Taking a daily dose of supplements to boost your health and wellbeing is good for you, right? Not, it turns out, necessarily. Sharon Walker investigates what we’re really swallowing
A dash of petroleum derivative, a sprinkle of talc, a soupçon of stearic acid - it doesn’t sound like a very appetising recipe does it? Yet that’s exactly what many of our most popular supplement brands are dishing up in their capsules and pills alongside their active ingredients. Granted the amounts are miniscule enough to be deemed safe, but if you’re eating a healthy wholefood diet, with half an eye on longevity, do you really want a cocktail of additives served up with your daily vitamins?
Propylene glycol, aluminium silicate and magnesium stearate to give them their proper names are thought to be linked to some pretty serious issues from damage to the kidneys, heart and nervous system (propylene glycol) to Alzheimer’s and cancer (aluminium silicate) to intestinal damage preventing the absorption of nutrients (magnesium stearate). Whichever way you look at it, these excipients are usually of no nutritional value and are only there to act as binding agents making the manufacturing process easier, or in the case of magnesium stearate, working as lubricants to stop the ingredients sticking to machinery.
“I don’t want all that stuff in my body,” says Dr Sara Palmer Hussey, the Cambridge University scientist behind the additive-free anti-ageing supplements Lumity Life. “That’s why I use gelatine capsules that the body can metabolise and use.” Vegetarians might blanch at this kind of “maximum bioavailability”– gelatine is derived by boiling the skin and bones of animals – just as they will want to give a wide berth to the anti-ageing collagen supplements made from animal hides and bones, or fish scales in the case of marine collagen. But vegan capsules made from chemically modified cellulose (hydroxypropyl methylcellulose), deliver a new set of challenges, says Palmer Hussey. “They are routinely plasticised and that’s a big no no.”
Despite these issues supplements are as popular as ever. The worldwide supplements market is worth a staggering 152 billion dollars, according to the market research company Statista and with Brits consuming 420 million pound’s worth in 2017, we are the biggest pill poppers in Europe. Some 58 per cent of the UK population has taken vitamins, minerals or dietary supplements in the last 12 months according to a 2017 Mintel report. Multivitamins and minerals are the most common, taken by 53 per cent of UK consumers, followed by Vitamin C (27 per cent) and Vitamin D (26 per cent).
As you’ve probably guessed by now, despite the pretty packaging and natural-sounding names “the only plant your vitamin pill has seen the inside of is a factory”, as award-winning US journalist Catherine Price writes in her book Vitamania, (Penguin, £12.86), published in 2015. It was when her husband one day asked: “What’s in a vitamin?” that Price realised she didn’t know and so set off to investigate. Of all her weird and not-so-wonderful discoveries, not much tops the mind-blowing weirdness of where our vitamins – the types in pills not food – actually come from.
That little vitamin D dynamo we take in the winter months to strengthen our bones –where does that come from if not sunshine? Most likely the same place as your cashmere sweater: via a wool factory in China. How so? Vitamin D is made from lanolin, the greasy stuff you find on wool – and China has cornered the market not only in manufacturing wool clothing, but also in manufacturing vitamins. And in case you’re wondering, the vitamin A in your pills has never seen the inside of a carrot; its raw ingredients include acetone and formaldehyde. While niacin or vitamin B3, good for lowering cholesterol and general health, is made from something called nylon 66 – a synthetic fibre also used in carpets, airbags and zip ties. While these synthetic forms of vitamins are chemically identical to the real thing (meaning our bodies can process them in exactly the same way), some experts aren’t so sure, hence the growing trend for ‘food state’ supplements, with companies like The Nue Co, The Beauty Chef and Wild Nutrition preferring to develop supplements derived from actual food.
“The scientific evidence is not strong for the use of supplements, whereas there is very strong evidence for the use of food, which is why we stick with wholefoods,” says The Beauty Chef scientist Mike Bridges, whose formulas focus on real fermented foods, favoured for their diversity of bacteria, to boost the immune system. “For auto-immune issues, such as eczema, double-blind studies show that in general there’s a positive effect.”
Similarly, the formulas at The Nue Co rely on organic foods, removing every unnecessary component, which means no fillers and absolutely no additives or unpronounceable ingredients. The brand’s vitamin C supplements have in fact seen the inside of a fruit, since they deliver the vitamin in the form of organic baobab fruit. A health-conscious food lover who grew up with a Columbian mother who treated swellings with raw potatoes and fevers with vinegar, The Nue Co founder Jules Miller was well versed in the medicinal powers of foods, but when it came to treating her IBS she turned to supplements and was disappointed by what she found.
