A supplement must disintegrate rapidly for maximal absorption to occur. A tablet binder is a major factor which affects the speed and extent of disintegration.
Binders as the name suggests help to bind the ingredients together - to achieve a desired bulk and form for manufacturing. Like glue that holds all the ingredients together.
A tablet binder is a part of a group of inactive, non-medicinal substances called excipients - you’ll find these listed as Other Ingredients at the very bottom of the ‘Supplement Facts’ label on your
Like most supplement users you’ve no doubt glanced at the ‘other ingredients’ list on your supplement label and perhaps wondered for a brief moment what those substances are all about and whether they should all be there. In this article I’ll explain some basics to help you understand what to look for in that mysterious ‘Other Ingredients’ list.
Firstly, powdered supplement mixes for tablets and capsules cannot be manufactured without including some excipients.
The performance of tablets, consistency of dose amounts and the use of more desirable forms of certain ingredients in the mix depend heavily on the performance of the excipients.
Many herbs, and other ingredients, clump together and don’t mix well unless excipients are added.
So, although excipients don’t contribute significant health benefits their inclusion is essential.
Tablet form is best I believe – that’s why most expensive drugs are produced this way – however very few supplement companies have mastered the correct manufacturing protocols for pharmaceutical grade tablet making. Supplement companies not using tablets will all tell you that capsules or liquid form are best.
Like all ingredients there are good excipients and there are cheap ones. The cheap ones adversely affect the bioavailability of a nutritional supplement because they don’t easily disintegrate. Others commonly cause stomach upsets, sensitivity or allergic reactions.
Have you ever known anyone who developed an adverse reaction to a supplement? I've known many.
These come ONLY from NATURAL SOURCES:
Most excipients have been used in pharmaceutical drugs for a long time and as such have reliable safety profiles which meet U.S pharmacopeia standards and FDA regulations. They have also been used in the food industry as additives for decades with no adverse effects encountered in people.
Excipients can be classified according to their function. Some serve multiple functions:
I won’t go through what each type does as I’m sure you wouldn’t be interested.
But the bottom line is this:
The less number of (effective) excipients in a tablet the better
Reputable companies include only those necessary for efficient manufacturing and to provide the required functions of the tablet.
There is no correct 'magic number' for how many excipients should be in a supplement formula but if it is in the close vicinity of say half a dozen, then I think that's pretty close to optimal in my opinion. There never will be an 'optimal' number when it comes to 'inactive ingredients' but keep in mind my 'guesstimate' above if you're trying to compare health supplement labels or decipher marketing literature.
More excipients (especially fillers) means a cheaper product!
Half of what you think you are paying for is just inactive materials!
Sometimes the use of certain excipients is hidden so take note – the ‘Supplement Facts’ label does not always give you the facts! There are no international labeling standards so labeling regulations vary from country to country.
Large amounts of excipients are common in (cheap) supplements because they are produced in vast quantities using high speed tableting or encapsulating machines. This requires the powders to flow very fast without caking/sticking thus necessitating a high proportion of excipients.
Excessive amounts of fillers are added because most supplements are produced by contract manufacturers who offer only a limited number of tablet sizes. After the formula ingredients are added if space still exists then fillers are included to increase the tablet dimensions to the size of the next mold or make a capsule look fuller.
Here’s an example :
I just looked up a very well known, inexpensive and hugely popular brand of multi vitamins and minerals sold in the US, Sth East Asian and Australian markets (the name starts with 'C' ).
The total number of excipients I counted was a WHOPPING 62!
The very cheapest multi vitamin supplements commonly use only one tablet binder and this combined with excessive pressure when compressing the tablets results in a rock-like tablet (which can and does pass straight through your digestive system without dissolving).
Professional grade supplements are around 25% excipients.
Artificial Colorants, Flavorants, Fillers and other Additives
Check for artificial colors/flavors/preservatives/fillers/binders. These are substances you don’t want in your body and are one reason why people have adverse reactions to nutritional supplements. Look for “natural” alternatives - derived from fruit and other natural sources (sensitivities to some natural sources are also common).
Potential allergenic substances include lactose, gluten, wheat, yeast and to a lesser degree corn (as vegetable coating or starch). Lactose is no longer that common in supplements but nonetheless please check as many people are lactose intolerant. Some companies hide the use of lactose as a raw material. What appears to be an ordinary listed ingredient may in fact have been standardized with 10 % lactose (or more).
