My roommate is studying to be a pharmacist, and I’ve learned a lot from her about the way medication is made, tested, and distributed in the US. However, I’ve always been curious about what I put in my body, and not just when it comes to medication. I’m the type of person who likes to know what farm my food comes from, if it is sustainably or ethically sourced, and all that important stuff. What about my daily vitamins, though? Asking about it has been a bit of a black box. How are they regulated, how are they manufactured, and how can I find vitamins that are ethically sourced? Or am I getting too caught up in this?
Vitamins and supplements are a booming industry in the United States. According to Statista.com, the sales of vitamins and nutritional supplements ballooned to $36 billion in the United States in 2017. But part of that growth has been driven by bad actors. As Consumer Reports points out, several popular protein supplements have been found to contain high levels of metals such as lead and arsenic. Your instinct to stay informed is right. By knowing where your vitamins come from, you will be able to make better choices for your health.
Just like medication, supplements are regulated by the FDA. The FDA regulates supplements under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994. Unlike medication, the FDA does not use the DSHEA to verify the health claims made by supplement makers, but the law does empower the FDA to pull supplements from the shelves if they cause health problems. This makes it extra-tricky to choose vitamins and supplements, because claims are unverified, and the FDA takes years to comb through the backlog of supplements that have been flagged for regulation. Finally — and again, unlike medication — most vitamins have no patents, because you cannot patent natural products such as vitamin compounds and amino acids. Supplements and vitamins can be trademarked, but they cannot be patented. This means the difference between two vitamin brands is sometimes just that — the branding — rather than trade secret formula.
Trade secret or not, how are they manufactured? Because vitamins are organic compounds, most people think of them as coming from natural materials. But in fact, vitamins marked “natural” only have to contain 10 percent plant-derived ingredients. Most vitamins are produced synthetically. The reason for this discrepancy is that, because vitamins are organic molecules, chemically manufacturing nature-identical vitamins is much more efficient than isolating the miniscule amount of vitamin molecules in an entire plant or animal. Imagine draining an entire lake to catch a fish, and you have some idea.
Makers Nutrition, a supplement manufacturer that makes and designs supplements on contract, offers a lot of information relating to the manufacturing process. Once the molecular vitamin compounds have been isolated, they are usually in a crystalline form. These crystals need to be ground and blended to the final formula mix. The vitamins are often then mixed with additives, such as cellulose and sucrose, to bulk up the mixture and prepare it for encapsulation or tablet compression. The mixture is either pressed into a tablet or hopped into gelatin capsules. Finally, the almost-finished vitamins are inspected for quality control, and, then are packaged and shipped out.
To find ethically sourced vitamins and supplements, your best bet is probably to look into trustworthy consumer guides, such as the afore-linked Consumer Reports. The Good Shopping Guide is a resource for consumers interested in making ethical purchases. Their ranking system considers everything from vegetarianism to animal welfare to responsible marketing to political donations. They ultimately score companies on how many of those categories they meet.
As we said before, your instinct to learn more about your daily vitamins is the right one. Not only can you make good choices for yourself, but by staying informed you can make good choices for the planet, which is the healthiest choice of all.