Think about it - you spend your hard-earned money to buy supplements, wanting to improve your look and health. Instead, you get worthless junk that serves no purpose and can even potentially harm your health. Awful! This article will be all about that - we will tell you how to choose high-quality supplements without fillers, or at least without harmful ones.
But, we will also explain what fillers are, which ones to avoid, and how. By the time you finish reading this article, you will have the necessary information to make a better decision when buying your next supplement. As you are about to learn - there's a reason why supplements of the same kind vary in price so much. Read on!
What Are Fillers?
Fillers are used throughout the supplementation industry (but also the food industry in general) and serve various purposes. Let's make one thing clear - not all fillers are bad for your health. However, that doesn't make them necessary, and that difference is what this article is all about.
As the word says, fillers fill up the supplement. Labels usually display them under "other ingredients" or "inactive ingredients" or "excipients," but for common people, those are all fillers. Fillers are found in supplements, but you don't buy the supplements because of them. Yet, in some cases, fillers make the majority of the supplement product, which is why it is essential to get informed about what the label says.
Why Do Supplement Manufacturers Use Fillers and Excipients?
Fillers are a necessary part of the process of making supplements. They are used for various purposes, but predominantly for stabilization and to help manufacturing. Think about how many oranges you would have to eat to get the daily dose of your vitamin C - all that fits into just one pill, along with all other vitamins you need.
Fillers are essentially the "glue," and they are there to give form to the supplement by binding the ingredients. They also stabilize the supplement - without the inactive fillers, the supplement's active part would become useless as you wouldn't be able to intake it in tablet or pill form.
Also, inactive ingredients help with dosage. Supplements are often taken to get micronutrients, such as vitamins and minerals. Our bodies only need some of these in micrograms (iodine, for example). Without excipients, you would need a microscope to separate and apply the correct dose of the supplement. Instead, you intake iodine in a capsule, which is more convenient. And with it, you get your other micronutrients too, all made possible by inactive ingredients.
What Are the Most Common Fillers and Excipients Used in Supplements?
Many excipients are used in the food and supplementation industry, and we will get to the specific (unhealthy) ingredients later. Here, we will talk about excipient groups, explaining the reasons why they end up in supplements:
Fillers - people usually use the word "filler" to describe any (unwanted) inactive ingredient. But, fillers are just one type of excipients and are used as bulking agents. They add size to the capsule or tablet, making it easier to swallow. That is why you can find fillers in vitamins. As we said, micronutrients and trace nutrients are only needed in micrograms, which would be inconvenient to consume without fillers. They are also known as carriers or diluents.
Binders - are here to give the supplement its form you see in the package. They are the "glue" that holds the tablet together, so it doesn't start chipping and returning to powder form.
Flow agents - while binders and fillers make supplement consumption easier, flow agents help the manufacturing process. They are used to help the tablets and pills not get stuck during the manufacturing and packaging process. They also help the dosage and reduce supplement size.
Accidulates - you can only find acidulates in supplements that are consumed in liquid form. They prevent bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens from thriving in the supplement's moist and dark environment.
Disintegrates - these help the breakdown process of capsules and tablets, making the supplement more effective, as its content ends up in your bloodstream faster.
As you can see, excipients play an important role, which is why it is next to impossible to find supplements without fillers and binders.
Are Fillers Bad For Health?
In general, fillers are not bad for health. Even though you buy the supplement to get its active ingredients, the fact that the majority of it (in some cases) consists of inactive ingredients doesn't mean the supplement is junk, nor fillers unhealthy.
However, that doesn't mean you shouldn't care about excipients. The truth is that, even though they are a necessary part of supplements, manufacturers often use fillers to cut costs. Also, the truth is that manufacturers sometimes choose unhealthy inactive ingredients just to cut costs even further and increase their profit margins. So, even though not all fillers are harmful, some fillers and excipients are unhealthy, and you should look to avoid them.
What Ingredients In Supplements Need To Be Avoided?
Below is a list of fillers that supplement manufacturers often use. There are other unhealthy excipients too, but these below are commonly used, and we will tell you why you don't want them entering your bloodstream.
