Since you are taking the time and spending the money to choose a dietary supplement, it makes good sense to read the ingredients carefully to ensure you are getting a high-quality product. However, most people don’t know what to look for when buying a dietary supplement. Because I’ve worked in the dietary supplement industry for over ten years, I have some ideas and suggestions for what to look for on the label.
Previously in another blog, I discussed the topic of synthetic versus natural nutrients, and now it’s time to focus on the inactive ingredients, especially the excipients, you’ll find when you read a dietary supplement label. As you will see, there are some you want to be sure to avoid, as they may contribute to health problems. There are still a lot of unknowns because there isn’t enough data, but I think you need to keep these on your radar nonetheless. Keep in mind that some of these ingredients may be needed for the manufacture of the dietary supplement and can’t always be replaced.
What to Look for on the Label:
Even the highest-quality supplements tend to undergo some type of processing and incorporate additional ingredients, fillers, binders, or other excipients (inactive substances included in the formulation for stabilizing, bulking, or otherwise helping deliver the active ingredients). In some cases, they are necessary because of the equipment or the delivery system. Although the FDA may allow many of these ingredients, it does not always mean they are safe, especially for long-term consumption. Or, even if they may be safe, you may need to reduce or avoid them because of your specific health concerns.
Here are some ingredients to keep an eye out for:
- Gums: Be aware of gums used in supplements—not that they are necessarily “bad,” but they might trigger responses in sensitive individuals. One study found the existence of antibodies against several different gums, including mastic gum, carrageenan, xanthan gum, and guar gum. Almost 13% of the samples had IgE antibodies against all 7 extracts. Additionally, carrageenan has been shown to induce inflammation in animals, yet solid data in humans is lacking. There is a potential for it to impact metabolic function. In one study on mice, carrageenan in combination with a high-fat diet led to glucose dysregulation after six days. After 48 weeks, those who had been exposed to just carrageenan experienced more severe glucose intolerance than those who had consumed just the high-fat diet. There are more studies and increasing questions about carrageenan and whether it can cause inflammation, especially in individuals with inflammatory bowel disease, especially ulcerative colitis. Xanthan gum has also been associated with necrotizing enterocolitis in preterm infants in a small case study. All in all, though not terrible, gums are appearing in many food products as fillers, such as in dairy alternatives, so if you can reduce the amount until more is known, that might be a good thing. Further, in the presence of intestinal inflammation, it might be worthwhile to avoid these actives altogether to see whether less symptoms are experienced in their absence.
- Emulsifiers: One mouse study looked at the impact of two emulsifiers: carboxymethylcellulose (CMC) and polysorbate-80 (P80). The researchers found the emulsifiers led to a change in the microbiota, including increasing the number of bacteria associated with inflammation as well as an erosion of the mucosa lining and an increased adherence of bacteria. They also found an increased risk of obesity and metabolic syndrome. Just 0.1% CMC led to modest increases in the fasting glucose and body weight, while 0.5% led to low-grade inflammation and increased weight. Similar quantities by P80 also started to cause problems. Many of the effects were directly related to the microbiome, as germ-free mice did not present with the same changes. This result may mean the negative effects of these emulsifiers are on the microbiome rather than having a direct effect. Studies have also found that common emulsifiers, such as dextran sulfate sodium, directly impacts the mucosal barrier, allowing for the translocation of bacteria and potentially leading to inflammation. Again, these studies are in animals and quite limited, so there’s no conclusive data, but it’s worthwhile to continue to explore.
- Parabens, Phthalates, & Plasticizers: One study reviewed prescription drugs, over-the-counter drugs, and dietary supplements for the use of phthalates as an excipient. In this study, 24 dietary supplement products on the market had diethyl phthalate (DEP) as an ingredient, and 93 included phthalate polymers. It’s important to eliminate these compounds due to the wide range of endocrine-disrupting effects they can create. Keep in mind that they are not only in dietary supplements, but they’re found in foods and personal care products, too.
- Maltodextrin: Maltodextrin is basically a starch derived from any number of carbohydrate sources, such as corn, wheat, tapioca, rice, and wheat. In one rat study, the use of maltodextrin led to similar weight gain, metabolic defects, and cognitive issues as sucrose did. Another study found a potential link between Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disease, and maltodextrin. Crohn’s disease has an association with dysbiosis, especially increases of E. coli bacteria and a decrease of certain beneficial strains and species of Firmicutes. The specific E.coli, known as adherent and invasive E. coli, seem to like maltodextrin as a fuel source. In this study, maltodextrin led to a significant enhancement of the biofilm formation and enhanced the adhesion of these bacteria to intestinal cells. Maltodextrin may also promote the colonization of Salmonella, as shown in a mouse study, ultimately priming the gut lining for the development of inflammatory bowel disease or other chronic inflammatory diseases.
This is just a short list of some of the common inactive ingredients with studies pointing to a potential correlation with disease. Some of these studies are cell studies, mechanistic, or animal studies, so you cannot automatically correlate that to real-world scenarios. However, when you are consuming something for your health on a daily basis over the long term, it is always beneficial to recognize any potential risks to your health and to continue to monitor the literature to see how it evolves.
How to Know You Are Taking Quality Supplements:
Taking the time to find good-quality supplements without the above ingredients and other potential problematic characteristics will ensure you gain the benefits and minimize the risks of supplements.
Here are a few steps to take:
- Read the labels: Look for the ingredients above and educate yourself on the different terms for both beneficial and harmful ingredients, so you do not get fooled.
- Choose organic sources when possible: Whenever possible, reduce toxicant contamination, such as from insecticides, pesticides, and GMOs.
- Check for third–party testing: It’s essential to have another set of analytical eyes to verify good manufacturing processes, standardization, and quality ingredients. According to one study of the 753 products reviewed, only 3.6% had been tested and verified by a third-party, such as USP, ConsumerLab and NSF International, the latter of which had not certified any products. Only eight companies of 197 had any products certified in this test. There are other third-party testers in addition to the main three.
- Contact the manufacturer: Take any questions you have about the ingredients and quality of the supplements directly to the source and ask the manufacturer.
A savvy consumer is a safe consumer. Educating yourself about what makes a quality supplement is one step toward ensuring you are putting only the best into your body. As always, talk with your doctor, nutritionist, or another informed healthcare practitioner before starting any supplementation. You can always ask their advice on finding quality supplements as well.