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What is Chromium? - Facts, Foods, Benefits & Side Effects

Instructor: Nicola McDougal

Nicky has taught a variety of chemistry courses at college level. Nicky has a PhD in Physical Chemistry.

What do Julia Roberts, broccoli, and dollar bills have in common? The answer is the chemical element chromium. In this lesson we will learn what chromium is, why we need it in our diet and why it is also considered a serious environmental pollutant.

What Is Chromium?

Chromium (Cr) is a transition metal (a chemical element in the middle d-block of the periodic table) that is found naturally on earth as the ore chromite (FeCr2O4). Chromium is a very hard metal and has a high resistance to corrosion; as a result, it is used in a variety of industrial processes, including coating steel to form stainless steel.

A sports car is chromium coated to prevent corrosion
stainless steel formed of chromium used to coat sports car to prevent corrosion

Like many of the transition metals, chromium forms more than one ion. The two main cations to remember are Cr3+ and Cr6+. What a difference those 3 electrons make! Chemical compounds that contain the Cr6+ ion (also known as chromium (VI)) are highly toxic and carcinogenic. However, compounds containing the Cr3+ ion are not considered harmful. In fact, Cr3+ is biologically active and is found in our food as an essential trace element. Also, Cr3+ is often used in dyes because of the vivid colors the compounds form. In fact, the word chroma is the Greek word meaning color.

The green ink on this five dollar bill contains the Cr3+ ion
picture of a five dollar bill including green ink containing Cr3+ ion

Why Do We Need Chromium in our Diet?

You probably know that certain chemical elements, including calcium, carbon, phosphorus, and magnesium are necessary in the human body. However, there are many trace elements that are also essential for life. Including these is chromium, which works with insulin to control metabolism of sugars.

The term trace element means you don't need to eat very much of it, and most healthy adults in the US eat their recommended daily amount (RDA). According to the United States National Institute of Health a healthy woman should consume 25 micrograms (mcg) of chromium a day and a healthy man 35 mcg per day.

Which Foods Contain Chromium?

Chromium, in the form of Cr3+, is found in a variety of foods, but most foods provide only small amounts (less than 2 mcg per serving). Meats, whole grains, and some vegetables and fruits are considered good sources. Broccoli is one of the highest sources of chromium, with half a cup providing around 12 mcg! Foods high in simple sugars, such as donuts, are very low in chromium, which is a shame for donut lovers like me!

Broccoli is very high in chromium
broccoli high in chromium

Donuts, because they contain a lot of simple sugar, are very low in chromium
picture of donut which is very low in chromium

While it is important to consume this trace element because of its essential biological role, reports of actual chromium deficiency in humans are rare.

A great question you may be asking is, Is it unhealthy to eat too much chromium? And surprisingly the answer is no! The body does not absorb the entire amount consumed and any excess is excreted as waste product. Therefore, very few serious adverse health effects have been linked to high intakes of chromium, and you will not find a stated maximum daily intake amount.

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