Ever stop to consider what's really in the herbal supplements you’re taking daily?
Like any investment, you need to make sure you’re getting your money’s worth when you buy supplements. You also want to select products that can truly support your health.
Nature offers many botanicals. For example, you can buy herbs that support your liver function and a super seed for gut and microbiome health. But will any brand do?
Not all supplement manufacturers put quality and efficacy at the top of their priorities. Some companies use inferior ingredients, dilute potency with fillers, and skip tests for product purity. Fortunately, you can avoid these industry stunts. It's all about finding a trustworthy company and sticking with it.
When choosing an herbal supplement company and products, there's 7 major areas to check.
Understanding Supplement Labels
Reading herbal supplement labels can be confusing and overwhelming. To simplify this process, grab a supplement bottle you have inside your house and walk through these 7 steps.
#1: Check the Capsules
First, check what kind of capsules are being used.
There are two main types of capsules used in supplementation: animal-based and plant-based. Animal-based gelatin capsules are created with the collagen found in the bones and connective tissues of bovine (beef) or pork (porcine). On the other hand, plant-based capsules (veggie capsules) are made up of cellulose, an important structural component in plants.
Plant-based capsules, such as HPMC (hydroxypropyl methylcellulose), are cleaner and more ideal than those from animal-based gelatin. They also support a vegetarian lifestyle, if that is a concern. (1)
#2: Look for Additives and Preservatives
Next, examine the herbs listed in the Supplement Facts panel on the product. These are the active ingredients included to support your health in some way.
Below the Supplement Facts panel, “other ingredients” or "inactive ingredients" are listed. These include any additives or preservatives, as well as the type of capsule.
Some additives may be unfamiliar or sound like chemicals concocted in a laboratory. For example, you might see:
- Magnesium stearate
- Potassium sorbate
- Silicon dioxide
- Stearic acid
- Titanium dioxide
If these type of ingredients are used, they should be listed as “other ingredients” or “inactive ingredients” on the label, as mandated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). (2, 3)
But why does the FDA monitor this? And why should you care if preservatives are added to your supplement?
To maintain product freshness, supplement companies may add natural or synthetic (man-made) preservatives. Preservatives deter the growth of bacteria and mold in products. Unfortunately, these additives can possibly impact your health.
For example, consider potassium sorbate. It’s a common synthetic preservative in many dietary supplements and food products. The FDA classifies the additive as generally recognized as safe (GRAS). But is it really?
Test-tube and animal studies suggest potassium sorbate may damage the DNA in cells and increase cancer risk. It may also worsen asthma. (4, 5, 6)
Additionally, have you considered the effect of chemical preservatives on your gut microbiome? Remember, many preservatives are designed to kill bacteria.
Test-tube research suggests potassium sorbate and other antibacterial preservatives may kill beneficial gut bacteria. That could harm the balance of your microbiome — and ultimately your health. (7)
#3: Check for Fillers, Binders, and Lubricators
Many (but not all) manufacturers of herbal supplements use fillers, binders, and lubricating agents to simplify the often complicated production process. For instance, ingredients or herbs may clump together during manufacturing. If they are stuck inside of equipment instead of going into the capsule, that results in lost profits.
Adding fillers, binders, and lubricators helps overcome these challenges and can make a significant difference in how many capsules a company can fill in a day. More specifically:
Fillers, such as cellulose fiber, can help fill up capsules. Otherwise, without fillers, some supplement capsules would look half empty — even if they contain the amount of active ingredient listed on the label.
Binders make the components of an herbal mixture stay together during manufacturing
Lubricants prevent herbs and other ingredients from clinging to the insides of machines
These are generally good things. But at the very least, these fillers, binders, and lubricants dilute the potency of the herbal supplement. And they may also pose potential health risks.
Short-term health risks
When you have chronic health issues like parasites, your gut health tends to suffer. “Leaky gut” or increased intestinal permeability can result. You may develop sensitivities or allergies to ingredients you used to tolerate.
Fillers and other inactive ingredients could potentially trigger an unwanted reaction. You may mistakenly blame the herbs, rather than the extra ingredients.
For example, suppose a company adds maltodextrin to a supplement as a filler, and it’s made from cornstarch. If you have a sensitivity to corn, you could have an adverse reaction like digestive upset. Worse, if you have an allergy to corn, your response could be life-threatening.
Long-term health risks
The long-term health effects of various excipients are uncertain. Though the FDA may classify an additive as safe, some studies raise concerns.
For example, consider carrageenan, which is derived from red seaweed and is sometimes used as a binder in pills. Animal studies suggest it may promote colon cancer. (7)
Similarly, animal studies suggest titanium dioxide (a whitener) may harm gut health and increase cancer risk in the digestive tract. (8, 9)
You may not get very much of these ingredients in a single pill. Still, what if the ingredients are in several supplements that you’re taking daily?
Additionally, many of these are also found in foods. It’s difficult to measure how much of these ingredients you’re exposed to from all sources. The risk could add up.
To err on the side of caution, minimize your intake of these inactive ingredients. Look for companies that promote "No Fillers" on their bottles.
#4: Avoid GMOs
Besides watching out for inactive ingredients in herbal supplements, you also need to consider the quality of the active ingredients. This includes choosing products that avoid genetically modified (GMO) ingredients.
In genetic modification, scientists insert the genes from one species into another species. For example, they may insert bacterial genes into corn plants to help ward off insects in the field. Nature cannot do that kind of gene transfer on its own. Many experts question whether the agriculture industry should be doing this either.
