Food & Nutrition

Choosing clean supplements – 5 ingredients to avoid

Emma Harpham in partnership with Viridian Nutrition  |   31 Jul 2023

Many of us assume that when we pick up a new supplement, those crucial vitamins we see on the label are exactly what we’re getting. However, this isn’t always the case. Other ingredients are often added to supplements as flow agents, binders and bulkers – and whilst these hidden extras aren’t usually directly harmful to your health, they can mean you’re at risk of not getting the nutrients you need.

Viridian Nutrition is a clean supplement brand that has created over 250 specialist supplements since 1999. As pioneers of ethical supplements, it’s been their mission to make products with a difference – to your health, to our planet and to our communities.

Choosing only the purest ingredients (100% certified organic where possible) each of their products is created by expert nutritionists with formulations containing 100% active ingredients, and avoiding fillers, binders and other extra nasties.

We’ve partnered with Viridian Nutrition to bring you expert insights into what might hiding in your supplements. From helpful pointers on what makes a clean supplement to a list of ingredients that are essential to avoid, read on to find out more and hear from their specialist team.

The importance of 100% active ingredients

You might be surprised to discover that some food supplements can contain up to 50% artificial additives, glues and flow agents – none of which have any real nutritional value. 

The founder and MD of Viridian Nutrition, Cheryl Thallon, states: “It all started when we asked, what is really inside health supplements? The answer took us on a journey where we discovered that up to 50% of some food supplements are fillers, binders, glues and other compounds that reduce the potency. It just felt wrong, so in 1999 we set off on a mission to make food supplements with a healthy attitude.”

Additive ingredients are usually included to speed up the manufacturing process and keep production costs down. These additives are not only lacking any nutrition but may also not be quite as safe for consumption as we might hope – as recently demonstrated by the World Health Organisation (WHO) findings on the popular additive sweetener aspartame

Clean dietary supplement brands use manufacturing techniques that eliminate the need for fillers, additives and excipients. This makes clean supplements slower to produce, but higher in quality and all-important nutritional value. 

Choosing a dietary supplement with 100% active ingredients is actually really key. You can make sure that additional nutrients are added to your diet – whether you’re managing a health condition, looking to achieve a health goal, wanting to start a family and trying to conceive, or purely supporting your busy lifestyle – whilst avoiding any nasty extras.

Not all supplement brands are created equal

So, what do clean supplements look like in comparison to regular brands? We’ve taken the work out of trawling through ingredient labels and created this breakdown of Viridian hero product Fertility for Women next to a high-street brand fertility supplement – so you don’t have to.

Here’s what this difference in ingredient content can look like, in practice. 

Viridian Fertility for Women

  • Has no added nasties, glue or binding agents
  • Provides science-backed, therapeutic quantities of each nutrient
  • Contains Beta carotene measured to transform into the correct amount of vitamin A 
  • Rich in antioxidants 
  • Contains DHA from marine algae, suitable for vegetarians and vegans

High-street brand fertility supplement

  • Includes iron as ferrous fumarate, a form that is poorly absorbed
  • Contains bulking agents and fillers like maltodextrin, as well as colours and anti-caking agents 
  • Contains soy, a common allergen
  • Contains titanium dioxide, a white colourant that has been banned in the EU (more on this below)
viridian clean supplements fertility

What additives should you avoid in supplements?

As we’re learning, selecting the right food supplement can be difficult. Not only are the ingredients hard to understand, but recognising which ingredients are nutritive and non-nutritive is even harder. Here are five ingredients to absolutely avoid – and why.

1. Titanium dioxide

Titanium dioxide in vitamins is commonly added to make capsules look a bright white colour. 

“Titanium dioxide is a white compound responsible for making foods, food supplements and medications white in appearance,” explains Viridian Senior Nutritionist Jenny Carson. 

“However, the European Food Standards Agency (EFSA) evaluated the safety data for titanium dioxide and concluded that titanium dioxide can no longer be considered a food additive. The EFSA scientific opinion could not rule out concern for genotoxicity (the ability to damage DNA) and consequently could not establish a safe daily intake.”

“Just as foods are highly pigmented, so are nutrients. They each have a unique colour, and these colours do not need to be hidden. Titanium dioxide in supplements or food is not necessary, and contributes no beneficial function whatsoever,” explains Jenny.

2. Magnesium stearate

Commonly added to make tablets smooth, magnesium stearate works as a flow agent that helps large volumes of powder to pass through machines more quickly. However, it is not necessary for food supplement manufacture when using slow manufacture – in fact, it has no nutritional value and should be avoided.

