5 Details That Destroy Supplement Quality That You Could Never Know About

Picture courtesy of Health Gauge

The other day I was reading a thread on the longecity forums about the differences between brands of sam-E.

Commenters remarked that with one brand they felt relaxed and calm, and the other did absolutely nothing.   Both had the same formula.

If you didn’t know one way or another you’d conclude they were both identical.   But they clearly weren’t.

You hear this sort of sentiment from supplement junkies all the time.

“Oh, I only use XYZ brand because it’s the only one where I can feel a difference.”

5 years ago I would’ve thought they were gullible sycophants but now I take them seriously.

I hired a consultant to help me source some of the ingredients for Incredible Mood and the most edifying part of the experience was seeing the vast differences in product quality you can get for the same ingredients.

You would think with FDA regulations and the organic standard that you ought to be able to just put things on auto pilot and assume everything will turn out alright because it’s all regulated anyway.


Practically any standard that governs product quality has holes that are big enough to drive a semi-truck through.

If you are a low-cost grower from China or South America it’s far more profitable to find ways to game the system  than it is to actually grow good herb.  Growing herb is risky because you have to deal with seasonal weather variations, expensive resource inputs and pay very close attention to a lot of details about how an ingredient is harvested.

It’s much easier to find a way to disguise degraded ingredients and then sell them as the real thing.

A lot (most?) of the herbal products out there are little more than doctored up wood chips.

Here are the five biggest sources for error in supplement manufacturing that are hard to catch if you only follow oversight methods articulated in legal doctrine:

1).  How Were the Plants Dried?

The big difference between manufacturing vitamins and botanicals is that vitamins are made in a lab under controlled conditions while botanicals are grown in the wild.  That means things like humidity, precipitation, and harvesting method have a big impact on product quality.

Biologically active compounds are naturally fragile.  The whole point is that they react inside your body and transform compounds from one thing to another.  That’s why things like flavonols and antioxidants are good for you and cement is not.  The former participate in chemical reactions after being digested, the latter doesn’t do anything.

An important step in the harvesting process for a botanical is its drying method.  The most popular method is spray drying, which can also be the most damaging for a plant’s vitamin content.

Spray drying involves soaking a plant in some sort of solvent that encapsulates the active compounds with a polymer and then drying it with a hot gas that evaporates the aqueous parts of the solution, leaving only a dry powder as the finished product.

Spray drying isn’t inherently ineffective, but it involves the use of more chemicals in the extraction process which have to be removed and tested for, creating a greater margin of error.

Safer methods are freeze drying or refractive window drying, which don’t involve the use of heat or chemicals.

2).  When Was the Plant Harvested?

The most beneficial plant compounds degrade in a power-law fashion.  That means their potency quickly declines to nothing with increasing environmental exposure.

Carelessness at the time of harvesting can result in heavily degraded botanicals which barely resemble the original plant.  The difference between “intact” and “degraded” can be as little as a few hours wait.

3).  What solvents or carrier molecules were used in the extraction process?

Any dietary ingredient that’s been extracted to contain a specific amount of a compound uses some sort of carrier molecule to stabilize the active ingredient.  It’s usually a long-chain carbohydrate like maltodextrin or tapioca starch.

Why is this relevant?

1). Carrying agents differ quite a bit in their effectiveness.

2). Carrying agents are inexpensive and can be added to increase bulk if you want to adulterate a product.

I was talking to someone who works in QC for my manufacturing facility and they were telling me they recently got a $100/kilo ingredient tested for purity and it came back 20% mannitol, which is a sugar that easily dissolves in water.  Happens all the time.

4).  What pesticides were used in the growing process?

Probably the biggest misconception people have about the organic standard is they think it means organic products are grown without pesticides.  Not true.  What it actually states is that a product can be labeled organic as long as it’s grown with pesticides that are naturally occurring and other crop management practices have already been in place.

What this means in practice is there’s no commercially farmed crop that doesn’t use pesticides in one way or another.

So you have to test for them with each ingredient and the final product.

5).  Do the botanicals contain invasive species?

Most botanicals grow in the presence of some other weed that can contaminate the crop.  Better yet, most botanicals also have a closely related species that can easily appear to be the desired ingredient with certain tests.

If you combine these two together, this means it’s fairly easy for an unscrupulous supplier to either not control for an invasive species or deliberately blend the active herb with another species that closely resembles it.

This can happen both for the whole plant and its active ingredients.

A good example would be pomegranate extract. Its active ingredient is ellagic acid, which is also found in wood chips.  It’s practically impossible to get pomegranate to contain more than 5% ellagic acid by weight.  There are a lot of pomegranate products (including Incredible Berries) that use pomegranate extract with much higher concentrations of this ingredient.

Most of these ingredients either use expensive, patented extraction processes or are contaminated with some form of sawdust that’ll test positive for ellagic acid on an FTIR test.  If you aren’t careful with your testing you wouldn’t be able to know the difference.

Another good example is Rhodiola rosea.  It’ll be used in Incredible Mood and I found out through a testing laboratory that it’s very common for suppliers to blend it with another species called Rhodiola rhodantha, which resembles the rosea species in many ways but has little of the biological activity.

It’s easy to get the latter that’s billed as the former if you’re not paying attention.

But Isn’t Everyone Required To Test for All This?

A sensible retort to this article would be “But aren’t companies required to test for all this stuff in the first place?”

You’d think the answer would be an unequivocal yes, but the truth is murkier.

The section of the FDA guidelines that governs ingredient identification is section 111.70, and its wording is vague.

It states that you ought to have a protocol for identifying an ingredient when it comes into your facilities and a process for disposing of contaminated ingredients if surprises happen.  But there are no specifics.

This creates scenarios where there aren’t clear answers for how you should go about properly identifying ingredients.

For example, if you have a product that uses St. John’s Wort that’s standardized to contain 0.3% hypericum you could credibly test for the hypericum to justify your label claim but not for the identification of the plant itself and still technically be within the letter of the law, even if you’re not within its spirit.

A discerning consumer would want to know how you can tell whether or not companies take the appropriate steps to contain these areas of concern.

The truth is you can’t.  There’s no one specification or piece of information on a label that’ll tell you whether or not anyone paid attention to these details.

The companies putting it in the bottle just have to pay close attention to what’s going on.

I know for a fact that there are many companies that do follow these steps……but there are quite a few that don’t.

3 thoughts on “5 Details That Destroy Supplement Quality That You Could Never Know About”

  1. I try and stick with professional brands like Pure Encapsulations, Thorne Research, Xymogen, etc.
    Some national brands I trust are Nutricology, Life Extension, and Paradise herbs


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