Many additives, excipients, and fillers are used in the supplement industry to improve the product’s stability, appearance, shelf-life, and ease of use.
Pretty much all of these are GRAS, that is generally recognized as safe. They’re regulated by such entities as the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Yet the facts are that most of them are far removed from anything natural, and are ultra-processed. But it’s not always easy to tell what is more natural and what is completely synthetic.
Most people, if they read labels at all, see these things regularly. But we could say this stuff is hidden in plain sight because almost no one knows what these ingredients actually are. This article aims to inform you on what an ingredient is, how it’s used, and some of the potential downsides they bring.
Here’s a list of 28 common supplement ingredients, mostly in capsules, tablets, softgels and the like, but not exclusively.
The Ones Lost Empire Herbs Uses
Lost Empire Herbs does not use the majority of these, but there are some exceptions which are listed below in the first few.
- Maltodextrin: A filler and sometimes used for its solubility properties. Included in a number of Lost Empire Herbs products, particularly the Chinese herbs because of its spray drying liquid into powder abilities. A full breakdown of maltodextrin and its risks can be found here.
- Rice Flour: Commonly used as a filler, especially in capsules. Rice flour is quite innocuous, especially if sourced from organically grown rice, unless for the strictest Paleo or Carnivores. Generally safe, but those with rice allergies or intolerances should avoid it. We use organic rice flour inside of our Tongkat Ali capsules simply because they need to be filled with more than the small amount of Tongkat. The powder does not contain any flour.
- Silicon Dioxide: An anti-caking agent that prevents clumping. Generally considered safe; however, inhaling fine particles is a concern in industrial settings. Consumption in food and supplements hasn’t been linked to significant health risks. Silicon dioxide is a major component of sand and quartz. There is a small amount (under 2%) of this found in our Beet Juice Powder.
- Gelatin: Often used for making capsule shells. Derived from animal parts, it is the cooked form of collagen. Unfortunately, gelatin in capsules is hard to find quality, healthy, grass-fed sources from. Obviously, gelatin use is a concern for vegetarians and vegans. Gelatin capsules are used in an upcoming product we’re releasing.
The Ones Lost Empire Herbs Does Not Use
- Hydroxypropyl Methylcellulose (HPMC): Made from cellulose, primarily derived from wood sources or cotton, and treated with methyl chloride and propylene oxide. Quite modified to be called veggie capsules. Still they’re widely used as an alternative to gelatin. Safe for most, but can cause bloating, gas, and other digestive issues in large amounts. See more at Are Capsules, Pills, Tablets Good for You? and why most of our capsules are made with Pullulan instead.
- Stearic Acid: A saturated fatty acid that is used as a binder, emulsifier and lubricant. Commercial production often involves the hydrogenation of unsaturated fatty acids derived from vegetable oils, mostly GMO produced. There’s some debate about its potential impact on heart health and cholesterol levels.
- Magnesium Stearate: Magnesium stearate is a salt that results from the combination of magnesium ion with stearic acid, therefore what is mentioned for applies here. Used as a lubricant to prevent ingredients from sticking to manufacturing equipment. Although generally regarded as safe, some reports suggest it may suppress the immune system, increase biofilm formation, inhibit certain enzymes or decrease nutrient absorption.
- Microcrystalline Cellulose: A wood pulp derivative. Produced by treating alpha-cellulose, extracted from plant fibers, with mineral acids for partial hydrolysis. Primarily used as an excipient in the production of tablets and capsules. It acts as a filler, binder, and sometimes as a disintegrant, helping tablets to break down and release their medicinal components upon ingestion. It might cause digestive issues, like bloating or gas, for those with sensitive stomachs.
- Calcium Phosphate: Used as a filler, anti-caking agent and to provide bulk to tablets. Sometimes used as a nutritional supplement for calcium. Either extracted from rock or synthesized by the reaction of calcium hydroxide with phosphoric acid. Overconsumption can lead to higher calcium levels, potentially affecting kidney function and leading to calcium deposits in the body. Some argue that some forms are not bioavailable to the human body.