“Whilst I was dutifully avoiding sugar, gluten, dairy and processed foods in my diet, I was actually consuming them all through my cocktail of supplements.” It was only when her grandfather pointed out the contradiction that she started examining the labels. “This totally blew my mind – I assumed everything in my supplements was ’doing me good’ and there for a reason. I dug a little deeper and found out (as a general rule) 50 per cent of a supplement will be active ingredients, but the other 50 per cent will be synthetic fillers, bulking agents and processed ingredients. Basically, nothing your body needs.”
Like Bridges Miller says the science comes down in favour of food. “We take tried-and-tested vitamin formulations, but remove all unnecessary preservatives, bulking agents and fillers, and replace the synthetic actives with powerful organic foods. The result is a supplement that your body recognises, is easily digested and absorbed, but best of all, works,” says Miller.
Vitamin C is actually a good example. “When you ingest a synthetic form of vitamin C like ascorbic acid, your body can only digest a tiny proportion of it – it’s not recognised in the same way that a food source is. Our Skin Food contains a blend of baobab, camu camu and lucuma, all of which are very high in vitamin C but since it’s a food, your body is able to recognise it and fully digest it. One teaspoonful contains 122 per cent of your recommended Vitamin C.”
Natural versus synthetic vitamins, and fillers and binders might be hotly debated in supplement circles, but worries over gelatine versus cellulose soon pale when you hear what’s going on at the more dubious end of the supplement market. Price dives in deep into the hidden world of supplementation and much of what she finds isn’t pretty. Her adventure includes poison squads, irradiated sheep grease and smuggled rats. She reports the heart-breaking evidence given by a woman who, in search of a good night’s sleep, took L-trytophan and ended up in a wheelchair – the Japanese company that produced the contaminated supplement paid about 200 billion dollars in damages to victims – and marvels that it took 100 people to die before the FDA banned the herbal metabolic stimulant ephedra.
Price isn’t the only researcher to uncover worrying practices. In 2013, a team of Canadian researchers at the University of Guelph used DNA barcoding to find out exactly what was in supplements. Of the 44 products they tested, a full third did not contain any of the ingredients listed on the label. They found echinacea containing a weed linked to rashes, nausea and flatulence, and ginkgo biloba supplements, promoted as memory enhancers, mixed with unlabelled nuts (a potential death sentence for people with nut allergies). Many supplements are spiked with prescription drugs and even illegal steroids, as Price discovered. The worst culprits were those claiming benefits for weight loss, body building or sexual enhancement.
The US supplements market sounds like a hit-and-miss Russian roulette of possibilities and the internet a positive Wild West (ephedra is still available online). But what’s going on in the UK? Supplements – which are classed as a food – must be ‘fit for consumption’ but the onus is on the brands to make sure they are safe; they are under no obligation to prove they work. Standards vary. Some supplements contain little or no active ingredients,others are so strong that people are accidentally overdosing, as The Independent reported last year, when it uncovered people taking megadoses of vitamin D, which they had bought online.
So where does that leave the hapless consumers? “Check the provenance of what you’re buying,” says Bridges. “If you buy a reputable brand, the owners will be working incredibly hard to make sure it’s safe and legal. In my experience 99.9 per cent of the industry operates well.”
Nutritional therapist Rick Hay, resident nutritionist at the ethical supplements company Fushi Wellbeing, recommends taking capsules rather than pills, as they don’t need as many binding agents, and choosing a 'clean' vegan alternative made from agar, which comes from seaweed. He also advises opting for supplements produced in the EU and other well-regulated countries like Australia and checking where they source their ingredients. “You get what you pay for to a certain degree. Check the label for co-factors which help the active ingredient work better. Good companies, if they are doing a turmeric supplement, won’t just use turmeric powder, for example, they’ll add curcumenoids and, as turmeric works better with pepper, they’ll add that too,” says Hay, who also warns against artificial colourings and “the wrong kinds of sweeteners”, particularly in collagen drinks. “It defeats the purpose of taking them,” he says. Check PubMed for brands that support their claims and formulas with research: www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/ – ‘gold standard’, double-blind, independent studies are best. And perhaps most important of all, don’t fall into the trap of believing any number of supplements can replace a healthy, varied diet.