Magnesium Stearate and Stearic Acid
Magnesium stearate and stearic acid are flow agents, which means supplement companies use them to make the manufacturing process easier, as they have excellent lubricative qualities.
The reason why you want to avoid supplements with magnesium stearate and stearic acid is claims that these ingredients can have a negative impact on the immune system, mainly T cells. Even though the studies are scarce, the fact is that this ingredient only helps the manufacturing process (a.k.a. reduces costs) and doesn't help in any other way.
Therefore, magnesium stearate brings no benefits, and it might carry health risks, which means it should be avoided.
Titanium dioxide is often found in cosmetics, paint, sunscreen products, but it is also used in the supplement industry. Its primary purpose is to whitening but besides that, it has no benefits.
However, some concerns are surrounding it, and claims that it is even carcinogenic and triggers allergies and the immune system. The recommended limit of titanium dioxide is 1% of total product weight, maximum. However, because it has no purpose but to make the product more visually appealing, look to avoid it.
Additives are different from fillers and excipients because they are actually bound to the main substance, enhancing some of its properties. For example, they improve the flavor or color.
However, this is artificial, and additives only make the supplement taste or look better without actually increasing its quality. It is cheaper to add strawberry artificial colors and flavors than to add more real strawberries or real syrup to enhance the flavor.
There are hundreds of additives, and not all are harmful. But, some are very bad supplement ingredients, and you should look buy supplements without additives listed below:
Monosodium glutamate: MSG is found in various processed foods and is there to enrich the flavor. However, if you are sensitive to it, you can experience many issues, including nausea and even breathing problems.
Sodium nitrites - used to stabilize meat color and flavor and increase shelf life, sodium nitrites can increase cancer risk, mainly pancreatic and colon cancer.
Trans fats - you can find partially hydrogenated oils throughout the food industry as they improve shelf life but are tied to numerous health problems, especially related to the heart. This is why the FDA banned them.
Artificial colors - again, colors serve no purpose but to make the product nicer to the eye. However, artificial colors carry potential health risks, from allergies to cancer, which is why you don't need them.
Sugar on its own is not unhealthy, but consuming too much sugar is. Yet, because it makes the food and supplements taste better and is cheap, sugar is poured into everything. It will increase your total caloric intake and will also mess with your insulin levels, which is why you should look to avoid it.
However, sugar substitutes are also not that great. Sure, most are without calories, but they also carry potential health risks. Try to go with as little sweeteners as possible, and if you have to, choose natural substitutes, such as stevia.
Lactose is natural and is not actually a filler, additive, or excipient, as it is not added to the supplement. Instead, you can find it in many supplements derived from milk, such as whey protein.
Although natural, many people are lactose intolerant, and it creates gastrointestinal issues. Therefore, if you can, look to get lactose-free products.
How to Choose Supplements Without Harmful Ingredients
Read The Label Carefully
It can't be more straightforward than this - read the label. If you see something from the list above, think twice about buying the supplement, even if the price is affordable. There are always alternatives, and it's not worth jeopardizing your health just to save a few dollars.
Look For Certificates And Tests
Some supplements are thoroughly tested and have certificates that prove their quality, making them a much safer bet.
Some of the most credible certificates are those issued by USP (U.S. Pharmacopeia), UL (Underwriters laboratory), ConsumerLab, and NSF International. These companies perform third-party testing, and if you see their certificates on the label, the supplement inside is probably quality-made and safe to use.
Consider Standards And Level Of Care
Even though they have nothing to do with fillers and excipients, supplement companies that state values and standards show that they don't only care about taking your money; they respect other causes too.
Whole Food Vs. Synthetic
From a macronutrient or micronutrient perspective, choosing a supplement derived from whole foods vs. a synthetic one makes no difference, as long as the amounts of active ingredients are equal.
But, even though whole-food supplements are still supplements and not whole foods, they are certainly much more natural than their synthetic alternatives, making them a safer choice, health-wise.