- Glycerin: A colorless, odorless, viscous liquid that is sweet-tasting and non-toxic. Often used in softgels for its humectant (moisture retaining) properties. Also acts as a preservative. Safe for most, but excessive consumption can cause diarrhea and digestive upset. Is used to make glycerites (basically tinctures that use glycerin instead of alcohol) for other herbal preparations.
Commercially, it’s primarily produced as a by-product in the manufacture of biodiesel through the transesterification of triglycerides in fats and oils. It can also be produced synthetically from propylene. Lastly, and most naturally, it can be made through direct saponification of vegetable oils. Therefore, there are quality concerns due to source and possible contamination.
- Titanium Dioxide: Titanium dioxide is extracted, using sulfuric acid or chlorination, from titanium ore (such as rutile) through mining. It is used as a whitening agent especially in capsules and tablets. It’s chemically inert, insoluble in water, and thermally stable. There are concerns especially about its nanoparticle form being a potential carcinogen when inhaled, but evidence on ingestion is less clear. Some studies suggest potential gut inflammation.
- Talc: Talc is a hydrated magnesium silicate.It’s characterized by its softness, hydrophobicity (water-repellent nature), and ability to absorb oils and grease. Used as a lubricant and anti-adhesive. Much talc is contaminated with asbestos, a known carcinogen. (Just ask Johnson & Johnson about their baby powder). Food-grade talc should be free of this contaminant.
- Xanthan Gum: Xanthan gum is a polysaccharide, produced by the fermentation of glucose or sucrose by the bacterium Xanthomonas campestris. It serves as a thickening agent and stabilizer. Safe for most, but can cause digestive upset in some individuals.
- Guar Gum: It’s a polysaccharide composed of sugars galactose and mannose. The guar seeds are mechanically dehusked, hydrated, milled, and screened to obtain the guar gum. A binder, thickener, stabilizer and disintegrant in tablets. Some people may experience gastrointestinal issues like bloating, gas, or cramps, particularly when consumed in large quantities.
- Acacia Gum (Gum Arabic): Acacia gum is harvested from wild Acacia trees, primarily found in the Sahelian belt of Africa. The gum is collected from incisions made in the tree bark then cleaned, sorted, and processed into various grades for commercial use. Used as a binder, emulsifier, and thickening agent. Also used as a demulcent (soothes irritated mucous membranes). Mostly safe but can cause minor gastrointestinal symptoms in some individuals.
- Carrageenan: Carrageenan is a family of linear sulfated polysaccharides extracted from certain species of red seaweed (marine red algae). It is widely used for its gelling, thickening, and stabilizing properties. Some research suggests it might cause inflammation, digestive problems, and possibly be linked to larger health issues like cancer, though evidence is mixed. The safety of different forms of carrageenan (food-grade vs. degraded, known as poligeenan) is important.
- Potassium Sorbate: Potassium sorbate is the potassium salt of sorbic acid, treated with lye or potassium hydroxide. It is widely used as a preservative. Some people might experience allergic reactions or digestive disturbance. There are concerns about its carcinogenicity and that it might react with other ingredients, particularly ascorbic acid (vitamin C), to form potentially harmful by-products.
- Citric Acid: Citric acid occurs naturally in citrus fruits. However, it’s mostly produced by fermentation, most commonly using the mold Aspergillus niger (black mold!), which ferments sugars from corn or molasses. Used as a preservative and for flavor. Generally safe but might cause stomach cramps or acid reflux in sensitive individuals, or those with mold issues. Mostly produced using GMO ingredients.
- Sodium Benzoate: Sodium benzoate is produced by the neutralization of benzoic acid, which is itself synthesized from toluene, with sodium hydroxide. Benzoic acid can also be extracted from gum benzoin and other natural sources, although synthetic routes are more common. Another preservative. Can form benzene, a carcinogen, when mixed with vitamin C. Additional concerns that it might exacerbate ADHD symptoms in some children.
