As Zig Zigler often said, “good things are seldom cheap, and cheap things are seldom good.” When it comes to nutritional supplements, that statement couldn’t be truer.
Just as with processed food products, consumers are misled every day by companies pimping low-quality nutritional products. Have you ever wondered why once-per-day multivitamins can be as cheap as $8 per month, where professional quality multivitamins can be as much as $30-60 per month? Or how a massive bag of one brand of protein powder can be 1/3 as much per pound as another brand?
Part of the difference in savings stems from the companies who make the products. Many manufacturers cut a variety of corners in the ingredient testing and production process. Other ways to reduce costs is to use low-quality ingredients.
8 Ingredients Supplement Companies Use to Cut Corners
The following are 8 ingredients you’ll see on the labels of low-quality nutritional products. I’ve also outlined what to look for if you’re searching for a quality product instead.
One of the first tell-tale signs of a low-quality protein powder or a pre or post-workout drink, is the use of carrageenan.
Carageenan comes from seaweed, so it must be healthy, right? Not so much. Carageenan has been shown to cause inflammation in the digestive system, intestinal lesions and even malignant tumors in animal studies.
Carageenan is used in protein powders (as well as other dairy and non-dairy products) as a thickener to help low-fat foods feel more creamy or fatty in the mouth. It also helps stabilize liquid beverages like ready-to-drink protein drinks and other liquids.
As for powdered protein products, it simply isn’t necessary. If you see a protein powder with carrageenan, leave it on the store shelf.
For more information on carrageenan, check out this report by the Cornucopia Institute.
2. Artificial Colors
Science shows people believe foods taste better when the color matches the taste they’re supposed to have. A red, strawberry-flavored protein shake, tastes more like strawberry when people see it as they drink it.
The trouble is, many low-quality nutritional and food products continue to use artificial colors, which are most commonly linked to ADHD, but could lead to other problems.
Natural colors are available. For example, beet juice makes red, but costs far more than red #40. Many flavored powders have no color. If you close your eyes and drink them, you’d never know, but some people think they don’t taste as good without the colors.
The short-term satisfaction that comes from drinking something you think tastes better because of the food coloring in it, isn’t worth the long-term risk of consuming foods with artificial colors. In many other countries, you wouldn’t have the option as they’re not allowed for use. The United States is often more lax with such things.
3. Whey Produced with Hormones
Cows treated with hormones produce more milk. If each cow produces more milk, volumes go up and prices go down. There’s a significant differences in the price of whey or casein (or milk in general) from dairy sources that still use hormones.
Not only is this bad news for the cows, there’s also significant debate about the potential effects such dairy might have on humans.
4. Folic Acid
Folic acid is a synthetic compound intended to increase the body’s levels of folate. Studies suggest that a large percentage of the population cannot convert folic acid to folate.
In fact, there’s evidence that folic acid intake may lead to development of cancer. Chris Kresser wrote a great post on the topic of folic acid — check it out.
Fortunately, you can get the benefits of higher folate levels without the risks of folic acid. Two forms of folate can be found in quality nutritional products, Metafolin® or 5-MTHF (5-methyltetrahydrofolate). I wouldn’t buy a product that didn’t use one of these two forms of folate.
Take a quick glance at the label. If it says folic acid, I wouldn’t use it. If it just says “folate” on the label, check the “other ingredients” where you will probably see “folic acid” listed.
Cyancobalamin is a very cheap, synthetic, ineffective form of vitamin B12. Up to 40% of the population is deficient in vitamin B12, and vegetarians are much more likely to be deficient in this nutrient.
In fact, I recently came across a paper in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition that outlined the details of a patient with delirium. After a long process to determine the cause, it was found to be a deficiency in vitamin B12 from her vegetarian diet.
While cyancobalamin is technically vitamin B12, and on a label leaves one thinking they’re getting a sufficient amount of vitamin B12, that’s unlikely to be the case.
Look for nutritional supplements that use methylcobalamin rather than cyancobalamin. Methylcobalamin is the bioactive form of vitamin B12, so it’s absorbed in a form ready for immediate use.
Just remember, as with products that use Metafolin or 5-MTHF instead of folic acid, those that use methylcobalamin use an ingredient that costs many times more than cyancobalamin. Natural News has a more detailed article on the difference between the two if you’re interested in reading more.
6. Artificial Sweeteners
Most people will never have the displeasure of tasting plain, unflavored amino acids, vitamins, minerals, whey protein or other ingredients in nutritional supplements.
Pure extracts, amino acids and plain protein powders taste somewhere between “not very good” and “putrid.” As a result, flavoring and sweetening these products is important for making them tolerable.
You can do amazing things with artificial flavors and sweeteners. But I can’t recommend using artificial sweeteners or flavors. There are just too many potential health concerns.
Artificial sweeteners, including sucralose, acesulfame-potassium (Ace-K) and aspartame are the most common artificial sweeteners found in nutritional supplements.
Instead, look for products sweetened with stevia. Because stevia has a somewhat bitter aftertaste, supplements often include a gram or two of some kind of sugar to buffer this.
The result is a great tasting nutritional supplement without the potentially harmful artificial sweeteners or flavors.
7. Magnesium Stearate
Magnesium stearate is used by the vast majority of supplement manufacturers. Its purpose is to help powder flow through manufacturing equipment more efficiently.
Since the powders flow through the equipment easier, the equipment can be run faster, allowing manufacturers to produce more product in less time. The result is less cost, and a cheaper product.
Magnesium stearate basically creates a fatty bubble around the nutrients it’s included in. Studies show the use of magnesium stearate reduces the absorption of some nutrients.
You can have the highest quality forms of nutrients, but then by using magnesium stearate, you might not absorb them as well.
Other than the benefit of making more product in less time, there is no benefit for magnesium stearate whatsoever. The drawback is a reduction in nutrient absorption. You’ll find this listed under the “other ingredients” section of a nutrient label.
8. Vitamin E as Only Alpha-Tocopherol
There are about eight forms of vitamin E. Low-quality supplements usually use only alpha-tocopherol rather than mixed tocopherols.
Mixed tocopherols cost a lot more, and they also take up more space in a capsule, which can further drive up the cost of the product. However, we need the mix of vitamin E forms in our diet, as that’s how they’re found in nature as well.
In fact, it’s quite possible that much of the negative press about vitamin E in recent years is a result of so many supplement companies using only alpha-tocopherol.
10/29/13 Addition to article:
In dry capsules (like a multivitamin), Thorne has found it to be nearly impossible to add mixed tocopherols to dry powders because we don’t use flowing agents like magnesium stearate. Mixed tocopherols are generally produced in an oil form, and converting them to a dry powder still leaves a little “gumminess” to the material. Without a flowing agent, this causes the manufacturing equipment to gum up.
Mixed tocopherols are used in several of the oil based products, but at this time, Thorne doesn't have access to a raw material that will work with their very strict manufacturing standards.
End of addition
Thanks for reading. If you have questions about these ingredients, or other questions about nutritional supplements, share them in the comment section below.