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The Science of Manufacturing Supplements

Nutritional come in all shapes and sizes. Some vitamins are pressed into pill form, taken as liquids, mixed into foods and even offered as injections. Herbal formulas are concentrated into extracts, turned into green juice powders, or blended into smoothies. Many of the foods you eat also have nutritional enrichments and fortifications; depending on the dietary choices you make, these can be important sources of micronutrients too. 

Vitamins and minerals, herbs, and targeted formulas are the three main classifications into which nutritional supplements fall. Although the categories overlap – most green superfood supplements tout their high vitamin and mineral content, for example – they differ in how they’re manufactured and administered.

The Making of a Vitamin Supplement

Supplements cover a wide range of nutritional needs, but not everything that is part of a supplement is a vitamin. Nutritionists term only 13 compounds vitamins. They include vitamins A, C, D, E and K as well as the numbered B-complex vitamins, folate, biotin, and pantothenate. B-complex vitamins and vitamin C are water-soluble, and the rest are fat-soluble. Manufacturers of multi-vitamins must take solubility and bio-availability into account when preparing pressed tablets or capsules. 

After ordering raw materials from distributors and checking certificates of analysis to ensure uniformly high quality, vitamin supplement manufacturers then blend ingredients according to a proprietary formula. Depending on whether the product is meant to be a pill, liquid or powder, the formula might also contain inert, food-grade binders and fillers to hold the finished product together or keep it flowing freely. Throughout the process, quality assurance personnel sample batches of the product and analyze it for the proper proportions of active ingredients. 

Natural vs. Synthetic Vitamins

Debates continue about the relative merits of naturally sourced vitamins and those synthesized in a lab. Proponents of natural and organic supplements say nature’s methods are always better, but research suggests the answer isn’t always so straightforward.

Some vitamins are identical whether they come from organic sources or are created from their constituent ingredients. Vitamin C, or ascorbic acid, has a relatively simple molecular structure that’s the same whether it comes from oranges and rose hips or is derived from glucose. Pure ascorbic acid, then, is equally effective whether it has a natural or a synthetic source. 

Some synthetic vitamin supplements may be more effective for some people than others. Vitamin B9, otherwise known as folate, is essential to proper neural tube development. It’s also available as a precursor called folic acid. While the majority of people who take it can readily convert folic acid into folate, that may not be true of everyone. In Reviews in Obstetrics and Gynecology, Dr. James A. Greenberg recommends the more bio-available L-methylfolate supplements over folic acid for women who have a history of early births in their family. On the other hand, for those who do metabolize it efficiently, folic acid is roughly 85 percent bio-available compared to 50 percent bio-availability for naturally occurring folate, according to the National Institutes of Health’s Folate Fact Sheet

For at least one vitamin, peer-reviewed studies have shown that natural sources are currently better. In an article published in the International Journal for Vitamin and Nutrition Research, scientists found that synthetically created vitamin E was in a form that was safe but less effective than naturally ocurring vitamin E. The difference is a slight change to the molecular structure of the vitamin, making some of it pass through the body instead of being in a usable form. Naturally derived vitamin E was approximately 1.4 times as effective, dose for dose, as its synthetic counterpart. 

These guidelines hold true for the pure forms of vitamins, but supplements are usually mixed with fillers, binders or other active ingredients. Some market themselves as all natural while others blend synthetically derived and naturally sourced ingredients. Talking with your family physician or a licensed nutritionist will help you decide on which vitamin supplements are right for you. Before purchasing, you should also consider doing some online research into the marketing of the supplement you wish to purchase. There are many supplement websites, which provide you with the best market choices based on criteria such as ingredients, value and pricing, manufacturer claims, user feedback and more.

Forms of Vitamin Supplements

From convenient pills to easy-to-swallow liquids, your vitamin supplements are there for you in multiple forms to suit your needs. 

