CLA Revisited

Back in 1994, when I was working as Editor-in-Chief of Muscle Media 2000 (not to be confused with the watered-down version that's on the stands today), I stumbled on a pretty interesting compound. It was called Conjugated Linoleic Acid, or CLA. Chemically speaking, linoleic acid is an essential fatty acid, the kind you find in flax and other oils. It has two double bonds, but when you subject it to any number of chemical reactions, the double bonds shift so that they're only separated by one bond. The molecule that results is known as a conjugated fatty acid.

There are probably a couple of dozen of these conjugated isomers, and the names indicate whether there's a "hiccup" or kink in the molecule (a cis double bond) or the absence of a hiccup (a trans double bond). For example, according to the research I stumbled on, cis-9, trans-11 was considered to be a "magic" CLA isomer, one with very unusual biological effects.

Anyhow, according to the research conducted by scientists at the University of Wisconsin, CLA, when given in sufficient amounts, could completely lean out fat mice. It also seemed to literally erase certain types of mouse tumors. Mice everywhere were excited over the prospect of longer lives and svelter physiques. What's more, there seemed to be strong evidence that it muscled up rats, mice, chickens, and pigs.

I literally freaked. I thought that CLA, might, could, possibly, turn out to be an incredible supplement for athletes of the non-mus musculus species (and the general public, too).

But try as I might, I couldn't find anybody who could/would make it for me. Unless I talked my employer, EAS, into buying a large volume of the stuff, the per-unit costs would be prohibitive. Besides, human studies hadn't been done yet, so we didn't know if the cash expenditure would pan out or not.

So, I sat on it.

About a year later, though, a company in Norway contacted me. They were a leading manufacturer of fish oils and they claimed that they could easily make CLA. I figured that we could order some and begin doing some human trials. In the meantime, I'd work with the scientists at the University of Wisconsin who had discovered the stuff.

It didn't quite work the way I wanted it to. When I told the CEO of EAS about the product, he wanted to forgo human trials and go straight into production. So he did. Back in late 1995, EAS introduced CLA to the market.

It fizzled. Athletes weren't making any muscle gains on the stuff, nor were they losing any noticeable amounts of fat. A study using humans was conducted and it, too, showed indeterminate results.

So CLA was reviled as a useless supplement. Other companies started making it for the general public, but sales never took off, perhaps because of the bad rap earned by the EAS product.

I just couldn't figure it out. There was no reason for it not to work. Still, it became a pariah of the supplement industry. Unsold bottles sat on the shelves of health food stores, marks on their dusty containers from where people had been touching them with ten-foot poles.

Recently, though, new answers have arisen. It turns out that back then, the company that made the stuff used toxic solvents and harsh catalysts to produce the stuff. Now that doesn't necessarily mean that the product itself was toxic it only meant that the manufacturing process wasn't refined, wasn't elegant, and that mishaps were a possibility. No one turned into a toxic swamp monster from using the stuff, least of all me, but the thought of having used that product for many months is a little unsettling when I think back on it.

Additionally, as a result of this crude manufacturing process, the final product contained about 25 different CLA isomers, when all we wanted was the cis-9, trans-11 variety. Looking back, probably only 20-25% of the EAS product consisted of the magic isomer. To even have a chance of affecting some sort of physical change on the body, a person would have to consumer 15 to 20 of the huge pills a day.

That wasn't the only problem. Even though we were trying to harvest large amounts of the cis-9, trans-11 isomer, recent research seems to indicate that it might have been the cis-10, trans-12 isomer that was the "magic" isomer all along.

No wonder the EAS product didn't work!

Regardless of all that, is there still any evidence we should give CLA a second look?

I definitely think so. Michael Pariza, one of the CLA pioneers, presented the preliminary results of a new CLA study to members of the American Chemical Society last fall. Pariza recruited 80 obese men and women. He gave 3 grams of CLA per day to half of them, and the other half received the same dosage of sunflower oil. Even though Pariza's more recent studies had shown that it really is the cis-10, trans-12 isomer that's responsible for altering fat accumulation, he used a 50:50 mix (of the cis-9, trans-11 and the cis-10, trans-12 isomers) to keep costs down.

