When we need to get vitamins or minerals or other supplements, many of us will head to the pharmacy, chemist or even to the supermarket. We’ll look at shelf upon shelf of bottles and boxes. Some will have fancy fonts, others bright colours. They all promise something unique. They all promise better health.
But what if I let you in on a shocking secret?
Many of those supplements aren’t as good as you think they are, and there’s a good chance that the choice you make will be based on polished marketing and promotion efforts rather than actual content of those pills and powders.
What you’ll find in this article
- Key insights from an industry expert
- Do you know what’s in your supplements?
- A capsule or tablet can only fit so much
- The cost of different ingredients and its impact on quality
- Why do brands choose cheaper ingredients if they’re less effective?
- Excipients and undesirable ingredients to watch out for
- Will the product you buy really do what it says on the packaging?
- Get smart, not angry
- How can I be a savvy supplement consumer?
Key insights from an industry expert
I work as a product development and a regulatory affairs consultant for the health and wellness industry. I advise many different companies – from small start-ups through to well-established superbrands – on trends and best practises. I help them create cutting-edge products with novel ingredients.
I’m determined to help those brands and the industry at large up their game to deliver quality products.
But until everything on the shelf is actually of a decent quality, here are some insights into how you can better understand why this is an issue, and then do something about finding better quality stuff.
Do you know what’s in your supplements?
A lot of people have no idea what’s actually in their supplements. They may fully trust that because it’s a medicine, it’s completely healthy and that every ingredient is in there for a reason.
All products – here in Australia at least – do go through a rigorous regulatory system. It’s one of the most thorough regulatory frameworks in the world for vitamins, supplements and the likes (complementary and alternative medicines or nutraceuticals, if that’s more your language).
This means that you can buy products off the shelves with some confidence. Everything that’s legally allowed to be sold on the shelves is supported by scientific evidence. If it says that it ‘improves immunity’, then the brand needs to be able to support that claim with credible studies.
But nonetheless, there are a few surprising things going on.
The products you think are fantastic might not be as amazing as you actually think they are. In order to cut costs, they might contain filler ingredients that aren’t even good for you. They might not contain enough of an ingredient to actually fulfil the health claims that they make.
And despite there being some sort of regulatory framework in place, some products slip through the gaps and still make it onto the shelves.
A capsule or tablet can only fit so much
When companies make a new supplement, their first consideration is: how much of a key ingredient can we fit into a tablet or capsule or serve? If they’re making health claims and want to meet the RDI (recommended daily intake) for each ingredient, this is really important.
Did you know that a typical capsule might only hold 750 milligrams, maybe 1,000 milligrams at a push?
So if a company tries to bring together lots of different ingredients, particularly macronutrients (like magnesium and calcium), the reality is they’re just not going to fit in at a quantity that’s really going to do anything.
There’s not going to be a therapeutic dose.
If we look at calcium, for example, the RDI is 1,000-1,300mg. You could just about squeeze in enough calcium to a tablet or large capsule to get your RDI, but that’s it. There’s no space for anything else.
With magnesium the RDI is 310-420mg, so again the amount that’s going to fit into a capsule or tablet is limited. Let’s imagine a big capsule that contains one of the highest quality and well-absorbed forms of magnesium, which is magnesium citrate. Because of the composition of magnesium citrate, you can only fit 150 milligrams equivalent magnesium into a big capsule with nothing else.
Suddenly it’s easier to understand why in some cases you need to take more than one tablet to get your RDI. To hit your daily target. You’d likely need to take three magnesium citrate pills.
But what about the extra space that’s now been created? Don’t we need some additional things in there to fill our tablets or capsules?
Absolutely. Companies will usually do one of two things:
- include additional ingredients in there to either enhance their impact and health claims, or
- include additional ingredients that do next to nothing (or worse still, are less than ideal). The term we use for this is ‘fairy dust’.
What’s with Point 2, you might ask?
It’s the next part of what a company has to consider, and it’s more often than not related to cost.
The cost of different ingredients and its impact on quality
Each of those products you’re looking at on the pharmacy shelf are made by brands and companies who – like any business – want to keep their costs down. Each brand will have its own values and ethics and strategic direction, and the products it brings to market will come out of that.
As with any consumable, the pricing margin needs to make sense. Some ingredients are way pricier than others and sometimes the subtleties are only noticeable on closer inspection.
Let’s go back to the example of a magnesium capsule. The best available form of magnesium is magnesium citrate, which contains 16.2% magnesium. Magnesium oxide, on the other hand, is a far inferior version but it’s got a lot more magnesium per gram and it’s significantly cheaper.
It’s not surprising, then, that a lot of the supplements you see on shelves in supermarkets, chemists and health food shops will often have magnesium oxide instead of the higher quality magnesium citrate.
Why do brands choose cheaper ingredients if they’re less effective?
Brands want to make a finished product that will sell at a price that consumers – you – consider acceptable.
In order for them to be able to sell a product for $20 in the shops, they need to keep their ingredient costs down to allow for all the steps in the sale. Wholesalers, distributors, retailers, they all take a margin along the way.
Often poorer quality ingredients are cheaper. That’s the reality of it. The more premium quality or better absorbed ingredients are more expensive. Generally, you can only fit an average-quality ingredients into a formula for $5, so that’s unfortunately what a significant portion of those products contain.
Brands, in some respect, are pushed to choose cheaper ingredients because we –the consumer – are often not prepared to pay more for our pack of pills.