Organic Vs. GMO
Similarly to the point above, it makes sense to pick supplements derived from organically grown food or animal products from grass-fed animals instead of GMO.
Keep in mind that although the label will never state GMO, you can freely guess that if it doesn't say "organic," then it is almost definitely GMO.
Vegan-Friendly, No Animal Testing, Fair Trade Supplements
If you are vegan or an animal lover, picking supplements that are vegan-friendly and not tested on animals is probably important to you. Even though the content is the same, knowing that no animals were harmed during the manufacturing or testing process means a lot to many people, and it is good to know that animal-friendly supplements and foods exist.
It is similar with fair trade supplements but from a human perspective. Companies that respect fair trade will not exploit developing countries with low standards for cheap labor to increase profit margins. Again, a valuable cause, worth the price tag.
The Label Says It All - Or Does It?
Reading the label will tell you a lot, but sometimes it is hard to decipher what the label actually says. Supplement manufacturers use sneaky tactics to convince us that their products are quality-made. However, the label sometimes doesn't tell the whole story, at least not at first glance, so make sure to read it carefully.
Whenever you see "proprietary blend" on a label, it should be an automatic red flag. Proprietary blends are ingredient groups that don't state the exact amount of each ingredient inside the mixture.
What does that mean? It means that the proprietary blend will always be filled with the cheapest ingredient (filler). In other words, the most expensive component you bought the supplement for will be in the blend, but in much smaller quantities than you would want to see.
That is why manufacturers hide it behind the "proprietary blend" label - if they stated the amount of the best active ingredient, you wouldn't buy the product.
Watch The Ratio
Even though two supplements have the same name, that doesn't mean their quality and ingredients are the same.
For example, whey protein blends often have "whey isolate" somewhere on the label, but that doesn't mean the whole product is a whey isolate. It only means that one of its ingredients is whey isolate, while the package also contains whey concentrate, fats, carbs, fillers, etc.
Therefore, if you are buying a supplement, watch the active ingredient's percentage in the total amount. If you have 81 grams of protein per 100 grams of powder, that certainly is not an isolate. Be sure that the remaining 19 grams will be only fillers in protein powder - most likely sugar. Therefore, do the math before buying.
Made In U.S.
Labels often state how the supplement is made in the USA. However, that doesn't automatically mean the actual production line is in the USA. That might be the case too, but it usually means that the company is registered in the US (which is also good), but the actual product is made in a country with cheap labor.
How can you know if the supplement is really US-made or just another white label junk? The price will usually tell you a lot - if the supplement is one of the cheapest on the market, it is hardly made with the highest standards.
Should We Take Supplements In The First Place?
Supplements are not mandatory. Like their name says, they are there to supplement your nutrition. Therefore, you don't need them to stay healthy nor improve performance. But they certainly can help.
Always look to improve your nutrition first, and look to intake whole foods. However, if your lifestyle doesn't allow you to introduce more healthy meals, or you just lack time to cook your own food and carry chicken breasts and fruit wherever you go, it is better to take supplements than to lack valuable nutrients. But, if you lack vitamins, choosing a quality multivitamin is a wise choice. Of course, without dangerous vitamin fillers.
Therefore, always look to improve your nutrition if you can, but if that's not possible, considering some quality supplements is not a bad idea. But, ask your doctor or a nutritionist first, especially if you have some known health issues.
Bottom Line: Don't Skip Reading The Labels
Not all fillers are dangerous for your health. But, that doesn't mean they are always welcome.
Even though excipients are necessary to produce supplements, companies often use too much to cut manufacturing costs and increase profits.
The only way to be sure what you intake is to read the label carefully and only buy supplements from well-known manufacturers that respect the highest production standards and have appropriate certificates. That way, even though it is hard to buy supplements without fillers, you will know that you only intake those that are safe.
And if you are not sure - the price will tell you a lot. Try not to go for the cheapest one if you don't have to; that is rarely the best choice. After all, those supplements will enter your organism, and that shouldn't be taken lightly. It's your health we're talking about, so make sure you choose wisely.