At the end of 6 months, all of the subjects had lost weight (about 5 pounds each), but a third of the subjects taking CLA increased muscle mass. Pariza theorized that a "nutrient partitioning" effect was happening. In other words, calories that might originally be stored as fat were, because of the CLA, being partitioned into muscle.

Pariza, as quoted in the March 3, 2001 edition of "Science News," tried to explain the fat-loss phenomenon: "Every fat cell in the body wants to get big. What the cis-10, trans-12 CLA does is force that fat cell to stay little by affecting a number of enzymes that are ordinarily responsible for filling it with lipids."

Another similar study was conducted in Norway, the results of which appear in the December, 2000, edition of "The Journal of Nutrition." Ola Gudmundsen of the Scandinavian Clinical Research Center in Norway engaged 60 overweight volunteers in a 3-month trial. Half of them got 9 grams of olive oil per day while the other half got from between 1.7 and 6.8 grams of CLA per day (again, they used the same 50:50 blend mentioned previously).

Those who swallowed 3.4 grams or more of CLA per day ended up weighing 2 to 3 pounds less than the others. While that doesn't sound like much, consider that 2 to 3 pounds is the statistical mean, and that some might have lost considerably more. The group at the higher end of the CLA intake didn't end up losing any more weight, but they did gain more muscle mass.

Consider what the supplement might do if put in the hands of someone who knew a thing or two about training or diet.

Although Pariza mentioned that CLA might have a "nutrient partitioning" effect, it doesn't really give much insight to the alleged mechanisms of the food supplement. Theories abound, though. Perhaps it somehow helps maintain a positive nitrogen balance; maybe it's such a powerful antioxidant that it simply prevents cell damage from a variety of factors and thus leads to a net increase in growth; or maybe it's an undiscovered growth factor.

Whatever the reason, it seems that the substance is still something to be reckoned with, especially when you look at some of its other alleged benefits.

A researcher named Martha Bleury, who's affiliated with Northwest Hospital in Seattle, reported another mind-blowing study at that same ACS society meeting. She started giving Type II diabetes patients, 6 grams of CLA or 6 grams of plain old safflower oil. The CLA group showed a marked decrease in triglyceride levels, along with a significant drop in fasting blood sugar levels.

Although she's not sure how it works, she assumes that CLA is binding to receptors the same way as some antidiabetes drugs.

The substance has even been shown to reduce arterial plaques by 30 percent (Science News, March 3, 2001)! Granted, the experiments were done with rabbits, but it's still compelling.

Of course, in our field, it's the getting-bigger thing that probably arouses the most interest. Although human studies are still sorely lacking, you can't easily dismiss some of the animal studies. Earlier studies on rats showed that those whose diets were supplemented with CLA gained weight much more quickly than control groups. The authors theorized that all living creatures at least mammals are continually confronted by immune stimulation, so much so that it partitions energy away from other biological factors, including growth (Chin, et al, 1994). By reducing this response through CLA supplementation food efficiency and growth is enhanced.

Researcher Mark Cook has conducted similar immune stimulation experiments in rats, mice, chicks, and pigs. CLA supplementation blocked wasting without reducing the animal's ability to fight disease. Part of this, Cook theorizes, comes from CLA's ability to dramatically increase several families of infection-fighting white blood cells.

Whatever the mechanism, I maintain that CLA deserves a second look, a new trial. However, some of the same rotten manufacturing processes that were around when I first helped bring CLA to the market are still around. So, as far as buying CLA off the shelves, it's caveat emptor.

Mark Pariza, the father of CLA, recommends that you only buy products that use CLA from Loders Croklaan and Natural Inc, both of Sandvika, Norway. They test each batch to make sure that it contains at least a 50:50 mix of the two biologically active isomers. And, with time should the cis-10, trans-12 isomer prove without a doubt that it's the one we should be looking at manufacturers will be able to produce versions that are 100% cis-10, trans-12.

While CLA exists naturally in almost all foods, particularly dairy food, the average person probably ingests about 1 gram a day. To get any noticeable benefits, though, you'd probably have to ingest anywhere from 3 to 6 grams a day.

Personally, I think CLA might be one of those supplements that we end up taking every day, forever, regardless of whether we're in a bulking phase, a dieting phase, or a sit-on-the-couch phase. With all its possible fat-burning, muscle-building, blood-sugar lowering, immune-enhancing effects, it just makes sense.