Dietary Supplements 'Other Ingredients' Explained
When people are searching for a supplement they usually focus on the servings of the active ingredients and often overlook the ‘other ingredients’. These include additives such as sugar, artificial flavors and colors, and even ingredients most people cannot properly pronounce. Although it is imperative to know how the active ingredients will influence health, it is just as important to understand how the other substances in a supplement may affect the body. This blog will discuss the following ingredients that are frequently added to supplements:
- Silicon dioxide
- Stearic acid and magnesium stearate
Artificial flavors or colors
(e.g., yellow #5, yellow 6)
Sucrose is a common type of sugar that is made up of smaller sugar molecules called fructose and glucose. It actually consists of 50% fructose and 50% glucose . This natural carbohydrate is found in numerous fruits, grains, and vegetables, but it is most commonly extracted from sugar beets or cane sugar. It is a favorable sweetener because small amounts can be easily broken down and absorbed by the body. More specifically, the intestinal lining produces an enzyme called sucrase the splits sucrose into its smaller molecules, fructose and glucose. Sucrose is also a preferred form of sugar for food products because it is processed by the digestive tract before it enters the bloodstream, while fructose and glucose go straight to the blood stream. Furthermore, consuming too much glucose can raise blood sugar levels and eating large amounts of fructose (e.g., high-fructose corn syrup) can lead to increased levels of stored fat as well as additional health problems [1, 2].
Another common sugar additive is maltodextrin, which is a sweet white powder that is produced from wheat, potato starch, corn or rice. It also functions as a thickener and preservative. Unfortunately, the manufacturing process causes maltodextrin to become highly processed and the final product has a similar taste as corn syrup solids. Although maltodextrin is not as sweet as corn syrup it can cause blood sugar levels to spike and should be consumed with caution by people who have diabetes . It can also disrupt healthy bacterial growth in the gut and may make some people more susceptible to certain health issues .
Gelatin is another popular “other ingredient” found in some supplements. It is a form of protein that is typically extracted from the skin, ligaments, or tendons of pigs or cows. It is used to thicken formulas and to coat tablets or capsules. A substance known as agar, that is extracted from seaweed, is sometimes used in vegan products and is labeled as gelatin. Gelatin is generally considered safe as long as it is not consumed in large amounts .
Silicon dioxide is another substance that is frequently listed on the ‘other ingredients’ section of supplements. This natural substance, which is also called silica, is made up of oxygen (O2) and silicon. It is found in animal and human tissues, water, quartz, and plants . A wide variety of food products contain silicon dioxide because it functions as an anticaking agent that stops ingredients from clumping together. Though its name often causes worry among consumers, research has repeatedly demonstrated the safety of using silicon dioxide . More specifically, the kidneys flush silicon dioxide out of the body and therefore, it does not build up in body tissue or cause serious health problems .
Stearic Acid and Magnesium Stearate
Ingredients such as stearic acid and magnesium stearate are typically used to stabilize ingredients that are packaged in capsule or tablet form. Stearic acid is naturally found in coconut oil, cocoa butter, palm oil, and meat, but the extracted form undergoes processing that slightly changes some of its structural properties . However, stearic acid is not labeled as a harmful substance. Magnesium stearate is a combination of magnesium and stearic acid. It is often added to supplements to increase the digestion and absorption time of active ingredients to help the body better absorb the nutrients in the supplement . Supplements usually contain small amounts of these ingredients and they are not linked to dangerous health issues [7, 8].
Artificial Flavors or Colors
Artificial flavors or colors may be added to supplements for a number of reasons, but these chemical substances are linked to health problems that include :
- Food hypersensitivity
- Allergic reactions
- The worsening of asthmatic and ADHD symptoms
- Stomach discomfort (e.g., diarrhea, abdominal pain, vomiting)
Therefore, supplements that contain natural additives, flavors (e.g., cane sugar) and colors (e.g., beet juice) are healthier choices when food products are being purchased.
- Macdonald IA. A review of recent evidence relating to sugars, insulin resistance and diabetes. Eur J Nutr. 2016; 55(Suppl 2):17-23.
- Drozdowski LA, Thomson ABR. Intestinal sugar transport. World J Gastroenterol. 2006 Mar 21;12(11):1657-70.
- Hofman DL, van Buul VJ, Brouns FJ. Nutrition, Health, and Regulatory Aspects of Digestible Maltodextrins. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2016 ;56(12):2091-2100.
- Nickerson KP, McDonald C. Crohn's disease-associated adherent-invasive Escherichia coli adhesion is enhanced by exposure to the ubiquitous dietary polysaccharide maltodextrin. PLoS One. 2012;7(12):e52132.
- Djagny VB, Wang Z, Xu S. Gelatin: a valuable protein for food and pharmaceutical industries: review. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr 2001;41(6):481-92.
- European Food Safety Authority. Calcium silicate and silicon dioxide/silicic acid gel added for nutritional purposes to food supplements. The EFSA Journal. 2009;1132:1-24.
- Senyilmaz-Tiebe D, Pfaff DH, Virtue S, Schwarz KV, et al. Dietary stearic acid regulates mitochondria in vivo in humans. Nat Commun. 2018;9(1):3129.
- Hobbs CA, Saigo K, et al. Magnesium stearate, a widely-used food additive, exhibits a lack of in vitro and in vivo genotoxic potential. Toxicol Rep. 2017 4:554–559.
- Feketea G, Tsabouri S. Common food colorants and allergic reactions in children: Myth or reality? Food Chem. 2017;230:578-588.