Further, Jenny adds that this form of magnesium is not on the permitted list of ingredients for use in food supplements as it does not deliver magnesium to the body, and some Health Professionals believe it may have a link to autoimmunity – although this is yet to be reported in research.

3. Palm oil and other hydrogenated oils

Commonly added as flow agents to stop ingredients from sticking, excessive consumption of these types of hydrogenated fats is associated with increased LDL cholesterol, which can lead to hardening of the arteries and more serious cardiovascular issues.

Plus, when fats like this are present in a food supplement, an emulsifier will often be used with it. Evidence has shown that polysorbate emulsifiers can sometimes damage the protective mucus lining of your gastrointestinal tract. 

Also, increased palm oil production in recent years has had significant negative effects on fragile forest ecosystems and habitats – all in all, some pretty solid reasons to avoid palm oil in supplements.

4. Lanolin

Lanolin is another ingredient that is best avoided. Commonly found in vitamin D3 supplements, and is sourced predominantly from New Zealand sheep’s wool. So, not only is it non-vegan, nor a conscious ingredient, it is highly processed with a large carbon footprint attributed to shipping and processing.

Further, the process of producing vitamin D3 includes chemical washes and solvent extraction, which means potentially harmful chemicals are used during manufacture.

5. Artificial colourings and flavourings

Avoiding artificial colourings and flavourings and choosing natural alternatives instead can be a good idea. Natural flavours not only enhance the taste of your supplement in a healthier way, but may also provide a small amount of botanical bio-actives which can benefit your body, Jenny explains. Plus, taste is important as it triggers the early stages of digestion, which can promote better nutrient absorption in turn.

How do I know if a supplement is clean?

As well as knowing the ingredients to avoid, it can also be helpful to know what to look out for when making the switch to a clean supplement brand. 

Jenny recommends keeping the following tips in mind to make the process a little easier.

  • Look for food supplements that are manufactured in the UK. This means that they are regulated by the Food Safety Act, and will conform to careful UK and EU legislation.
  • Check whether the food supplement company is easy to get in touch with. Contacting a food supplement company should be easy, and this is a great way to ask about third-party laboratory testing, their criteria for selecting ingredients and their production standards.
  • Read the label and look for evidence that the ingredients are vegan, are not tested on animals and don’t contain palm oil.
  • Look for ingredients elsewhere on the label. The nutrition table doesn’t always list all of the ingredients, but all UK-manufactured food supplements must provide a list of ingredients by law so there could be more listed elsewhere on the label that you might be missing.
  • Check for E numbers. Generally, additives will have been allocated an E number, so if an E number is present then chances are the compound is a manufacturing aid, and not there for the good of your health.

When it comes to choosing clean supplements, not all formats measure up the same, either. 

“The best options when choosing supplements are capsules and powders,” explains Jenny. These formats allow for the production of clean supplements as opposed to tablets which require glues and binders to hold the shape.

She adds: “It is still advised to check the ingredient lists of capsules in case bulking agents have been used. Once the active ingredients are added to the capsule there is often some space left over. Viridian Nutrition fills this space with alfalfa, spirulina and bilberry due to their nutritious and hypoallergenic nature. However, other companies may opt for cheaper non-nutritive materials, such as maltodextrin.”

“Liquids can be difficult to produce in a clean manner, as many companies opt to add artificial sweeteners or sugar derivatives to enhance the taste. The good news for those that prefer liquid format is some nutrients such as vitamin C or vitamin D are conducive to a clean liquid without the need for emulsifiers, sweetening agents and synthetic flavours.”

It is also worth noting that whilst organic supplements are produced using ingredients and processes that do not use pesticides and chemical fertilisers (with the gold standard being the certification laid out by the Soil Association) there is no guarantee that fillers and other agents won’t be added. The best option here is to look for supplements like Viridian that are clean and offer organic, to make sure you’re avoiding any artificial additives.

Ready to make the switch? If you are keen to learn more about clean food supplements, head over to Viridian Nutrition where you can browse their extensive range, read articles and get in touch with their team of qualified nutritionists for personalised advice and recommendations.

Jenny Carson, MRES, BSc (Hons) is a Senior Nutritionist at ethical vitamin company Viridian Nutrition.

She has over 8 years of experience supporting people with nutritional health advice.

She has completed a Master of Research (MRes) in Public Health, giving her a wide understanding of public health nutrition.

Viridian Nutrition Clean Supplements Jenny Carson

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