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Weight-loss supplements: These bad boys could make you very thin indeed!

March 2, 2010 | 11:05 am

Hey, don't say we haven't warned you that you can be playing with fire when you buy into some of the Internet hype on weight-loss supplements. And if you won't take our word for it, you could listen to a rash of recent safety warnings from the FDA.

But here's a twist we didn't see coming: The inclusion in some dietary supplements marketed for weight loss of a form of chromium that, in large doses, can lead to stomach ulcers, convulsions, kidney and liver damage and even death. The state of California considers it a carcinogen and wants to monitor the safety of the chemical -- called hexavalent chromium -- in California water supplies. Hexavalent chromium is an industrial byproduct used in the chemical and welding industries: It's the stuff that made Erin Brockovich famous.

Chromium is an essential trace mineral that is important for insulin function -- specifically, for the metabolism of fats and carbohydrates. While the evidence for its effectiveness as a weight loss agent is mixed, it's a popular ingredient in dietary supplements promising to help you shed pounds. Even the safe form of chromium (called trivalent, and often taken as a supplement by diabetics) can be toxic at levels as low as 200 micrograms a day. But for its evil twin, hexavalent chromium, California has considered a safe daily "public health goal" of 0.12 mcg in its drinking-water standards (the federal and California legal limits are, however, not so stringent).

The online tester of consumer products, ConsumerLab, has found that three chromium products marketed for weight loss contain quantities of hexavalent chromium way beyond that proposed limit: Mega-T Green Tea, Natural Factors Chromium GTF, and Dexatrim Max. A daily dose of Mega-T Green Tea Max had 220 times the maximum daily dose thought to be safe by California's proposed standard. Those three represented half of the six chromium products ConsumerLab tested, and one of a wide range of dietary supplements that ConsumerLab has tested for purity and adherence to their labeled ingredients.

Wholly aside from whether the products work as promised, ConsumerLab hasn't found many that are either free of contaminants or deliver what their labels advertise. 

ConsumerLab also echoes a recent package of articles in The L.A. Times about extremely high levels of caffeine in some of these products, and the dangers of mixing some dietary weight loss supplements with some prescription medicines.

--Melissa Healy

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