Navigating the Complex World of Supplements

Part One – Dirty Little Secrets

Photo courteous of amenic181 and
Photo courteous of

Does this scenario sound familiar? You wander into the vitamin section of the grocery store looking for a supplement – for example, one for increasing your energy and fortifying your immune system – but you don’t have a specific brand name in mind. You take one look at the options and quickly become overwhelmed; after all, there are countless different products on the shelves promising vitality and increased energy. But you did your homework. You know you would like a vitamin B-complex.

However, when you get to the vitamin B section, you have the following to choose from: organic versus non-organic, gel versus capsule versus powder, synthetic versus natural, natural versus raw, this brand versus that, that promise versus other, and the list goes on.

Have you ever wondered why the natural health industry is so complex, why there are over 29,000 different herbal products and substances? The simple answer is money and profit. It’s for this very reason that industry giants are gobbling up all of the natural and organic companies: Tom’s of Maine (fluoride-free toothpaste) was purchased by Colgate for a whopping 100 million dollars, New Chapter was purchased by Proctor & Gamble, Clorox bought Burt’s Bees, Coca-Cola bought Odwalla, Pepsi responded by purchasing Naked Juice, etc.

For the most part, the natural health field is as profit-driven as the pharmaceutical and tobacco industry. It’s estimated that at least half, if not more, of the U.S. population takes some kind of herbal supplement. With those kinds of figures, it’s no surprise that Herbalife, a popular supplement company, generates over $4 billion in annual revenue.

The natural health industry profits off of you on the front end, and the pharmaceuticals plunder you on the back end.

If you don’t believe me, let’s take a trip down the rabbit hole.

Perception is Everything:

Here are 300 mg capsules of St. John’s Wart.


How do I know this? The bottle they came packaged in told me so.

Unfortunately, what you see is not always what you get.

The potato chip industry packs their bags with as much air as chips. Why? Perception. The poultry industry is infamous for injecting chicken with saltwater solutions, thereby increasing the weight (and price) — perception — of the meat that you are purchasing.

The natural supplement industry, in general, is no different.

The primary size of capsules used in vitamin products today is a 1 or 0. Now, 300 milligrams of St. John’s Wort would only fill this much of a size “0” capsule.

capsule half full
This depiction is an approximation. The amount of fillers will vary between companies.

But when is the last time you saw a capsule that was only a quarter of the way filled, or half-way filled? You don’t, and that’s because companies add fillers.

So why not use a smaller capsule?


Perception is everything, and larger sized capsules give the impression that you’re getting more bang for your buck. It’s important to note that there is a time and place for fillers, but unless you are buying high quality products, those fillers are largely junk, and may actually be adversely affecting your health.

An article from emphasizes this point, “Fillers are toxic, synthetic additives used to bind the composition of a vitamin. Toxic additives, such as cellulose and gelatin, are commonly used in tablets and rapid release capsules. Visible symptoms may not occur immediately, but long-term daily use can cause detrimental effects to major organs.”

Common fillers that you should mind are maltodextrin (which could originate from GMO corn), lactose (milk sugar), yeast, hydrogenated oils, sodium stearyl fumarate, titanium dioxide, artificial colouring, and magnesium stearate (one study links this compound to creating a suppressed immune system). There are others, but these are the most common. Beyond fillers, you may commonly find artificial colours, flavours, plasticizers, lubricants, and polyethylene glycol.

The story gets even more pernicious. Let’s use St. John’s Wort as an example again. Some companies, in an effort to maximize their profits, will dilute the herb below the advertised dosage. To survey just how rampant this process is, on November 3, 2013, the New York Times reported that Canadian researchers, using DNA testing, had tested 44 bottles of various supplements by 12 companies – and their results were very disturbing.

They reported that, “of 44 herbal supplements tested, one-third showed outright substitution, meaning there was no trace of the plant advertised on the bottle — only another plant in its place.” They went on to detail how fillers were sometimes the only substance “detected in the bottle.”

They add that, “two bottles labeled as St. John’s Wort, which studies have shown may treat mild depression, contained none of the medicinal herb. Instead, the pills in one bottle were made of nothing but rice, and another bottle contained only Alexandrian Senna, an Egyptian yellow shrub that is a powerful laxative. Gingko Biloba supplements, promoted as memory enhancers, were mixed with fillers and black walnut, a potentially deadly hazard for people with nut allergies.”

In case you’re wondering, this surreptitious practice is also rampant in the herbal tea industry.

The above perils only highlight a fraction of the fraud in the herbal and supplement field. There are numerous others, from a great number of vitamin C products being manufactured from GMO corn, to unhealthy traces of aluminium being detected in liquid detox products (talk about irony), to lead and arsenic contaminating herbs from Chinese producers, to — and this takes the cake — an organic and raw vitamin provider using wilted, aged, and by all accounts, expired produce that the grocery store cannot sell, to make their vitamin supplements.

So how is this possible you ask? The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not review or approve supplements before they go on sale. The herbal community works autonomously, operating under the honour code.

Many see this as a positive attribute, lumping the FDA with the likes of Enron, Bernie Madoff, and all those responsible for the subprime mortgage disaster.

This information, however, does highlight the need for people to do their own due diligence. You can’t always trust product labels – you may think that you’re putting life-giving products into your body when you might actually be doing the opposite! And remember to always mind the non-medicinal ingredients carefully.


Stay Tuned for Part 2


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