- Ascorbyl Palmitate: Commercially produced by reacting ascorbic acid (vitamin C) with palmitic acid. An antioxidant and preservative. Typically safe but might cause digestive upset in large amounts. There are concerns that its effectiveness as vitamin C is lower than other forms.
- Beeswax: Beeswax is a natural wax produced by honey bees. It consists mainly of esters of fatty acids and various long-chain alcohols. Used in softgel formulations as a thickening agent. Also used for salves and ointments and tablet coatings. Allergic reactions are possible but rare. There are concerns about contaminants like pesticides or chemicals from beekeeping practices being present in the wax.
- Soy Lecithin: Soy lecithin is a complex mixture of phospholipids derived from soybean oil, extracted with hexane then purified. Acts as an emulsifier and stabilizer. Soy allergies are fairly common. Concerns exist about GMO sources and potential hormone disruption (while most phytoestrogens are removed, not all are). On the flip side, lecithin is a healthy part of the human diet.
- Dicalcium Phosphate: The primary production method involves the treatment of phosphate rock with a mineral acid, such as sulfuric acid, followed by neutralization with calcium hydroxide. Another method involves the hydrochloric acid digestion of animal bones, followed by a precipitation process. Used as a tableting agent. Also used to provide calcium and phosphorus in multi-mineral supplements. Overconsumption can interfere with the absorption of other essential minerals. When produced from phosphate rock, there can be concerns about contamination with heavy metals like lead or arsenic. Some people report mild gastrointestinal distress, such as nausea or constipation.
- Polyethylene Glycol: PEG is synthesized through a polymerization process of ethylene glycol, a compound derived from petroleum. Used as a lubricant and in coatings. Can cause diarrhea and abdominal discomfort if consumed in large amounts. There are added concerns about the potential toxicity of PEG, especially when contaminated with ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane, which are known carcinogens.
- Mannitol: A sugar alcohol produced commercially by the hydrogenation of fructose, which can be derived from corn syrup. It can also be extracted from natural sources like seaweeds and mushrooms, although this is less common. A filler and sweetening agent. Has a laxative effect so overconsumption can lead to bloating, diarrhea, and abdominal pain.
- Sorbitol: Another sugar alcohol. Commercially produced by the hydrogenation of glucose, which can be sourced from corn syrup or other starches. It also occurs naturally in some fruits and berries. Used as a sweetening agent and humectant. Known to cause digestive issues, including gas, bloating, and diarrhea, especially in sensitive individuals.
- Beta-Carotene: Beta-carotene is a carotenoid, a pigment found in plants. Can be extracted from naturally rich sources like carrots and algae but is often synthetically products, in a complicated process using acetylene and chloroform. It’s a provitamin A, meaning it can be converted into vitamin A in the body. Used for color. Excessive consumption, particularly from supplements, can lead to carotenemia, a condition where the skin turns orange-yellow.
- Artificial Colors: Also known as food colorings or dyes, these, are synthetically produced to enhance the appearance of food products as well as supplements. Most artificial colors are derived from petroleum or coal tar sources that go through complex chemical processes. Common artificial colors include Red 3, Red 40, Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Blue 1, Blue 2, Green 3. These have been implicated as carcinogens, allergens and potentially causing hyperactivity and behavioral issues in children.
While many of these are synthetic, ultra processed and of questionable origins, it is best to keep any concerns of these into context. If you’re not eating a perfectly clean diet (and how many people really are?) small amounts of these are likely not that problematic. The net-benefit of a good supplement or herb, even if it contains these things, is likely on the positive side.
That being said, when possible it is great to avoid some of the worst offenders here completely if possible. That would include artificial colors, PEG, and sodium benzoate, in my opinion.
Next up on the list would be magnesium stearate, stearic acid, potassium sorbate, talc, and anything GMO ingredient produced.
Informed consent requires the information to make the right choices for yourself and where you are at. Part of our mission at Lost Empire Herbs is not just to provide quality herbs, but to help deliver to customers the necessary knowledge to make the best health choices.