Have you ever stood in the supplement aisle at your natural foods store and felt
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overwhelmed? My goodness, there are so many choices.
As I wandered through this afternoon, it occurred to me that it might be fun to do a short series about the world of supplements, and what some of the variables are when it comes to defining quality. Things like purity, potency, and how they’re manufactured
It’s important to know what we’re getting
The surprising reality is dietary supplements sold throughout the U.S. aren’t required to be registered with any state or federal govt agency. In fact, anyone can produce and market a supplement, with considerable leeway not only in the ingredients used, but the manufacturing process, and how they’re labeled
At first blush, one would think there are dozens of companies to choose from, and certainly, there are. Although it’s good to know that there’s one critical component shared by most. The source of their ..
Turns out that only 3% of supplement producers actually manufacture their own products. Instead, most buy the crystalline-pure vitamins, minerals, and amino acids from one of a small handful of suppliers. Generally, these are pharmaceutical companies (think: Merck, Upjohn, or Bristol-Myers). From there, it’s a matter of coordinating their assembly
Whether assembled in-house (rare) or sub-contracted out, it’s during this process that these pure nutrients can acquire all sorts of additions, on their journey toward becoming full-fledged tablets or capsules
Anatomy of a Supplement – What the heck is in there?
I’ve always been a label reader, although admittedly not always in totality.
I’d study the back of the bottle in search of nutrient counts, without realizing or paying attention to the other ingredients were included, or the effects they could have. Things like binders, fillers, excipients, lubricants, disintegrates, colorants, sweeteners, flavorings, and coating materials
It wasn’t until I began to look for them specifically that I realized they’re not always noted. In fact, if the label doesn’t explicitly say that no binders, fillers, or excipients have been used, it’s certain they’re in there too.
Certainly, they’re not all bad, in and of themselves, although it’s good to be aware. Sometimes these additions will cause tummy troubles, sensitivities, or even allergic reactions, depending on the person.
Reputable companies will clearly identify on the label any additions, and those the supplement is free of (think: “free of wheat, corn, soy, yeast, or dairy”)
A brief overview of common additives
The sections that follow offer a high-level overview of many of the most common additives; it’s by no means exhaustive. My sincerest hope is to offer enough information to get you started, as well as a few buzz words to be on the look-out for, especially if you or someone you love has a known allergy or food sensitivity.
Something considered to be inert (more or less) that’s added to the raw materials to give them consistency or form. (ex: Tablets take on their form with the help of excipients). The problem is nothing is truly inert, and can these can cause troubles for sensitive people.
Another term to be on the lookout for is bio-active excipients as opposed to inert. These are chosen because they’ll help the supplement break-down in our gut, and thus maximize its absorption. They can also be used because they’ll compliment the effects of the raw nutrients
Most assemblers have only a few tablet or capsule sizes. If there’s extra space after all of the nutrients have been added, a filler is included to ensure a perfect fit. In this case, many will have an eye toward the cost, and choose the cheapest available
Some to look for? Nonfood grade fillers include talc and silicon, which can lead to tummy or absorption troubles. Common food-grade fillers are corn starch, lactose (milk sugar) cellulose (insoluble plant fiber) sorbitol, and calcium phosphate
Flowing agents and lubricants
If used these will usually in relatively small amounts (less than 1%). Their job is to prevent clumping and caking during manufacturing or storage. They also keep tablets from sticking to the machines as they’re being made
Some that are common? Vegetable stearin (similar to vegetable shortening), magnesium stearate, calcium stearate, stearic acid, and silica
The glue that holds everything together as the tablets are being made. Some of the more common include cellulose, gum, arabic, lecithin, honey, and sorbitol. Although the FDA classifies these as “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS), as with other additives, they can cause trouble for some people
Disintegrants are added to help the supplements break down once they’re in our gut. The most common is modified cellulose, which works by swelling when wet
Nobody wants to take a funny looking supplement, and colorants make them pretty. It’s best to look for those that are natural (think beets, carrots, or chlorophyll)
The most common places to find flavors and sweeteners are in liquids, chewable tablets, and also some powders. Those used most include fructose, malt dextrose, sorbitol, or maltose.
If you’re someone for whom a bit of sweet is a happy thing, it may be best to choose an unsweetened product and add a tiny drop or two of stevia.
Coatings protect tablets from moisture, and also from crumbling during shipping and storage. They also can mask unpleasant flavors .. making them easier to swallow.
