Look at any supplement bottle, and you will see the catch all phrase “other ingredients.” While this vague phrasing may trigger your suspicions, most fillers are actually harmless and necessary. But as consumer demand for transparency grows, it’s clear you have the right to know exactly what’s in your supplements.
The fancy name for fillers is excipients. According to American Pharmaceutical Review, an excipient has no medicinal value. “Its standard purpose is to streamline the manufacture of the drug product and ultimately facilitate physiological absorption of the drug. Excipients might aid in lubricity, flowability, disintegration, taste and may confer some form of antimicrobial function.” Here’s what you need to know.
Fillers are used to bulk up supplements. Fillers add substance when there’s not enough of the active ingredient to make a tab or fill a cap. Supplement manufacturers use fillers because without them the actual active ingredients would be barely visible. Common fillers include starch, calcium, salts and sugars like lactose. But fillers can include more controversial ingredients like silicon dioxide and corn maltodextrin.
Binders hold the ingredients in a tablet or capsule together. Without binders, supplements could crumble and break apart. One popular binder is gum Arabic, or acacia gum. This sticky, natural gum is made from the sap of an acacia tree and is also used as a stabilizer.
Supplements contain flow agents to help make the manufacturing process more efficient. They ensure capsules move through the process smoothly and prevent things from sticking to machinery. Magnesium stearate, a potential allergen for some, is commonly used as a flow agent because of its lubrication prowess. Flow agents help keep the cost of making supplements lower because they prevent manufacturing equipment from getting gunked up. They can also make pills easier to swallow and move more quickly down our digestive tract.
Acidulants are mainly used in liquid supplements – particularly those containing water, an ideal environment for microbial growth. They are typically organic acids that regulate acidity or lower pH and serve as preservatives, preventing harmful bacteria from growing. Some examples of acidulants include vinegar’s acetic acid, citric acid, naturally occurring in citrus fruit, and tartaric acid found in foods like grapes and tamarind.
The opposite of binders could be considered disintegrants. While you want your supplement to have binders before you ingest it, once you have consumed a supplement you want it to release its active ingredients and become fully absorbed by your body. Traditional disintegrants used in tablets are starch, hydrophilic cellulose derivatives, or pectins. Typically, a disintegrant works by rapidly dissolving when it comes into contact with water or other liquids.
Coatings & Glazes
Tablets tend to be coated in order to protect the ingredients from exposure to moisture or heat. Some glazes, like gelatin, make capsules easier to swallow. There’s also enteric coatings, formulated to help protect supplement ingredients from being released in the stomach or destroyed by stomach acid. Types of enteric coatings include wax and gelatin or plant fibers such as starch, plasticizers, or fatty acids. Enteric coatings keep the tablet or capsule intact until it reaches the less acidic small intestine. That’s where the action is: Most nutrient absorption takes place in the small intestine. Another practical perk of enteric coatings is they reduce the unpleasant aftertaste and burps caused by some supplements such as fish oil.
Beware of supplement manufactures that use artificial food colors in your supplements. Colors are added to enhance the appearance of a product, but food dyes have no place in a quality supplement. If you see an artificial color additive that starts with FD & C in the list of “other ingredients,” it’s worth switching to a supplement brand that favors safer, less toxic, natural-based coloring agents.
Along with artificial colors, artificial preservatives, such as parabens, benzoates, sorbates, and sulfites have no place in a quality natural supplement. But some kind of preservative is necessary for longer shelf-life and protect against unwanted bacteria. Some examples of natural preservatives are antioxidant vitamins like A, C and E, as well as their derivatives, such as citric acid. Specific sulphur amino acids like cysteine and methionine also function as natural preservatives.