The Federal Trade Commission today announced settlements with three California companies charged with making unsupported claims about weight loss and health benefits for chromium picolinate, one of the hottest dietary supplements on the market. The FTC said that these claims must be backed with solid scientific evidence, but these were not.
Some have called chromium picolinate the "medical miracle of the 1990s." At issue are claims that most American diets lack adequate chromium and risk potentially serious health problems, and claims that chromium picolinate supplements burn fat, cause weight loss, increase muscle mass, reduce serum cholesterol, regulate blood sugar levels, and treat or prevent diabetes. Chromium is a trace mineral that appears to play a role in insulin function. Chromium picolinate has found its way into many products, including chewing gum; total retail sales for chromium-based supplements are estimated to be $100 million a year.
"Consumers have a right to expect that claims that products will speed weight loss and improve health are based on solid scientific evidence, not preliminary or inconsistent findings," said Jodie Bernstein, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection.
Today's cases are against:
- Nutrition 21, the sole supplier of chromium picolinate in the U.S., Selene Systems, Inc., a general partner of Nutrition 21, and Herbert H. Boynton. The San Diego-based company holds the exclusive U.S. license on the patent rights to chromium picolinate, and sells it to the public through distributors;
- Victoria Bie, doing business as Body Gold, a La Jolla-based company that sold its dietary supplements directly to the public through ads in national magazines. The main ingredients of the products -- sold under the names Chromium Picolinate, 24K with Chromium Picolinate, Super Fat Burner Formula, L-Carnitine, Daily Energy Formula, and Citrigold -- are chromium picolinate, L-carnitine, and/or (-)hydroxycitric acid (HCA); and
- Universal Merchants, Inc., a Los Angeles-based company and Steven Oscherowitz, its president. The company advertises and distributes its chromium picolinate chewing gum products -- Chromatrim and Chromatrim 100 -- through an infomercial starring Susan Ruttan, an actress who appeared in the long-running series, L.A. Law, and in print ads in national magazines.
Today's complaints cite various advertising statements and testimonials from consumers claiming weight loss and health benefits that allegedly can be achieved by using chromium picolinate. According to the complaints, the companies failed to provide adequate substantiation for their claims that the supplement would, among other things, cause significant and long-term weight loss; improve body composition by reducing body fat and building muscle; increase metabolic rate; control appetite; reduce serum cholesterol; regulate blood sugar levels; increase energy and/or stamina; and treat and prevent diabetes.
The FTC also maintains that:
- the companies failed to substantiate their claim that 90 percent of American adults do not consume enough chromium in their diets to support normal insulin function and therefore are at risk for obesity, heart disease and diabetes;
- the companies falsely claimed that chromium picolinate's benefits are proven by scientific studies; and
- some of the companies made unsubstantiated claims that the testimonials used in their ads reflect the typical experiences of consumers who use chromium picolinate products.
According to the FTC's Bernstein, Americans spend about $33 billion a year on weight loss products, programs and services. "There's only one way people can tell the sizzle from the substance when it comes to these kinds of claims," she said. "Subject them to a healthy dose of skepticism." Over the years, the FTC has brought more than 140 cases against companies making deceptive weight loss and health benefits claims.
Under the proposed consent agreements to settle these allegations, announced today for public comment, the respondents would be prohibited from making any of the challenged claims for chromium picolinate in the future, unless they have competent and reliable scientific evidence to support them. The settlements also would require them to have competent and reliable scientific evidence to support any representation they make about the benefits, performance, efficacy, or safety of any food, dietary supplement, or drug they advertise or sell.
The settlements would further prohibit the respondents from misrepresenting the results of any test, study, or research. Respondents Bie and Universal Merchants would be prohibited from representing that any testimonial or endorsement is the typical or ordinary experience of users of the advertised products, unless the claim is substantiated or the respondents disclose the generally expected results clearly and prominently.
In addition, the settlement with Nutrition 21 would require the company to send its customers (who resell chromium picolinate to the public) a notice of the Commission's allegations and a request to stop using sales materials making the challenged claims. This notice must be sent to anyone with whom Nutrition 21 has done business since 1993 and everyone with whom they do business for the next three years.
Finally, the settlements include various reporting requirements to help the FTC monitor the respondents' compliance with their provisions.
The Commission votes to accept the three consent agreements for public comment were 5-0.
A summary describing the consent agreements will be appear in the Federal Register shortly and will be subject to public comment for 60 days, after which the Commission will decide whether to make them final. Comments should be addressed to the FTC, Office of the Secretary, 6th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20580.
Note: A consent agreement is for settlement purposes only and does not constitute an admission of a law violation. When the Commission issues a consent order on a final basis, it carries the force of law with respect to future actions. Each violation of such an order may result in a civil penalty of $10,000.
The FTC has a brochure "The Skinny on Dieting" that is available free to consumers. Copies of the brochure, the complaints, proposed consent agreements and analyses of the agreements to assist the public in commenting on these cases are available on the Internet at the FTC's World Wide Web Site at: http://www.ftc.gov or by calling 202-326-3627. FTC documents are also available from the FTC's Public Reference Branch, Room 130, 6th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington D.C. 20580; 202-326-2222; TTY for the hearing impaired 1-866-653-4261. To find out the latest news as it is announced, call the FTC's NewsPhone recording at 202-326-2710.
Loren G. Thompson or Beth Grossman
202-326-2049 or 202-326-3019
Claude Wild, III or Sohni Bendiks
Denver Regional Office
1961 Stout Street, Suite 1523
Denver, Colorado 80294
303-844-2272 or 303-844-3923
Richard L. Cleland
(Nutrition 21 -- File No. 932-3282)
(Body Gold -- File No. 942-3328)
(Universal Merchants -- File No. 952-3366)
Office of Public Affairs
Joel Winston or Richard L. Cleland
202-326-3153 or 202-326-3088