Americans are awash in a sea of supplements. From prescription drugs, to diet aids, to everyday vitamins and mineral supplements, Americans are more focused on well being than ever before. A recent Gallup poll concluded that over half of Americans take vitamins regularly, but research also suggests that we’re spending billions of dollars yearly on supplements that actually don’t work.
Walk into nearly any general retail store and you will see shelves overflowing with vitamins and herbal supplements, usually demanding more shelf space than essential goods like bread, milk, and water. What marketing firms and retailers want you to think is that the shelf space represents the importance of these products, but in reality, it is simply because the health supplement industry is a mind-blowingly big business.
Like other consumer goods, not all supplements are created equal. Some are more effective than others, and some are altogether rubbish, bilking eager consumers out of their hard earned money, yet providing zero tangible results.
The trick is to know what to look for. The three most important considerations are purity of product, potency of product, and accurate labeling of ingredients. By slightly manipulating these three core aspects, supplement companies can increase profits and decrease efficacy, and largely without the knowledge of the buying public.
Why Is Purity So Important?
By definition, purity is “free from adulteration or contamination”. But many products claim only a certain percentage of purity, such as 80 percent pure. But what does this really mean, since the definition of purity is that the product is free from contamination?
The truth is, nothing is 100 percent pure. The highest percentage of purity is 99.99 percent, so any supplement claiming to be 100 percent pure should automatically be eliminated from your decision to purchase.
The percentage of purity relates to the amount of active compound, and companies often add other elements that can affect the efficacy of the product. Sometimes an additive can aid the compound in producing results, and other times it can inhibit its efficacy, the trick is to become informed about what additives lend to the efficacy of the supplement you’re taking.
Unfortunately, many supplements include harmful impurities, added to reduce production costs and increase profits for the manufacturer, but ultimately to the detriment of the consumer.
In these cases, it is important to distinguish between the two most common types of impurities, contaminants and preservatives and excipients.
The difficulty in preventing contaminants is that there are so many companies that touch the compounds that make up the supplement before it reaches the consumer. Contaminants can occur when the processing of the supplement is done in a low quality way, and this can occur at any given point in the production.
First, the raw material is collected. Next, it is usually processed and purified in a different facility. Many of these facilities are located in countries that do not adhere to the standards imposed on United States based companies; thus, they are often found to cut corners and produce an inferior product as a result.
A 2011 report by the World Health Organization revealed that several batches of an additive, magnesium stearate, contained other compounds deemed toxic. These compounds were calcium hydroxide, a chemical commonly found in hair relaxing products, bisphenol- A, the toxic chemical used to make plastics more pliable – otherwise known as BPA-, and irganox 1010, a chemical that has been found to have potential developmental toxicity.
Finding a supplement source that is both reliable and well respected in the industry is an incredibly important step in combatting toxic impurities in your supplements.
In the case of preservatives and excipients, these are usually quite necessary to the stability and viability of the supplement. For example, pure vitamin D is approximately 40,000,000 units per gram, which is 40,000 per milligram, yet the suggested daily allowance of vitamin D is only 600 to 800 milligrams. Since it is quite impossible for the average consumer to measure out 600 milligrams of vitamin D without sophisticated equipment, companies package it inside a more user-friendly capsule alongside other innocuous ingredients.
Magnesium stearate is under scrutiny by some who claim that it can affect the intestines and inhibit the proper absorption of nutrients. Research has shown that this additive can suppress T cells in the body, thereby inhibiting your immune system. Studies as old as 1990 have found that stearic acid compromises the integrity of the cell’s membrane, which can lead to the death of the cell.
Preservatives in your supplements can also be dangerous. Two preservatives deemed dangerous by the scientific community, however not yet by the FDA, are sodium benzoate and potassium sorbate. These two substances are used as preservatives in a lot of the liquid supplements being sold.
Sodium benzoate is deemed safe by the FDA, mainly because it is used in small amounts to preserve food. However, when sodium benzoate is combined with ascorbic acid (vitamin C) it forms a compound called benzene, a known carcinogen. Benzene has been found to cause leukemia and other cancers of the blood.
Potassium sorbate, while generally considered a safe food preservative, as of lately has been found to have some toxicity. This chemical is found in foods like baked goods, canned vegetables, and certain cheeses. Studies are showing that potassium sorbate can actually cause some long-term health problems like damage to white blood cells, damage to DNA that can lead to mutations like cancer, and like sodium benzoate, a reaction to vitamin C that can compound the dangers.
Dietary supplements are important to our health, especially in the modern age of fat-laden, nutrient-poor food options around every turn. But, if you’re using supplements to supplement merely a poor diet, you may actually be doing more harm than good.
It’s important to do your due diligence before buying a supplements, checking closely its purity, and researching any additives. Also, be aware that many times a less scrupulous company will exclude additives in an effort to make their product more attractive. It is important to buy from reputable companies in good standing with their consumers and governing bodies.