What’s in Your Supplement? – They Are Not All Created Equal

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This article has been updated. It was originally posted August 2020.

Back in 2020, I had a client that came in with a natural supplement that contained carrageenan. I was very surprised. Many supplements do contain fillers and other excipients, however, carrageenan is a known stomach irritant. In fact, many food manufacturers had phased this ingredient out of their products just for this reason.

Since then, I have been hearing more stories about people ordering their supplements online only to find out they are counterfeit. Unfortunately, it is becoming a common occurrence and it is not easy to figure out. The label may look exactly like the original and the links on the website may seem legit, but the product inside may be a fake.

In the past, I always cautioned people to read supplement labels. (Below I list some other ingredients to watch out for.) However, just reading your label is no longer good enough. You also need to know your source. Don’t use third party suppliers unless you have really vetted them and, whenever possible, order direct from the manufacturer or through a practitioner.

I often talk about this when it comes to food, but it is just as important when it comes to supplements, whether they are vitamins, minerals, fish oils, protein powders, collagen, or other natural remedies. Depending on the quality and the source, supplements can include fillers, binders, artificial colors, synthetic (artificial) vitamins, and other undesirable tag-alongs. Who knows what else is in the fake supplements.

Common Fillers
To help you read your labels, I have listed some of the more common offenders, usually found in the “other ingredients” or “inactive ingredients” part of the label.

Before you purchase something new, be sure to read all the ingredients, not just the active ones. If you don’t recognize it, look it up.

  • Corn starch — typically from cheap GMO corn, can invoke allergic responses
  • Hydroxypropyl methylcellulose — a thickening agent
  • Magnesium stearate — used by manufacturers as a cheap lubricating agent (in their machines), may contain formaldehyde, research and clinical practice shows it to be immune compromising
  • Maltodextrin — often derived from GMO corn, has higher glycemic index than table sugar
  • Methylacrylic copolymer — methacrylic acid, a component of the methacrylic acid copolymer
  • Methylparaben — a type of benzoate, a known cancer-causing agent
  • Methyl p-hydroxybenzoate — a preservative
  • “Other Ingredients” — can include things like talcum powder (suspected carcinogen), dyes (can invoke allergic responses), etc.
  • Pharmaceutical glaze — can be derived from insects, corn and/or beeswax, can contain denatured alcohol, waxes and titanium dioxide, not digestible by stomach acid (sometimes used purposely to bypass stomach for absorption)
  • Polyethylene glycol — a cheap lubricating agent
  • Polyvinylpyrrolidone — a synthetic polymer used as a dispersing and suspending agent
  • Propylparaben — a potential endocrine disruptor
  • Silicon dioxide — a cheap flowing agent used in manufacturing (common sand), insoluble and not digestible
  • Sodium acetate — a seasoning
  • Sodium metabisulfite — a preservative
  • Stearic acid — can cause irritation in some but mostly if used topically
  • Titanium dioxide — used for color, can accumulate in the body and be liver compromising
  • Triethyl citrate — a plasticizer

Not everyone is going to be sensitive to every ingredient listed above, but if you are truly trying to improve your health you want to use the purest supplements with the best quality possible.

Synthetic Vitamins
Did you know that not all vitamins are created equal? Less expensive supplements often include synthetic vitamins, which are man-made instead of the real thing, because they are cheaper to make. Examples include folic acid (instead of real folate), Vitamin D2 (instead of natural D3), cyanocobalamin (less absorbable B12), Vitamin A, Vitamin E, etc.

Vitamin C is another tricky one. Many vitamin C products are made from ascorbic acid, which is most commonly made from GMO (genetically modified) corn. You really need to know the source of the ascorbic acid. (That is one reason I am not a big fan of high-dose vitamin C protocols, at least not for long periods of time.) A better Vitamin C option would be from a whole food source such as camu camu or rose hips.

Even typical cod liver oils (CLOs) found in most stores contain synthetic Vitamins A and D2 (as compared to fermented CLO and other professional-grade CLOs that retain their original A and D3) . Your body does not recognize synthetic vitamins so they can eventually cause more harm than good, especially when taken long term.

Difference in Quality
Not all professional grade supplements are created equal either. Even though professional grade supplements are typically more potent than more common store bought ones, these can still include fillers, excipients, and allergens.

Read your labels. You want products free of unnecessary dyes, preservatives, fillers, binders, and the other things mentioned above. It is also good to look for labels that indicate GMO-free, gluten-free, and dairy-free. Many labels additionally indicate if it is vegetarian or vegan. Certified organic is optimal.

Know your Source
Make sure you are getting supplements from a quality source. Avoid third-party retailers and online discount sources unless you have verified the source. Supplement scammers are savvy, making fake products look totally really. Plus discounted supplements are very enticing.

Sometimes it is obviously different once you open the bottle. The capsules may look different than your last bottle. Or, you may notice the new supplement does not work like the last bottle you used. Even then you may not be sure. If you think you may have a counterfeit supplement, directly contact the manufacturer and they can verify if that source is legitimate.

You are also welcome to use my professional on-line dispensary to get 10% off your supplements. Go to FullScript to create a free account and order at any time. (Look for “my favorites” to find the supplements with the fewest fillers.) You can also order directly from BIORAY, which is a great liquid herbal supplement line especially for kids, at 10% off using this link and the code LDFH10.

Consider stocking up on immune system basics such as probiotics, Vitamin C, D3 and K2, quality cod liver oil, herbal antimicrobials, etc.

This article was written by Sharon K. Harmon, PhD, founder of Life Design for Health. As a “Health Designer” she has a passion for helping people find their way back to optimum health by looking at the body from a unique perspective. Please contact her if you would like to know more. There is a great deal of health-related information in her blog articles and on her website, including a healing foods and pantry list and recipes that are gluten-free, dairy-free and GMO-free. She is also passionate about EMF safety.

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