THE BITTEREST PILL

Prev Next
THE BITTEREST PILL

Taking a daily dose of supplements to boost your health and wellbeing is good for you, right? Not, it turns out, necessarily. Sharon Walker investigates what we’re really swallowing

 

A dash of petroleum derivative, a sprinkle of talc, a soupçon of stearic acid – it doesn’t sound like a very appetising recipe does it? Yet that’s exactly what many of our most popular supplement brands are dishing up in their capsules and pills alongside their active ingredients. Granted the amounts are miniscule enough to be deemed safe, but if you’re eating a healthy wholefood diet, with half an eye on longevity, do you really want a cocktail of additives served up with your daily vitamins?

Propylene glycol, aluminium silicate and magnesium stearate to give them their proper names are thought to be linked to some pretty serious issues from damage to the kidneys, heart and nervous system (propylene glycol) to Alzheimer’s and cancer (aluminium silicate) to intestinal damage preventing the absorption of nutrients (magnesium stearate). Whichever way you look at it, these excipients are usually of no nutritional value and are only there to act as binding agents making the manufacturing process easier, or in the case of magnesium stearate, working as lubricants to stop the ingredients sticking to machinery.


“I don’t want all that stuff in my body,” says Dr Sara Palmer Hussey, the Cambridge University scientist behind the additive-free anti-ageing supplements Lumity Life. “That’s why I use gelatine capsules that the body can metabolise and use.” Vegetarians might blanch at this kind of “maximum bioavailability”– gelatine is derived by boiling the skin and bones of animals – just as they will want to give a wide berth to the anti-ageing collagen supplements made from animal hides and bones, or fish scales in the case of marine collagen. But vegan capsules made from chemically modified cellulose (hydroxypropyl methylcellulose), deliver a new set of challenges, says Palmer Hussey. “They are routinely plasticised and that’s a big no no.”

Despite these issues supplements are as popular as ever. The worldwide supplements market is worth a staggering 152 billion dollars, according to the market research company Statista and with Brits consuming 420 million pound’s worth in 2017, we are the biggest pill poppers in Europe. Some 58 per cent of the UK population has taken vitamins, minerals or dietary supplements in the last 12 months according to a 2017 Mintel report. Multivitamins and minerals are the most common, taken by 53 per cent of UK consumers, followed by Vitamin C (27 per cent) and Vitamin D (26 per cent).

As you’ve probably guessed by now, despite the pretty packaging and natural-sounding names “the only plant your vitamin pill has seen the inside of is a factory”, as award-winning US journalist Catherine Price writes in her book Vitamania, (Penguin, £12.86), published in 2015. It was when her husband one day asked: “What’s in a vitamin?” that Price realised she didn’t know and so set off to investigate. Of all her weird and not-so-wonderful discoveries, not much tops the mind-blowing weirdness of where our vitamins – the types in pills not food – actually come from.

That little vitamin D dynamo we take in the winter months to strengthen our bones –where does that come from if not sunshine? Most likely the same place as your cashmere sweater: via a wool factory in China. How so? Vitamin D is made from lanolin, the greasy stuff you find on wool – and China has cornered the market not only in manufacturing wool clothing, but also in manufacturing vitamins. And in case you’re wondering, the vitamin A in your pills has never seen the inside of a carrot; its raw ingredients include acetone and formaldehyde. While niacin or vitamin B3, good for lowering cholesterol and general health, is made from something called nylon 66 – a synthetic fibre also used in carpets, airbags and zip ties. While these synthetic forms of vitamins are chemically identical to the real thing (meaning our bodies can process them in exactly the same way), some experts aren’t so sure, hence the growing trend for ‘food state’ supplements, with companies like The Nue Co, The Beauty Chef and Wild Nutrition preferring to develop supplements derived from actual food.

“The scientific evidence is not strong for the use of supplements, whereas there is very strong evidence for the use of food, which is why we stick with wholefoods,” says The Beauty Chef scientist Mike Bridges, whose formulas focus on real fermented foods, favoured for their diversity of bacteria, to boost the immune system. “For auto-immune issues, such as eczema, double-blind studies show that in general there’s a positive effect.”

