By Dr. Mercola
It's common knowledge that drugs, vitamins or supplements contain more than just the active ingredient. Something has to encapsulate them―hold them together―in a form that not only makes them usable, but producible by a manufacturer in massive quantities.
In the U.S. many supplement makers are adding "flow agents" into their capsules. Their only purpose is to keep ingredients from sticking to equipment during mixing and compression. They make manufacturing faster and easier, but it's not impossible to produce the final product without them. Not using them simply adds to manufacturing costs and final sales price of the product, but there is clearly no reason this ingredient is added for consumer benefit.
Magnesium stearate is a commonly used and potentially harmful additive found in many supplements. This is a substance I have warned about for a long time because of its subtle ability to cause possible harm to your intestine, possibly even preventing the proper absorption of nutrients.
Potentially Harmful Effects of Magnesium Stearate
Magnesium stearate is formed by adding a magnesium ion to stearic acid. The compound has lubricating properties, which is why it's often used in the making of supplements, as it allows the machinery to run faster and smoother, and prevents the pills or capsules from sticking to each other.
However, previous research has shown that stearic acid suppresses T cells—your natural killer cells—which are a key component of your immune system1. According to that study, stearic acid causes the collapse of cell membrane integrity—an effect that was found to be time and dose dependent—which, ultimately, can destroy cell function.
In my view, if you're taking a supplement, making sure it's a high quality, natural food-based supplement that does not include potentially harmful fillers and additives such as magnesium stearate.
Another issue that has been raised in relation to magnesium stearate is the fact that the stearate is commonly sourced from hydrogenated oils such as cottonseed oil. This crop is oftentimes genetically engineered, but even when it's not, cottonseed oil tends to have very high levels of pesticide residues.
Other contamination can also occur during the manufacturing process of the magnesium stearate. According to a December 2011 report by the World Health Organization (WHO)2, several batches of magnesium stearate manufactured by Ferro Corporation were found to contain various levels of harmful contaminants such as:
- Calcium hydroxide: aka "slaked lime," which is considered toxic, according to the National Institutes of Health
- Bisphenol-A: a toxic chemical and potent endocrine disrupter
- Irganox 1010: a "moderately hazardous" chemical with potential developmental toxicity, according to the Environmental Protection Agency3
The cross contamination was determined to be due to incomplete cleaning of air milling equipment introduced into the Ohio Ferro plant in February that same year. Granted, this is not a chronic problem, as far as I know, but it just goes to show how easily contamination can occur in general.
Will Magnesium Stearate Get Axed?
As recently explained in the featured article, magnesium stearate might be on the verge of getting axed from supplements altogether, which probably would not be a bad thing; at least from a health perspective.
During the March 2010 session of the Codex Committee on Food Additives (CCFA), it was recommended that "magnesium salts of fatty acids" (ie magnesium stearate) be deleted from the Codex, as it has no known use in food. The following year, at the March 2011 CCFA session, the International Alliance of Dietary Supplement Associations (IADSA) submitted a request to reinstate magnesium stearate as a food additive. It was subsequently reinstated under INS number 470(iii).
However, as explained in the featured article:
"...the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) now requires toxicity data to substantiate magnesium stearate's new standing, despite its existing history of use in supplements. According to John Venardos, senior vice president of regulatory affairs for the global network marketing company Herbalife, who presented this issue at the recent NIA West conference in Laguna Beach, the estimated cost of this tox data on magnesium stearate would cost $180,000. No manufacturer has yet volunteered to foot the bill."
It would appear as though, unless someone accepts the task of doing the research necessary to prove its safety as a food additive, it will likely get eliminated from the market. Considering the fact that a vast majority of supplement makers use magnesium stearate, backlash is to be expected. But for companies that already operate without magnesium stearate, it's just proof that they've been right all along.
Eliminating this component from the product equates to slightly higher manufacturing costs, as the machines cannot run as fast and hence cannot produce as much on any given day. But I believe the increase in cost is well worth it. It's really important to me to first do no harm, and to take the extra precautions to ensure the products sold on this site are of the highest quality and purity possible.
How to Identify High Quality Multi-Vitamin Supplements
I do believe that dietary supplements -- including vitamins and minerals -- can help compensate for some of the damage your body incurs through living in a contemporary culture. However, it's not wise to use supplements to justify a poor diet. In my experience no amount of supplements will ever be able to substitute for healthy food choices.
But there are times when supplements can be quite useful, and I believe that some supplements, such as a high quality animal-based omega-3, for example, are essential for nearly everyone. This is because the main source of animal based omega-3 fats in your diet comes from fish – most of which is now so grossly polluted with heavy metals, PCBs. Another supplement that many people need is vitamin D3, unless you can get sufficient amounts of safe sun exposure year-round, or use a tanning bed.
There are other instances when supplements may be useful as well, such as in the case of CoQ10 if you're taking a statin drug. You may also want to take one or more food-based supplements to ensure you are getting an adequate variety of nutrients. How do you tell whether or not a supplement you're looking at is a good choice? For starters, make sure it has the following characteristics:
- It is as close as possible to its natural (whole food) form.
- Use independent third party labs that check the raw materials for contaminants and correct dosage.
- Follows industry standards for quality assurance including ISO 9001, ISO 17025 and Good Manufacturing Processes (GMP) certifications.
- The utmost care has been taken in all phases of its production, from growing its ingredients, to manufacturing, testing for potency and quality control.
- It works! I always try to select from companies that have a long track record of providing high quality products that produce good clinical results.
- Read the labels carefully as companies need to declare added processing agents
If you are interested in optimizing your health, your BEST solution is to choose the highest quality foods possible, and eat a wide variety of whole organic foods. You can use my free nutrition plan and work your way up to the advanced stage. Once you have addressed your diet and are looking for further improvement, odds are you would likely benefit from some supplements, like an animal-based omega-3 supplement and a probiotic, for example. There are many others you could consider depending on your specific circumstances, but just about everyone would benefit from these two.
Just remember to do your homework first and use only those that come from a reputable manufacturer using whole-food, natural ingredients that are free of harmful additives, fillers and binders, and have gone through a vigorous quality control process.