Excipients and undesirable ingredients to watch out for
If you take a pack of capsules out of your cupboard, the likelihood is they contain some filler ingredients, known as excipients. Excipients are your non-active ingredients. They don’t actually do much from a therapeutic point of view.
So why are they in there at all?
Pretty much all supplements – particularly tablets – contain excipients in part to help with the manufacturing process. There are different types and qualities of excipients, but most commonly brands will go for the cheap and useful ones.
For example, one of the functions of titanium dioxide is to be make your tablets appear white. Another example is purified talc, which is used as a glidant and lubricant, to help with powder flow in tablet compression. There are others too.
Neither of these ingredients are ideal or desirable and the research is stacked up against them, but it’s still commonplace to include them.
Will the product you buy really do what it says on the packaging?
You’ve probably seen the letters RDI on medicine or food labels. RDI stands for recommended daily intake and refers to a specified amount of an ingredient that 97% of the population needs to avoid deficiency.
For companies to make claims on health products, they need to ensure that they include the minimum quantity of the ingredients they want to use to make that claim.
These are typically really, really low.
Let’s look at B1 deficiency, thiamine deficiency, as an example. You need 1.1mg-1.2mg of thiamine to prevent getting that deficiency and having subsequent illness. 1.1mg-1.2mg is a speck, basically.
The thing is, when you go back through some of the studies on these ingredients, there’s likely more to it. To actually get a proper dose that’s going to have an effect, it could actually be closer to 20mgs that needs to be in your tablet. That’s 17 times the amount that’s actually recommended as part of your RDI.
Does this mean you should ignore RDIs?
Certainly not. But just understand that that RDI’s are low, and a lot of the products on the shelves will have no more than the bare minimum.
Get smart, not angry
I’ve had many people come to me over the years and say something along the lines of, ‘Have you seen this great new product? We’re so excited about it.’ I’ll have a bit of a look into the formula and think, ‘I wouldn’t touch it. It’s expensive. There’s next to nothing of anything in there. Really, it’s probably not going to do a single thing.’
I can’t think of a company that’s purposefully trying to mislead consumers and put rubbish vitamins, minerals and other supplements out into the world. So why are sub-quality products still making it out into the marketplace?
In my experience, cost is of course a driving factor, as is the space that’s available in a given tablet, capsule or powder serve.
In some cases, though, it’s actually down to a lack of expertise. Not a lack of expertise in sales, marketing and business – many of those companies are excellent at that – but a lack of expertise in the actual product development of quality nutraceuticals. There are not many people who really go to that extra level of detail and really understand this stuff.
As a consumer, this might feel frustrating, at best. It’s confusing.
But if you’re feeling confused or frustrated in any way, there are a few things you can do to empower you when it comes to finding products that actually work.
How can I be a savvy supplement consumer?
I think a good approach is to understand what it is you’re after, to have some awareness of brands and their marketing tactics, and to do a bit of research yourself.
And it goes without saying: don’t always believe the hype.
Often brands are trying to do a good thing (and as with anything, some brands are more reputable than others), but there are certainly a lot of products in the market that I personally wouldn’t touch.
If you’re keen to deepen your understanding and take your consumer power to the next level, there are a few things you can do to be more informed. They’re not everyday, lightweight options, but they’re ways to dig deeper and discover whether a product is actually the right fit for you, your health and your value system.
Checkpoint #1: What are you after?
Some worthwhile starting questions include why are you actually wanting to take a supplement? What outcomes are you hoping for? Why do you think this particular product is the right one for you?
Checkpoint#2: What ingredients are listed on the label?
Check for what’s actually in a product. Look at RDIs (at a bare minimum, you want to make sure you’ve got the RDI of the vitamins and minerals in there). Can you see any excipients? Here in Australia, it’s a legal requirement that all ingredients are listed on a product’s label but this doesn’t include excipients (although you can look this up too on the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods, if you’re keen to investigate further).
Checkpoint #3: What does the research say? How does it stack up against your label claims?
If you know how to search through scientific journals and read publications, search for the ingredient and a credible dosage that links back to the application that you’re after. The way you check that is by looking at what ingredients are in there, and asking what is the proposed action of those ingredients? Is there any literature that links back? My view is if something is going into a formula, it needs to have a solid rationale for its inclusion, and the best rationale is something that’s based off credible science, or at least a long tradition of use, that supports or substantiates that usage.
Checkpoint #4: How does the brand/company who produces the product stack up?
You can look on company websites for excipient statements or ask the companies to send through what they’ve got. Obviously there’s going to be some bias there because they’ve got an invested interest in telling you what you want to hear to sell the product, but it’s a valuable starting point.
Just want the short version? Here it is, in a nutshell:
- There’s limited space in a capsule or tablet or formula serve. This means you might not actually get the dosage that’s therapeutically effective for your desired outcome (even if it says it’s meeting the RDI).
- The more premium quality or better absorbed ingredients are more expensive. If you buy a $10 product, you can generally expect poor-quality ingredients. This doesn’t mean they won’t work, but they may just not work as well as has been clinically proven and there’s a fair chance at least some of the ingredients are just there for show (not at a therapeutically active dosage).
- Supplements often contain non-active ingredients called excipients, which are often cheap and can even have negative impacts on health.
- Products with poor quality ingredients often do so to keep costs down, because there’s not enough space that’s available within a capsule or tablet, or because of a lack of expertise during the product development process.
- You can inform yourself further and make smarter supplement purchasing decisions by asking why you actually want to use the product, having some awareness of brands and their marketing tactics, and doing a bit of background research yourself.