The only way to really know is to demand full disclosure from the manufacturer. Please refer to my 'Questions To Ask Manufacturers' on my ingredient quality in nutritional supplements page.
Quality focused companies should clearly identify on the product label or in its marketing literature those ingredients that the product is free of.
Free of wheat, corn, yeast, soy and dairy
Artificial colorings also cause allergies and other nasty health problems. They usually have the terms D & C or FD & C (D= drug, C= cosmetic, F= food).
FD & C Yellow #5 (Tartrazine)
Which by the way has been linked to hyperactive behavioral disorders in children.
Certain colorings have been shown to be carcinogenic and banned in some countries. For example the FDA has banned FD&C Reds #1, #2 and Yellows # 3 and #4. Enough said!
Sweeteners are common in supplements. They make highly soluble, bitter tasting nutrients more palatable. Liquid vitamin products contain large amounts of sweeteners.
Natural forms are ok and include maltose, sucrose, fructose, mannitol, sorbitol, stevia, glycerine, maltodextrin and dextrose. Some also act as binders, disintegrants or coating agents and may be referred to as these rather than as sweeteners in marketing descriptions.
Give some thought to the use of sucralose (Splenda) especially in supplements for kids – it’s a CHLORINATED sucrose derivative.
The worry here comes from the hazards seen in pre-approval research and from its chemical structure and so it’s been reported that years or decades of use may contribute to serious chronic immunological or neurological disorders. We just don't know yet!
Sucralose has been approved by the FDA for use in supplements! Hmmm.
A common preservative and flow agent used in supplements. Has GRAS (generally recognize as safe) status in the U.S. but is a dubious preservative.
A tablet binder - maintains moisture to stop tablets crumbling apart (friability). Also used to make anti-freeze, de-icing solutions, cosmetics and as a solvent in: food colors, flavors, paints/plastics industry. Excessive exposure damages kidneys heart and nervous system.
The amount used in supplements is considered safe and it’s been used safely in the pharmaceutical industry for decades. This one’s up to you but there’s no way I would let this substance into my body. It is also a known skin irritant with extended use from cosmetics.
Aluminum silicate (talc)
A cheap non-food grade lubricant used in the manufacturing process. Considered by some experts to be a neuro-toxin which causes Alzheimer’s disease. May lead to digestive or absorptive problems.
I won't list every single one but I will list those most frequently used, all of which are derived from natural sources.
The most common tablet binder is probably cellulose (a plant fiber usually from pine trees) or a derivative of it so you’re bound to see “cellulose” on your label.
* Acacia gum (or gum Arabic) can cause asthma attacks, rashes and allergies in some people. (1)
Just a quick word about the commonly used excipient Magnesium Stearate (a lubricant) and the often heard claims that it can produce immunosuppressive effects and decreases absorption of nutrients in supplements.
Marketing trash travels quickly on the net. Erroneous reports are quickly picked up, taken out of context and then regurgitated on many different sites as nothing more than marketing techniques of authors and manufacturers.
These Magnesium Stearate claims principally originate from work presented in the journals ‘Pharmaceutical Technology’ and ‘Immunology’.
The tests involved can be seen as skewed from a number of different perspectives and have taken science out of context.
For vegetarians, I suggest you contact the manufacturer to check if a supplement is free from animal sources unless stated so on the label.
If your supplement is in capsule form you should know that gelatin is animal based unless a vegetarian version (potato extract) has been used – identifiable by the term “Vegicap”. Magnesium Stearate may be derived from either an animal or plant source.
Study the label!
Your supplement must disintegrate to be of benefit so regardless of your supplements’ price, what you want is to see more than a single tablet binder but not a whole handful of them.
If you’re using a more expensive supplement and want to gauge your value for money then check that there is only a couple of binders along with 3 or 4 other excipients. There should be no artificial colors, flavors or preservatives nor major allergens such as glutens, lactose and yeast.
Since many excipients serve multiple functions, the total number included in a high quality product really shouldn’t exceed around 8 to 10 in order to get the job done while still offering the greatest value for money.
(1) Mindell E. Earl Mindell’s Supplement Bible. Mindell paperback, 1998:20