al, 1992). Because we know today that testosterone comes from the testes, many (ignorantly) believe that eating ground up testes will increase ones blood levels of testosterone! This is a prime example of the old adage: A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. The level of testosterone in testes is only slightly higher than what one would find in other body parts (Moore, et al, 1992). Even if a person could eat a bunch of testosterone, it would quickly be cleared from the body by the liver (Moore et al, 1992). Actually, we would hope that this would be the case because if the liver didn’t clear the extra testosterone from the body, our body would shut down it’s own production of testosterone via it’s built in safety mechanisms.

Some manufacturers sell ground up brain parts like pituitary glands and hypothalamus glands in the hopes of attracting customers (Moore, et al, 1992). The idea behind this is that the hormones released from these glands will stimulate the testes to make more testosterone. Again, there is a problem with this. You see, these hormones are really nothing more than complex protein molecules -and just like any other protein thats eaten, they are quickly digested in the stomach and never reach the blood as hormones. In other words, your body treats these hormones just as it would a T bone steak; it breaks the protein down into it’s constituent amino acids and uses those amino acids in what ever way it wants.The bottom line is taht eating glandulars is a very expensive — and gross — way to get your daily protein requirement!

Now, lets move onto carnitine. Carnitine or L-Carnitine as it is also referred, is a substance that is responsible for moving fat molecules into the mitochondria (the main energy -producing machine in cells) where they can be broken down for energy (Baechle, 1994). The idea is that if one were to ingest more carnitine, more fat would be brought to the mitochondria which would in turn give us more energy. While some have argued that exercise decreases carnitine levels in muscle (Sahlin, 1990), almost no change in total body carnitine levels occurs, even after weeks of intense exercise (Arenas, et al, 1991). In addition to this, the liver stops us from absorbing too much carnitine. The maximum amount that the liver will allow us to absorb has been said to be only 2 grams (Baechle, 1994), a level that has been estimated to raise muscle carnitine levels by only 1% -2% (Bachele, 1994). And as if that weren’t enough, studies show that ingesting the wrong kind of carnitine (either D carnitine or a mixture of D and L carnitine) can actually result in a carnitine deficiency! So, the bottom line is: don’t waste your money on carnitine!

One supplement that just might have an impact on athletic performance is creatine (Volek and Kraemer,1996). Creatine is a molecule that plays a role in energy metabolism via it’s ability to replenish ATP stores (ATP is the ultimate energy molecule in your body). In a review article published in the August issue of issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (Volek and Kraemer,1996), researchers point out that creatine (as creatine monohydrate) seems to promote, a reduction in lactic acid accumulation, and increased body mass. The question remains, however, as to how body mass is being increased (that is, does body mass increase because of increased muscle mass or because of increased water retention). Caution still has to be used with creatine because little is know about its long-term effects on the body (Volek and Kraemer,1996).

Well, there you have it, the bottom line on some of today’s most popular so called performance enhancing substances. Now go out there and spread the word to the athletes in your life.


Anderson, R.A., (1989). Essentiality of chromium in humans. The Science of the Total Environment, 86:75-81.

Arenas, J., Ricoy, J.R., Encinas, A.R., Pola, P., D’Iddio, S., Zeviani, M., Didonato, S., Corsi, M. (1991). Effects of Physical Exercise training and L Carnitine Administration.

Muscle and Nerve, 14:598 – 604.

Brody, Jane E., New York Times, October, 25, 1995.

Friedl, K.E., Moore, R.J. (1992) Steroid Replacers: Let the Buyer Beware.

National Strength and Conditioning Journal, 145(1): 14-19

Groff, J.L., Gropper, S.S., Hunt, S.M. (1995). Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism, second edition.

West Publishing Company. Sahlin, K., Muscle Carnitine Metabolism During Incremental Dynamic Exercise in Humans.

Acta Physiol. Scand. 138:259-262 Stearns, D.M., Wise, J.P. Parierno, S.R., Wetterhahn, K.E. (1995). Chromium (III) Picolinate Produces Chromosome Damage in Chinese hamster Overy Cells, FASEB Journal, 9(15): 1643-1649

Moore, R.J., Friedl, K.E. (1992). Physiology of Nutritional Supplements: Chromium Picolinate and Vanadyl Sulfate. National Strength and Conditioning Association Journal, 14(3): 47-51

Volek, J.S., Kraemer, W.J. (1996). Creatinine Supplementation: It’s Effects on Human Muscular Performance and Body Composition. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 10 (3): 200-210.

This article was provided by Joe Cannon, MS. For more information, contact him at [email protected].


These resources are for the purpose of personal trainer growth and development through Continuing Education which advances the knowledge of fitness professionals. This article is written for NFPT Certified Personal Trainers to receive Continuing Education Credit (CEC). Please contact NFPT at 800.729.6378 or [email protected] with questions or for more information.
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