By Andy Frampton, Research & Development Manager
Regardless of your motivation, if you’re like most health-savvy individuals, you’ve probably spent your fair share of time trying to make sense of product labels. Assuming this to be true, there’s an even better chance that you’ve found yourself stumped at the vast plethora of ingredients in so many of today’s most popular formulas. A great number of these unfamiliar ingredients can even be difficult to pronounce. To make matters even more bewildering, most individuals don’t (and shouldn’t be expected to) understand the minor ingredients’ roles in nutrition and product formulation.
These “minor ingredients” are what we in the business refer to as excipients – substances that contribute functional and structural characteristics to various forms of dietary supplements. And while the specific types and quantities of excipients vary greatly, rarely do they contribute any nutritional benefit. In fact, their presence in today’s huge offering of supplements exists solely to enable the “active ingredients” to be consumed in forms that are desirable, safe and available to the body.
NOW Foods offers supplements in many forms, offering an assortment of tablets, capsules, powders, liquid concentrates, softgels, effervescent powders, and more. Excipients are common to many products throughout the industry, and are used to ensure high quality products on a consistent basis using high-speed packaging equipment. But make no mistake - we aggressively pursue options that afford us the opportunity to minimize the use of, or even avoid resorting to using excipients, whenever possible. Otherwise, NOW formulating scientists implement the same rigid standards in approving excipients as active ingredients.
NOW’s list of approved excipients includes silicon dioxide, magnesium stearate, stearic acid, microcrystalline cellulose, hydroxymethylpropyl cellulose (HPMC), various colloids, brown and white rice flours, croscarmellose sodium, potassium sorbate, and acidulants (acidifiers). Many of these are cross-functional and can be used in a variety of supplements, while others are extremely material-specific. Several excipients have limited applications, as established by FDA regulations. NOW has, and will continue to remain 100% compliant to these guidelines.
When deemed safe and necessary, NOW uses minimum levels of approved excipients and provides complete disclosure on each and every product label. These are both measures taken to achieve optimal manufacturing results. But why? Why even bother to use excipients in dietary supplements? Rather than explain each one individually, let’s examine the different categories.
Powder excipients are used to enable tablets and capsules to flow through processing steps with minimal resistance. In order to accomplish this, lubricants and anti-caking agents are occasionally incorporated into the formula. These non-toxic (and in many cases, found in nature) vegetarian-friendly (vegan; non-animal sourced) compounds such as silicon dioxide, magnesium stearate, and stearic acid are used to carry out these functions. Additionally, use of non-toxic lubricants allows tablets to be punched and ejected without sticking to the equipment. This ultimately results in products of much better physical quality.
Microcrystalline cellulose and HPMC are used for their binding properties. Without binders, tablets would not be tablets, and pressed supplements would eventually shed some powder and crumble. Cellulose is a simple wood-pulp derivative that serves as a non-digestible fiber when consumed. Colloids are also used for binding purposes, and can be identified by the names guar gum, xanthan gum, acacia gum, and cellulose gum. Each of these possesses limited binding capability, and are primarily used as thickening agents in liquid suspensions. Like cellulose, colloids fall into the fiber category, and carry some nutritional benefits as fibers. These are typically from vegetarian sources.
When dealing with supplements that are measured by micrograms (mcg), it is often necessary to use fillers, even when dealing with the tiniest of capsules and/or tablets. Without them, the capsule(s) would appear virtually empty, as trace and micro measurements can be difficult to detect by the naked eye. Chromium, selenium, iodine, folic acid and biotin are among the best examples. NOW uses rice flours to accomplish this, based on their hypoallergenic properties and naturally-occurring complex carbohydrates. Moreover, this makes it possible for most individuals who live with food allergies to safely benefit from quality NOW supplements.
Acidulants and potassium sorbate are essential components in many of today’s most popular liquid concentrate formulas. Here’s why. Liquid concentrates contain water, and water provides a favorable environment for microbial growth and proliferation. In order to stabilize this environment, acidulants and potassium sorbate are used. In situations where excipients are not a viable option, thermal (heat) processing would then have to be used. Many of the products that NOW manufactures contain heat-sensitive ingredients, thus making a cold-processed stabilized product preferable. Acidulants are wide-ranging, safe for human consumption and commonly found in many fruits and vegetables. They include citric acid, malic acid, tartaric acid, and aspartic acid from vegetarian sources.
If there’s one point to be made, it is this. It would be next to impossible to manufacture value dietary supplements without the use of excipients. NOW’s use of excipients, however, is governed with extreme caution and only in limited amounts. It’s important to keep in mind that NOW employs the use of leading-edge, state-of-the-art technology. The use of non-toxic excipients allows the equipment to function smoothly and without challenge. In the long scope, this helps safeguard the integrity of the supplements being produced. And although excipients do not contribute significant nutritional benefits, their function remains unquestionably essential.