Zein: (aka, “vegetable protein coating”), is natural corn-derived protein and is clear film-coating
Brazil Wax: Is natural and comes from palm trees
Shellac (aka, pharmaceutical glaze): It should be noted that shellac is insoluble in an acidic environment like our stomachs.
Gelatin: An animal by-product, and what the coating of capsules are made from. If you’re a strict vegetarian, these may not be for you.
The “Pure Encapsulation” Philosophy
There are several excellent companies that steer clear of binders, fillers, and other excipients. Essentially they a philosophy is known in the industry as “Pure Encapsulation.”
Some of their methods include using many different capsule sizes, thus eliminating the need for fillers. They’ve also developed manufacturing processes which do away with the need for lubricants and binders
At best, seek out supplements that are in their purest form, and companies that promote this.
At second best, become an educated consumer. Understand the additions that are being made, and the effects they can have on your individual health
What are some other things we should be aware of? Natural vs. Synthetic? Expensive isn’t (necessarily) better? Does packaging matter? How to spy a deceptive label?
I had the quintessential summer salad the other evening: sweet corn, heirloom tomatoes, crunchy croutons, and farmer cheese, tossed with a creamy green salad dressing. My husband and I were sitting at our favorite restaurant during our last mid-week getaway, and this salad kicked off our meal.
The kind of thing that made me sigh happily and settle into an evening of inspiring small plates, good wine, and easy conversation.
I love seeing what my husband will make with local and seasonal produce. Meals like the one from the other night open my eyes to combining ingredients in a way that probably wouldn’t have occurred to me. I love leaving a restaurant feeling invigorated to try new things at home.
I fell for this salad pretty hard, and admit; I’ve been making my approximation most of the week. The mix of fresh veggies and tomatillo salsa really works.
References used for this series: Navigating the Labyrinth: 3o Things You Need to Know About Nutritional Supplements by Jack Challem .. The Real Vitamin & Mineral Book by Shari Lieberman .. Encyclopedia of Nutritional Supplements by Michael T. Murray .. Foundations of Nutritional Medicine: A Sourcebook of Clinical Research by Melvyn Werbach and Gail Leibsohn
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Summer Salad with Tomatillo Salsa Verde
- Tomatillo Salsa Verde
- 1 lb. tomatillos, husked, rinsed and quartered
- 1 small onion, coarsely chopped
- 1 tsp olive oil
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 serrano chile seeds removed if desired, coarsely chopped
- 1 ¼ cup fresh cilantro, chopped fine
- 1 ½ tsp fresh oregano chopped fine
- juice of half a lime
- medium pinch fine-grain sea salt
- Spicy Breadcrumbs
- 5 - 6 slices bread, cubed (gluten-free if you’re avoiding gluten)
- 1 - 2 Tbsp olive oil
- ½ tsp smoked paprika
- ¼ tsp cayenne pepper
(more or less, depending on your tolerance for heat)
- 4 ears of corn
- 6 oz heirloom tomatoes, sliced
- 4 radishes, shaved
- 1 small bunch of chives, chopped
- 4 oz goat cheese (or farmer cheese)
- sea salt + freshly ground pepper, to taste
- Tomatillo Salsa Verde
- Preheat the oven to 350° F
- In a medium-size bowl, add the garlic, tomatillos, and onion. Drizzle with olive oil and toss until combined.
- On a parchment-lined sheet pan, add the prepared tomatillos and onion. Roast for 25-30 minutes, or until tomatillos have softened. Set aside to cool.
- Once roasted vegetables have cooled a bit, add them to a food processor (or blender), along with the lime juice, chopped chile, oregano, and salt.
- Blend until smooth & well-combined, adding a bit of water as needed to thin it out.
- Set aside
- Spicy Breadcrumbs
- In a medium-sized bowl, toss the bread cubes with olive oil, smoked paprika, cayenne, salt & pepper (to taste).
- Toast in the oven for 25-30 minutes or until golden brown and extra toasty (not at all soft)
- While bread is toasting, add the husked corn to a large pot.
- Bring to a boil, and cook for 2-3 minutes, or until it's yellow and tender. Remove with tongs and add to a colander. Rinse with cold water and set aside to cool.
- Once the corn has cooled, slice kernels off the cob and add to a platter or serving bowl.
- Add sliced heirloom tomatoes, radish, chives and a few hunks of goat cheese. Season to taste.
- Grab a handful of toasted bread cubes & crumble them in your hands over the dish (and leave some cubed, for texture).
- Top with tomatillo salsa verde and serve