Additives in Supplements: What are those odd ingredients? (Pt 1)

Additives in Supplements: What are those odd ingredients? (Pt 1)

By Megan Barber, Wellness Buyer, Co-op Owner

When you’re looking at the ingredients label of a supplement, it may be hard to understand what all the ingredients are, and even more difficult to know what they are supposed to do. Looking past the ones you already know, you might see items listed like: magnesium stearate, silicon, shellac, fumaric acid, and so many more. Well, I have good news and bad. Some of these ingredients are useful while others can cause allergic reactions and even be known carcinogens. Let me break down a few of the most popular uses of these additives, and then explore what exactly they even are.

“There are over 10,000 chemical additives in processed foods and over 7,000 of those food additives are not required to be individually listed on the product labels” – NutriGold Magazine 2015

Preservatives are added to capsules and tablets to maintain quality and freshness, and to prevent most chemical changes that could occur while in the bottle. The preservatives can be natural or synthetic, but synthetics are popular due to the low cost. Some preservatives are: ascorbic acid, sodium benzoate, parabens, and nitrates.

Anti-Caking agents limit the clumping of product by absorbing moisture. This helps in the manufacturing process as well as in the encapsulating process. Some examples include: aluminum silicate, bentonite, magnesium silicate, and steric acid.

Binders are added to increase the volume of low dosage ingredients and to hold ingredients together in the capsule or tablet. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) notes binders are GRAS or “generally recognized as safe”, but can cause allergic reactions in some sensitive people. Gelatin, cellulose, modified food starch, and polyethylene are just some of the binders used.

Colors, fragrances, flavors, and sweeteners are often added for purely aesthetic purposes. They make the capsules and tablets smell better, look better, and/or taste better. While these are mostly added just to make a more appealing product for the customer, typically  synthetic versions are added to reduce manufacturing costs instead of using more natural alternatives. Carmel, caramine, ferrous oxide, and aspartame are just a few used to market supplements.

Fillers are additives that simply fill up extra space in the capsule or tablet. Why? Because there are only so many sizes of tablet molds and empty capsules available to use. Adding fillers ensures a perfect fit for that particular capsule’s volume or the tablet’s mold. Filler options can include: magnesium stearate, talc, silica, citric acid, and corn maltodextrin, among others.

The Guar Plant
The Guar Plant

Emulsifiers in supplements are added to maintain a universal distribution consistency of the product within the tablet or capsule. It prevents separation in the manufacturing process and limits variations within products. Examples include: sunflower lecithin, polysorbate 80, gaur gum, and ammonium phosphates.

Disintegrants are added to help break down tablets at the right time, releasing the active ingredients into the digestive tract. Disintegrants expand and dissolve when wet, causing the tablet to break into small digestible fragments when consumed. These can include: modified cellulose, crospovidone, and sodium starch glycolate.

Coatings are added on some supplements to aid in swallowing, protect the active ingredients inside, and to control the release time of the product. Coatings can also be called glazes. To create coatings, ingredients like shellac, tallow, and carnauba wax are added.

Lubricants help keep the ingredients from clogging the tableting or encapsulating machines during the manufacturing process. They also aid in preventing clumps from forming and keep the end product from sticking together in the bottles. These additives can include: vegetable stearin, stearic acid, fumed silica, and cellulose powder.

In Part Two we will take a closer look at some of the specific additives mentioned above, as well as the Dirty Dozen of supplement additives. As always, consult a physician with any questions, concerns, and potential interactions with medications.

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