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6 Harmful Additives that Could be Lurking in Your Supplements

By Dennis Buckley

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Did you know that the health supplements you buy in your local store may contain one or more not-so-healthy ingredients?

Though the FDA regulates these products, some synthetics regularly added to vitamins and other supplements still have questionable health consequences. 

Here’s a list of some of the most common additives that may be lurking in your supplements and what you can do to avoid them.

Related: The Supplement Industry's Top 10 Hidden Secrets

Why are additives used in supplements?

Some supplements contain ingredients to help preserve their appearance and effectiveness.

These types of additives aren’t all unhealthy, but anyone with food restrictions or allergies should take note.

  • Fillers: These are used to “bulk” a product up so that it’s actually less potent than it looks. If a product in powder form is unusually inexpensive, you should take another look at the ingredient list for any fillers.
  • Binders: These are products that hold ingredients together, usually to keep them in the “shape” of a tablet. They may also be used to add volume if the amount of the active ingredient in the actual pill is very low. Lactose and sucrose are sometimes used as binders, so those who are lactose intolerant should pay careful attention. 
  • Coatings: Coatings such as gelatin are sometimes used to make capsules smoother and easier to swallow. Gelatin is made from animal products, so vegans will want to look for other options.   
  • Coloring and flavoring: Many inexpensive products like vitamins use artificial colors to make them look more appealing. In most cases these will be natural, but it’s worth taking a look at the labels.  

Related: Watchdog: Is Your Turmeric Contaminated With Lead?

6 Common Additives You Might Want To Avoid

1. Artificial Colorants

Various FD&C Blue, Green, Red, and Yellow are approved by the FDA and are particularly notable in children’s vitamins. However, there is no reason that anyone really needs to be consuming these substances, especially given the fact that some have been linked to ADHD and immune system problems [1, 2]

2. Titanium Dioxide

Titanium dioxide is often used as a colorant to give supplements and cosmetics a clean, white appearance. But studies have linked it to immune system problems, inflammation, DNA damage and kidney toxicity. [3, 4, 5

3. BHT

Butylated Hydroxytoluene is a preservative used in a range of products (including petroleum, cosmetics and even embalming fluid) to improve the shelf-life of fat-based products. It is an antioxidant which prevents the breakdown of fats. Though it’s use is controversial, it has been linked to liver toxicity and some forms of cancer. [6]

4. Magnesium Silicate

Magnesium Silicate is talc (as in talcum powder or baby powder) and it’s used as an anti-caking agent in powder supplements. Studies have linked it to stomach cancer and lung inflammation. [7, 8]

5. Magnesium Stearate / Stearic Acid

Magnesium stearate is made from a combination of magnesium and stearic acid. Stearic acid is found naturally in vegetable and animal fats. It is used as a lubricant or “flow agent” for manufacturing supplements. (Flow agents are additives that keep the materials from sticking to the machines during processing.)

Magnesium stearate also used as a coating for tablets. Controversy surrounds this particular additive mostly due to an old study that suggested its potential to negatively affect our immune systems, but recent studies and reviews claim no adverse health effects. [9, 10]

Controversy continues to surround the use of magnesium stearate because the stearic acid used to make the preservatives is sometimes taken from cottonseed, canola or palm oil. The majority of cottonseed and canola oil are sourced from GM crops, and palm oil is highly unsustainable. 

6. Sodium Benzoate

Consumers should be aware of anything containing benzene as it has been linked to various cancers. Sodium benzoate can form benzene if it’s taken with ascorbic acid. Sodium benzoate has the potential to damage cells and DNA. [11] 

Are all Additives Unhealthy?

It’s important to understand that supplements may contain additives from naturally-derived sources.

Examples of common additives that are generally safe include stabilizers like xanthan gum and calcium sulphate, as well as calcium chloride and magnesium sulphate, which are sometimes used as firming agents.

Antioxidant vitamins like A, C and E, as well as their derivatives (eg: citric acid) are also used as natural preservatives in supplements.

Plant cellulose is an example of a filler that is often used as a binder or coating -- it is perfectly natural and safe.

How to Avoid Getting Scammed (or Worse) When Purchasing Supplements 

When shopping for supplements, there are a few things you can keep an eye out for to help ensure that your supplements are free of synthetic additives.

Here are some things you can do:

If you find something strange or potentially harmful in a supplement, take a photo and share it on social media, making sure the manufacturer sees it.

  • Research ingredients that are banned in Europe, since they have stricter food regulation laws there. 
  • Buy non-GMO, organic and vegan where possible or necessary.
  • Anything in a propyl or ethyl group is likely highly synthesized and should be avoided. 
  • As a general rule of thumb, the less ingredients there are, the better it probably is.
  • Buy pure whenever possible – bulk powders, pure liquids and capsules (rather than tablets) are less likely to contain harmful ingredients.
  • Look for words that you recognize on the labels. Often times, for instance, rice flour or rice concentrate can be used is used instead of synthetic anti-caking agents or fillers.     
  • Have a conversation! Any solid business – whether it’s the supplier or the actual manufacturer – should be happy to answer your questions.
  • Be extra careful when buying “cheap” products online – if something is unusually inexpensive, it probably means it just has less of the actual substance in the package to begin with.

Related: Natural Vs. Synthetic Nootropics: Which Is Best For Your?

Now that you know which additives to avoid, you can take a little extra care reading the labels the next time you’re shopping for supplements. The good news is that not all supplements are filled with additives like the ones above -- some companies do go the extra mile to ensure that they provide the highest quality products possible -- like us!

 

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