Excipients In Dietary Supplements

Capsules in coloured forms on a table.
Photo by rawpixel c/o Pixabay.

So you’ve bought some supplements and learnt all about the compound that is meant to be of some benefit. Then, on the label you see a list of ingredients which look  like bits of rock or some fat have been added. These are excipients and they are vitally important for the delivery of the compounds, for keeping them stable and even for making them easy to make let alone to swallow.

To many unfamiliar with ingredient lists, excipients may seem a confusing, slight worrying addition to the diet. There are some disreputable web-sites which even claim that excipients are dangerous which is utter nonsense. Hopefully this short article will explain what they are and what they truly do in a supplement.

The Nature Of Excipients

In the pharmaceutical as well as the supplements industry, there are a number of ingredients which are there to make sure the compounds or the herbs or vitamins and minerals are delivered properly within the product.   

Excipients rarely have any nutritional benefit but they can contribute some benefits if they are minerals in their own right. They are not the active part of the formulation in the sense they perform a function in the body like a vitamin might. However, without them it might mean a tablet or capsule cannot be handled properly or be swallowed. The excipient is there to make sure various safety and quality standards are conformed to. The active ingredients also have to be kept stable in the formulation and the excipient is always there to make sure this particular type of ingredient remains appropriate over the shelf-life of the product.

Types of Excipient – Their Function

Excipients are added to a formulation for various reasons. In many cases they act as flow agents which means they allow the whole or intermediate parts of the formula to be processed easily without sticking for example. Without them the formula might not be processed and manufactured properly especially now that flowability as it is called is so important in high-speed processing and filling lines.

Another type of excipient is the filler which is needed when the active ingredient is present in extremely small amounts. Without them it would be impossible to consume the supplement let alone handle and package them. In some cases they might be the main ingredient if you are taking something like selenium or zinc. The filler literally does the job of filling in the space and making sure you actually have a tablet to take !

Issues With Excipients

For many people who take supplements or medicines in pill, capsule or tablet form, the excipient should not have an impact on the overall health of the person taking them. One excipient often used is magnesium stearate and has generated far too much air time with those concerned about ingredients. To date there is no evidence to suggest it is harmful in any clinical trial or indeed in any other body of research devoted to its role in a supplement. That goes for all other ingredients. Indeed, extensive studies are always concerned with any added ingredient and it’s fair to say that these are less of concern than the active ingredient which should be the main focus of attention.

Stearates, especially stearic acid is one of the key ingredients in the diet because it is a dietary fat. We consume far more of these dietary fats in products such as coconut oil or cocoa butter. The level in a supplement is considerably less than is usually found in the diet.

Also look out for excipients such as those based on cellulose. HPMC (hydroxypropylmethylcellulose) is an important one to help with dissolution in the gut. Without ingredients like these that can dissolve in the proper part of the body makes delivery of the active almost pointless. 

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