  • Pills: The most common form of vitamin supplement, pressed pills are designed with portability and ease in mind. Multi-vitamins most often come in pill form because it’s the easiest way to blend and administer ingredients. Solubility is an important consideration with vitamins in pill form, so look for the USP label on vitamins. This label means the pill has been tested and proven to dissolve in the stomach. 
  • Powders: Vitamins in powder form often come with additional supplements such as protein or herbs. Some people prefer powders to pills as they’re easier to sprinkle on food or mix into drinks, but they can be more of a challenge to portion properly.
  • Capsules: Made of soluble gelatin, capsules dissolve more rapidly than pressed pills. The fat-soluble vitamins, especially vitamin E, typically come in a liquid capsule form. These clear, soft capsules are easy to swallow or apply topically to your skin as an anti-aging treatment.
  • Gummy and Chewable Vitamins: A newer entry into the realm of vitamin supplements, gummy vitamins contain the same active ingredients as other formats, but they’re suspended in a tasty, chewy gelatin base instead of a pressed pill or powder. Gummy and chewable vitamins are especially popular with kids but keep them out of reach so children don’t eat them like candy. 
  • Liquids: In liquid form, vitamins are easy to take and digest quickly. They’re also simple to mix into foods and drinks. To make dosage easier, some manufacturers put out single-use ampoules of liquid vitamins, while others supply a calibrated dropper for accurate measurement.
Vitamins, Minerals and Safety 
When taken as directed by your physician, vitamins and multi-vitamin supplements with minerals are generally safe, but there are important precautions to keep in mind. Fat-soluble vitamins, including vitamins A, D, E and K, remain in your system longer and can build up in your body’s tissues. If you take blood thinners or certain other medications, talk to your doctor about possible interactions with vitamin E and vitamin K supplements, recommends the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 

Herbal Supplements from Farm to Pharmacy

Vitamins are far from the only supplements you might find in your kitchen. Dietary supplements have become a multi-billion-dollar industry, and herbal formulas are a big part of that burgeoning business. While vitamins and minerals are more of a known quantity, the benefits of herbal preparations vary greatly based on what the formula contains, what it’s supposed to do, and how it’s taken. Another difference between vitamins and herbal supplements is that herbal formulas are typically targeted to address a particular health concern, while multi-vitamins are designed to promote overall health. 

Botanical sources for healing are as old as human history. Since ancient times, physicians have known about the ability of willow bark to bring down a fever or chamomile to calm. It wasn’t until recently that researchers began to discover the compounds in herbal remedies that made them effective. Willow bark, for example, contains a compound similar to aspirin. 

In some cases, powerful drugs have been derived from organic sources. Digoxin, a potent medication that helps regulate and strengthen heart rhythms, comes from digitalis, commonly known as foxglove. Because herbs can also have medicinal effects, it’s important to take these supplements as directed and inform your physician of everything you take to avoid interaction with other medications. 

Herbal remedies come in numerous forms, but the most popular include the following types: 

  • Herbal Pills and Capsules: Like vitamins, herbs can be milled into fine powders and pressed into tablets or enclosed in gelatin capsules. For herbal supplements that have a strong taste, pills and capsules can make remedies more palatable. Garlic supplements, for example, can have a marked taste that would affect a drink powder, but they’re easy to take in capsule form. 
  • Liquids: For herbs that have a pleasant flavor or don’t tolerate drying and grinding well, liquid concentrates can be an excellent choice. Some supplements are designed for mixing in drinks, while others are intended for sublingual use. With a calibrated dropper, this form of supplement is easy to take or to give to people who have trouble with pills.
  • Drinks and Powders: A new way to incorporate botanical supplements is in powdered drink mixes. Green juice powders and protein blends that contain herbs can be enjoyed alone or in other drinks such as smoothies or teas.

Herbal Supplement Safety

By taking herbal supplements instead of over-the-counter or prescription medications, many people feel they’re getting a gentler and more natural form of an active ingredient, but not all herbs are the same. Some plants grow with a greater concentration of active ingredients during some seasons than others, so dosage may be different from batch to batch. The efficacy of herbs has also not been as thoroughly tested as a medication that has gone through full FDA approval. Herbal tonics and supplements designed to support overall health may also contain caffeine or other stimulants, so read ingredient lists carefully. 

