Vitamin and Mineral Supplements

February 8, 2015 Updated: August 1, 2015

A New York Times article last week titled, Stupid Pills, by Timothy Egan points out how many people take vitamin and mineral supplements in an industry that is minimally regulated. While drugs have to be proven to be effective before they are sold to the public, dietary supplements do not. In the article, some retailers were reported to be selling products, such as echinacea, with no echinacea in it, and a Ginkgo biloba DNA product made up of “a mixture of rice, mustard, wheat, and radish”. 

While some health professionals believe that we need vitamin and mineral supplements to fill in nutritional gaps, others claim that we can obtain all of the nutrition that we need from whole foods that are not processed.  The belief is that vitamins and minerals in particular foods work synergistically, meaning that they work as a team to provide nutrients to our body.  From this line of reasoning it would follow that consuming vitamins and minerals in isolation in supplements or in fortified form provide little, if any health benefit.  There is a question of whether isolated supplements and fortified nutrients may actually be recognized by the body.  In that event they will not be absorbed and can lead to allergies. At best synthetic vitamins may be absorbed less well than vitamins found in whole foods.  Some food for thought.

Jeanne M. Wallace, Ph.D., CNC wrote a most informative article – Selecting High Quality Dietary Supplements: Finding the Products and Companies You Can Trust – that educates the reader on how supplements are manufactured and provides another way to think about supplementation. The following is her description of the manufacturing process, some of the potential health risks, and ways that they are being addressed:

  • Fillers are used to fill up empty spaces in capsules or tablets. Some are considered food-grade such as corn starch and cellulose, while others are non-food grade, including silicon and talc. Non-food fillers can lead to digestive or absorption problems, while food-fillers can cause allergies or food sensitivities.
  • Flowing agents or lubricants prevent raw materials from clumping. Lubricants also are used to prevent tablets from sticking to machinery during manufacturing. Some lubricants may reduce the level of vitamin and mineral absorption in the body since they increase the time it takes for supplements to dissolve.
  • Binders, which hold ingredients together in tablets, are generally recognized as safe by the FDA. But, one called acacia or gum Arabic has been associated with mild to severe asthma attacks, rashes, and allergies in some individuals.
  • Disintegrants are added to help break down tablets after consuming them. Modified cellulose, which swell when wet, typically is used and no risks have been reported.
  • Colorants provide a uniform appearance to supplements. Natural coloring agents such as beets, carrots, or chlorophyll are recommended over synthetic dyes.
  • Flavors/sweeteners are usually added to liquid and chewable tablets, and some powdered mixes.
  • Coating materials protect tablets from moisture, crumbling, and help mask unpleasant flavors or odors. Most coatings are made of gelatin, an animal by-product, while vegetarian gel caps are made from potato extract.

Dr. Wallace points out that in recent years a number of companies have tried to address some of the risks associated with supplementation.  One is to manufacture different capsule sizes to avoid the need for fillers.  Such supplements are referred to as “pure encapsulation.”  Some companies also have developed processes that eliminate the need for flowing agents and binders. These are major steps in the supplementation process, but still we have unanswered questions about just how effective supplements are.  If one is to choose the route of supplementation, use them with the idea that they may, in fact, fill in nutritional gaps, but that we should strive to eat a healthy whole foods diet for optimal nutrition.