Genetically modified plants may contain: (10)
- Foreign proteins
- Gene residues that may “turn on” genes leading to cancer
- Immune system-altering genes
- Viral genes
Long-term studies evaluating the health risks of such factors are sparse. Research is needed to determine the effects of GMOs on the risk of cancer, infertility, and many other aspects of health. (11, 12)
Also keep in mind, one reason crops are genetically modified is to withstand the heavy use of toxic pesticides (like glyphosate). When you consume ingredients made from these crops, you’re likely also ingesting pesticide residues. (13, 14)
So what does all this mean for herbal supplements?
Herbs aren’t commonly genetically modified, but some of the additives in herbal supplements may be GMO.
For example, most soybeans and corn are genetically modified, and inactive ingredients are commonly derived from them. Soybean oil is sometimes the source of stearic acid, which may be used as a lubricant in supplement manufacturing. And corn is often the source of citric acid, which can be used as a preservative. (15)
If a supplement doesn’t contain any of these extra ingredients, there’s less risk of GMOs sneaking into the formulation.
#5: Say No to Irradiation
Irradiation poses a similar issue as GMOs. Irradiation means ionizing radiation is applied to crops to kill living organisms, such as bacteria, mold, and insects. Advocates of this food safety technique like it for these reasons.
However, ionizing radiation changes the chemistry of plants. Some research suggests irradiation of herbs decreases their vitamin and antioxidant content. This can influence the potency and effectiveness of supplements. (16, 17)
Not to mention, irradiation raises concerns for increased exposure to radioactive elements. Ionizing radiation can affect DNA, immune systems, mitochondrial function, and much more. (18)
When choosing an herbal supplement company, ask questions. Look for a brand that has strict herb-sourcing standards.
#6: Look into Purity and Quality
Don’t assume a company tests the quality or purity of its herbal supplements. Unfortunately, not all supplement makers have your best interests at heart.
In one study, scientists tested 44 herbal supplements made by 12 different North American companies. They checked to see if the products contained the ingredients on the label and looked for unlabeled ingredients.
A whopping 59% of the products contained DNA from plant sources that weren’t listed on the label. In some cases, these were probably unintended contaminants. In other cases, they were likely fillers.
These unlisted ingredients included: (2)
- Tree bark
- Walnut leaves
As already mentioned, contaminants and other unlisted ingredients pose an immediate threat if you’re allergic to them. They can also cause harm due to other health conditions or medication interactions.
Though this study looked at only a small number of companies and products, such problems shouldn’t happen. A reputable supplement company tests ingredients and products before, during, and after manufacturing.
Before a company uses herbs or other raw ingredients in supplements, they should test for contaminants. This testing should check for the presence of:
Toxic levels of all three have been found in medicinal herbs grown in some countries. (19)
A company should follow standard good manufacturing practices during supplement production. This includes using sanitary and well-controlled processes.
Employees should ensure the herbs remain free from contamination during production. This includes testing ingredients once they’re mixed.
Other quality aspects should also be carefully monitored, such as heat exposure. Too much heat can damage the herbs. This could reduce or even destroy their potency.
After the herbal supplement is made, it should be tested again. This final test:
- Ensures products contain the active ingredients in the amounts stated on the label
- Verifies products are pure and free of harmful contaminants
These three steps are standard quality assurance procedures. You should expect them from an herbal supplement company.
#7: Choose High Absorption Products
The final step is ensuring your products are easily absorbed. You've probably heard the saying, “You are what you eat.” A more accurate statement is, “You are what you absorb.”
Even if a supplement checks all the other boxes, it will not matter if your body never actually absorbs the active ingredients. To effectively deliver the herbs to your body, supplements may need some assistance.
This is where soil-based organisms come into play. For example, fulvic acid helps herbal components get into your cells. The same is true of carbon-based binders, which contain fulvic acid.
Fulvic acid can help:
- Attract other substances, such as herbs, and support their navigation through the watery byways of your digestive tract
- Escort herbs across cell membranes into the deep inner compartments of your cells
- Increase the permeability of your cell membranes to allow substances to enter or exit
Once inside your cells, the herbs can do their work to support your health.
If that weren’t impressive enough, fulvic acid is also an antibacterial and antifungal agent. So it can serve as a natural preservative in supplements. (20)
Selecting an Herbal Supplement Company
Several telltale signs suggest you've found a company as invested in the quality of its products as you are as a customer.
Think of the company you are considering. Can you:
- Ask questions about the products and get satisfactory answers?
- Become a member of an interactive community of people who are also using herbal supplements to support their health?
- Call them and talk to a live person on the other end?
- Continue learning about their herbal products, such as with articles, instructional videos, and live presentations online?
You should be able to answer “Yes” to these questions. Your health journey is about much more than taking an herbal supplement. It also means having the support you need along the way.
Lastly, it probably goes without saying that you generally get what you pay for. If one company’s herbal supplements are half the price of another, you should question the quality.
Supplement Criteria Recap
You should consider many factors when choosing the best herbal supplements for you. Remember to find out if they are:
- Formulated with fulvic acid, when appropriate, to maximize absorbability and preservation
- Made without synthetic binders, fillers, lubricators, and preservatives
- Produced by a reliable company that offers continuing education, good customer support, and online community involvement
- Produced using high-quality ingredients
- Tested to verify purity and quality
Get the most out of your invested time and resources by making sure your herbal supplements meet all these criteria. After all, nothing is more expensive than products that don’t work to support your health.
Do your herbal supplements meet all of the above requirements?