The Harvard Heart Letter makes the following recommendations when choosing an herbal supplement: 

– Try one-ingredient supplements to learn what works well for you. Single ingredients are also more likely to be targeted at your specific health concerns, so you’ll quickly learn if the product does what it’s intended to do for you. 

– Discuss herbal supplements with your physician to avoid any potential interactions with medicines or other supplements you already take. 

– Buy products with the USP or NSF label. The U.S. Pharmacopeia mark shows that the product has been tested for quality, uniformity and purity. The NSF stamp assures you that the supplement contains exactly what the ingredient list shows. 

Nutritional Supplements

The third category of supplement includes all the protein powders, juice concentrates and other products that contain macronutrients as well as micronutrients and botanicals. These products are designed to add nutritional value to your daily diet and typically contain calories, unlike vitamins and herbal supplements. 

Protein Powders and Smoothies

Protein is essential to building muscle tissue and maintaining good health, yet not everyone gets enough protein through diet alone. Supplements could be the answer here, and the protein in them comes from a wide range of sources to fit any dietary need. Whey protein is the most common form, but for those who don’t include dairy products in their diet, peas, rice, hemp and soy are other alternatives.


In addition to the protein itself, most protein drink mixes also contain ingredients to improve the taste and texture, including soluble fiber to thicken the drink and flavors to give it variety. Some powders contain sugars, including fructose and glucose, that could increase the calorie count and provide more food energy. That isn’t necessarily a drawback if you’re bulking, but if you’re enjoying protein powders as part of a weight maintenance plan, you may want to be aware of the calorie count. 

Some powders are meant to be blended with water, milk or soy milk by themselves. Others are intended to sprinkle into a smoothie to add nutritional value to it. A pre-sweetened or flavored mix, for example, may not work well in an already sweet and flavorful fruit smoothie. Read ingredient labels carefully to find a product that matches how you plan to use it. 

Total Nutrition Formulas

Protein powders that also contain botanicals, vitamins and minerals claim to offer total nutrition in a glass. They’re convenient for athletes who are actively training and for busy professionals but keep an eye on how these supplements work with any other formulas you might be taking. Doubling up on fat-soluble vitamins could give you too much of a good thing, and interactions between herbal supplements or other medications could have an impact on your health. If you’re looking to a total nutrition product as a meal replacement, talk with your doctor first to verify that this choice is a healthy one for you. 

The Science of Supplements

Vitamin and mineral supplements can have a powerful protective effect for anyone who’s missing vital nutrients, but the science is less clear about what other kinds of nutritional supplementation can do for you. Evidence for the value of omega-3 supplements derived from fish oil or flax suggest some protective value for your heart, while calcium supplements are known to help protect against bone density loss and osteoporosis. However, a recent study concluded that the most popular vitamins and supplements have no health effect at all. Ultimately, though, supplements are meant to add to what’s already there. Supplements aren’t substitutes, as Harvard’s Health Review points out, so it’s important to eat a balanced and varied diet of whole foods whenever possible.

What supplements do scientists use, and why?

Supplements are a strange thing. Although they’re a multi-billion industry, producers don’t need to prove that they are effective — only that they are safe. As a result, among the evidence-based products, a lot of snake-oil has also snuck on the shelves.

In a new piece on The Conversation, six scientists — experts in everything from public health to exercise physiology — discuss what supplements they take every day, and why they do it. It’s not exactly peer-reviewed science, but if there’s any advice you should follow, this is it.

Turmeric

Simon Bishop, lecturer in public health and primary care, Bangor University.

Image credits: Taylor Kiser.

Turmeric is generally thought of as a spice more than a supplement. It’s used chiefly in South-East Asia to add an earthy fragrance to foods, especially curry dishes. But recent studies have proven turmeric to be quite effective in preventing and treating a number of conditions. There is growing evidence that curcumin, a substance in turmeric, may also help to protect against a range of diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disease, dementia and some cancers. Bishop writes:

“The evidence underpinning these claims of health-giving properties is not conclusive, but it is compelling enough for me to continue to take turmeric each morning, along with my first cup of coffee – another habit that may help me live a bit longer.”

Vitamin D

Graeme Close, professor of human physiology, Liverpool John Moores University.