Similarly, the formulas at The Nue Co rely on organic foods, removing every unnecessary component, which means no fillers and absolutely no additives or unpronounceable ingredients. The brand’s vitamin C supplements have in fact seen the inside of a fruit, since they deliver the vitamin in the form of organic baobab fruit. A health-conscious food lover who grew up with a Columbian mother who treated swellings with raw potatoes and fevers with vinegar, The Nue Co founder Jules Miller was well versed in the medicinal powers of foods, but when it came to treating her IBS she turned to supplements and was disappointed by what she found.

 


“I don’t want all that stuff in my body,” says Dr Sara Palmer Hussey, the Cambridge University scientist behind the additive-free anti-ageing supplements Lumity Life. “That’s why I use gelatine capsules that the body can metabolise and use.” Vegetarians might blanch at this kind of “maximum bioavailability”– gelatine is derived by boiling the skin and bones of animals – just as they will want to give a wide berth to the anti-ageing collagen supplements made from animal hides and bones, or fish scales in the case of marine collagen. But vegan capsules made from chemically modified cellulose (hydroxypropyl methylcellulose), deliver a new set of challenges, says Palmer Hussey. “They are routinely plasticised and that’s a big no no.”

Despite these issues supplements are as popular as ever. The worldwide supplements market is worth a staggering 152 billion dollars, according to the market research company Statista and with Brits consuming 420 million pound’s worth in 2017, we are the biggest pill poppers in Europe. Some 58 per cent of the UK population has taken vitamins, minerals or dietary supplements in the last 12 months according to a 2017 Mintel report. Multivitamins and minerals are the most common, taken by 53 per cent of UK consumers, followed by Vitamin C (27 per cent) and Vitamin D (26 per cent).

As you’ve probably guessed by now, despite the pretty packaging and natural-sounding names “the only plant your vitamin pill has seen the inside of is a factory”, as award-winning US journalist Catherine Price writes in her book Vitamania, (Penguin, £12.86), published in 2015. It was when her husband one day asked: “What’s in a vitamin?” that Price realised she didn’t know and so set off to investigate. Of all her weird and not-so-wonderful discoveries, not much tops the mind-blowing weirdness of where our vitamins – the types in pills not food – actually come from.

That little vitamin D dynamo we take in the winter months to strengthen our bones –where does that come from if not sunshine? Most likely the same place as your cashmere sweater: via a wool factory in China. How so? Vitamin D is made from lanolin, the greasy stuff you find on wool – and China has cornered the market not only in manufacturing wool clothing, but also in manufacturing vitamins. And in case you’re wondering, the vitamin A in your pills has never seen the inside of a carrot; its raw ingredients include acetone and formaldehyde. While niacin or vitamin B3, good for lowering cholesterol and general health, is made from something called nylon 66 – a synthetic fibre also used in carpets, airbags and zip ties. While these synthetic forms of vitamins are chemically identical to the real thing (meaning our bodies can process them in exactly the same way), some experts aren’t so sure, hence the growing trend for ‘food state’ supplements, with companies like The Nue Co, The Beauty Chef and Wild Nutrition preferring to develop supplements derived from actual food.

“The scientific evidence is not strong for the use of supplements, whereas there is very strong evidence for the use of food, which is why we stick with wholefoods,” says The Beauty Chef scientist Mike Bridges, whose formulas focus on real fermented foods, favoured for their diversity of bacteria, to boost the immune system. “For auto-immune issues, such as eczema, double-blind studies show that in general there’s a positive effect.”

Similarly, the formulas at The Nue Co rely on organic foods, removing every unnecessary component, which means no fillers and absolutely no additives or unpronounceable ingredients. The brand’s vitamin C supplements have in fact seen the inside of a fruit, since they deliver the vitamin in the form of organic baobab fruit. A health-conscious food lover who grew up with a Columbian mother who treated swellings with raw potatoes and fevers with vinegar, The Nue Co founder Jules Miller was well versed in the medicinal powers of foods, but when it came to treating her IBS she turned to supplements and was disappointed by what she found.

 

Prev Go back Next