whitebox header

News - Non-active ingredients (excipients)

Out of sight but very much 'in mind'!

By Karen Wilson BSc(Hons) MSc Nut Med

Karen Wilson, Product Director at Higher Nature, examines the thorny issue of excipients in food supplements and tells you what you need to know. 

Food supplements, like food, have to follow strict safety guidelines and are governed by the relevant food legislation, in terms of product composition, quality, manufacture, labelling, health and nutrition claims, impurities… the list goes on. The ingredients allowed in foods and supplements are tightly regulated by these rules and even non-active ingredients (excipients) are subject to strict conditions of use.

We often see the term ‘pharmaceutical grade’ being used, to imply that the product in question meets the highest possible quality but, in truth, quality standards should be higher than this in both foods and food supplements. Pharmaceutical grade ingredients are of a specified quality, but are often of inferior quality to food-grade ingredients.

Food supplements are made under similar strict GMP (Good Manufacturing Practice) conditions to pharmaceuticals but the ingredients used in pharmaceuticals do not have to comply with the same food quality criteria as food supplements. GMP standards refer to manufacturing procedures, standards of hygiene and control of processes, to ensure full traceability and quality control, rather than the products themselves. A poor quality product can quite easily be manufactured under GMP conditions and GMP compliance does not alter the fact that it is poor quality.

Irradiated ingredients are not allowed in foods and food supplements, with a very few exceptions. Those few ingredients which can legally be irradiated in foods must be identified on the label. You will find some spices, such as pepper, labelled as irradiated and the occasional tin of tomatoes. In pharmaceutical products, there is no limitation on the use of irradiated ingredients, no requirement to identify irradiated ingredients and impurities, such as lead, are not subject to the same maximum levels as food. Talc, used in pharmaceutical tablets, often tests positive for irradiation and this is often used in cheap food supplements.

One has to ask oneself if this is the level of quality one would expect in a premium-quality food supplement.

Higher Nature’s high standards come from a total commitment to optimising health naturally and this means that, before we include any ingredients in one of our products, we dissect the information we receive on every ingredient, to ensure that we know all there is to know about each and every one. We never compromise in our formulations and we research every formulation, examining every detail - no hidden ingredients, preservatives and processing aids escape us.

Ingredients are often available in both natural and synthetic form, may be animal-derived or suitable for vegans. There is often a difference in quality and also in the cost in ingredients from these different sources. Vegetarian and vegan ingredients are the preferred choice and we use them wherever possible. We use natural nutrient sources, rather than synthetic, if they are available and consider very carefully the provenance of each ingredient, e.g. preferring not to use maltodextrin from maize corn but, rather, from potato. Maize is often from a GM-source crop (frequently for USA, where GM is not an issue) and can commonly contain fungal toxins.

Higher Nature regards truthful and informative labelling, which goes beyond the requirements of any law, to be the cornerstone of its product quality promise. On the labels, any potential allergen is identified by excluding it from the label’s ‘does not contain’ statement. Possible allergens used in manufacture, for example probiotics grown in the presence of lactose (dairy), are highlighted in a statement to this effect on the label.

We know that to produce tablets and capsules we need to use certain inactive materials. Dispersants are used to ensure that tiny amounts of some trace minerals and vitamins, where the daily intake is in micrograms, are spread evenly through the bulk powder to be tabletted or encapsulated. It is often difficult to produce tablets and capsules without the use of these inactive ingredients (excipients) so, in our opinion, it is likely that some products which do not show dispersants, such as microcrystalline cellulose or flow agents such as silicon dioxide, may well be labelled inaccurately. We use natural excipients such as rice flour or Lithothamnion calcarea, a seaweed rich in calcium and magnesium - instead, where feasible.

Terms such as ‘carrier’ or ‘bulking agent’ often appear in the ingredients listing on supplement labels. Other terms such as colour and flavouring are more familiar but how accurate and truthful are labels? What should be included, do all companies declare all components and do they really know the ingredients within the ingredients?

There are strict rules for non-active ingredients, which fall into the category known as ‘additives’, (these are often given E numbers). The rules apply equally to food and food supplements. However, not all additives are bad and they are often a necessary part of ensuring the quality of the product. An additive is any substance not normally consumed as a food in its own right and not normally used as a characteristic ingredient of a food but used for technical reasons in the manufacture, processing, preparation, treatment or packaging of the food or storage of food. Preservatives are a good example.

In addition to additives, there are other ingredients used, which assist with the manufacture of tablets and capsules, by improving the flow of powders prior to tabletting or encapsulation. These are especially important with sticky ingredients.

Most powder mixes simply cannot flow at the necessary speed to ensure a good tablet or capsule is made, without a helping hand. Some can be granulated and others require flow agents. Powders can be equally problematic for encapsulation machines and with very sticky powders this can involve a semi-manual operation, with the equipment being cleaned down at regular intervals in order to maintain the quality of the final product.

Higher Nature does not shy away from difficult ingredients but works with its manufacturers to create products of high quality, which have a true health benefit – we won’t compromise on this, even if it makes the job more difficult and more costly because of the labour involved. We know our products and are happy to share our knowledge with you all. Call our team of nutritionists, who are happy to give more detailed information for those who are particularly concerned about the presence of certain ingredients. Phone: 0870 066 4458. 

Printable versionSend to a friendShare

Related articles

whitebox footer

Nutrient list Nutrient list info

Recently added nutrients:

Related nutrients list empty