Senior Airman Michael Cossaboom, 20th Fighter Wing Public Affairs photojournalist, pretends to eat the sun during a sunrise in Asheville N.C., April 18, 2016. Finding ways to enjoy the workday keeps morale high for Airmen and their counterparts. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jensen Stidham)

Vitamin D is a peculiar substance, in the sense that it can be synthesized by our bodies, but only in the presence of sunlight. Most people are aware that we need enough vitamin D to maintain healthy bones, but, in recent times, researchers have shown that it plays a much more important role in our bodies. Among others, vitamin D deficiencies can result in a less efficient immune systemimpaired muscle function and regeneration, even depression.

Professor Close says that one of the positives of perks Vitamin D supplements is that it offers great value for the money.

“Vitamin D is one of the cheapest supplements and is a really simple deficiency to correct. I used to test myself for deficiencies, but now – because I live in the UK where sunlight is scarce between October and April, and it doesn’t contain enough UVB radiation during these cold months – I supplement with a dose of 50 micrograms, daily, throughout the winter. I also advise the elite athletes that I provide nutrition support to, to do the same.”

Probiotic

Justin Roberts, senior lecturer in sport and exercise nutrition, Anglia Ruskin University.

Probiotics are also commonly found in yogurt. Image via Pixnio.

Having a healthy and diverse bacterial fauna is vital for our good health — through the efficacy of probiotics remains somewhat of an open question. Still, there is significant scientific evidence to support the importance of probiotics. For instance, a recent study carried out by Roberts and colleagues found that taking a probiotic in the evening with food, over 12 weeks of exercise training, reduced gastrointestinal problems in novice triathletes. Other research has supported the efficacy of probiotics in a number of aspects, including improving intestinal health, enhancing the immune response and reducing serum cholesterol.

Prebiotic

Neil Williams, lecturer in exercise physiology and nutrition, Nottingham Trent University.

Garlic and onions are two natural sources of prebiotics. Image via Pixnio.

Prebiotics are less known than their “cousins” the probiotics. Prebiotics are a group of non-digestible carbohydrates that act as a “fertilizer” to increase the growth and activity of beneficial bacteria in the gut. This can, in turn, have positive effects on inflammation and immune functionmetabolic syndrome, increase mineral absorption, reduce traveler’s diarrhea and improve gut health. In a study, Williams showed that prebiotics reduced the severity of exercise-induced asthma in adults by 40%.

“I add prebiotic powder to my coffee every morning. I have found that it reduces my hayfever symptoms in the summer and my likelihood of getting colds in the winter.”

Omega 3

Haleh Moravej, senior lecturer in nutritional sciences, Manchester Metropolitan University.

Image via MaxPixel.

Omega 3 is a type of fatty acid that plays a very important role in brain development and mental health. There is overwhelming scientific evidence that it can improve brain functionprevent mood disorders, and help to prevent Alzheimer’s disease. However, most people, like Moravej, just aren’t getting enough of it in their diets.

“After analysing my diet it was obvious that I wasn’t getting enough omega 3 fatty acids. A healthy adult should get a minimum of 250-500mg, daily.

Due to my busy schedule as a lecturer, during term time my diet is not as varied and enriched with omega 3 fatty acids as I would like, forcing me to choose a supplement. I take one 1,200mg capsule, daily.”

Nothing but real food

Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology, King’s College London.

Image credits: Brooke Lark.

Lastly, it’s important to realize that while supplements can make a big difference, in an ideal world we would get everything we need from our food. Spector believes that rather than taking expensive and ineffective synthetic products, we should get all the nutrients, microbes, and vitamins we need from eating a range of real foods, as evolution and nature intended.

To make his case even stronger, there is evidence that supplements can sometimes have significant downsides. Studies have shown that multivitamins show regular users are more likely to die of cancer or heart disease, for example.

At the end of the day, the choice is yours. Again, it would be best if we could take everything we need from our foods, though sometimes that’s not possible. If that is the case and you do choose to supplement your diet with tablets and pills, make sure you are doing it properly because otherwise, it could end up doing more harm than good. Discussing things with your doctor is always a good idea, and always follow evidence-based medicine.