Fillers and Flow Agents in Supplements: What are they, and are they safe to consume?

The law requires manufacturers of supplements to indicate the quantities of active ingredients in a product. However, most supplements contain “other ingredients” known as excipients. Excipients are considered necessary for production but of negligible effect to your health, or inactive. You can see a list of excipients on the “supplemental facts” panel of a product, and they may include fillers and flow agents.

Although manufacturers consider fillers and flow-agents as inactive, research shows the opposite. Some could affect your health negatively. Here’s more on why manufacturers use fillers and flow agents in supplements, and their safety.

What are fillers and flow agents?

Fillers and flow agents are vehicles, or mediums, for the main components in a supplement. They enhance workability, taste, looks, and stability of a product. Excipients, including fillers and flow agents, can perform other functions such as coloring, binding, coating, and preserving.

Ironically, these qualities do not enhance the effectiveness of the final product. However, many manufacturers portray fillers and flow agents as necessary ingredients. 

Manufacturers add fillers and flow agents to increase the bulk, reduce production costs, and stretch the product’s shelf life. These objectives have nothing to do with your health. 

Digging deeper into fillers and flow agents

The primary function of fillers, as the name suggests, is to add bulk to the product. Naturally-occurring bioactive supplement ingredients are hard to cultivate, extract and process. Take, for instance, Chaga mushroom supplements. It is a well-known fact that you cannot cultivate medicinally viable Chaga mushroom; it must be of wild provenance. Few supplement manufacturers go the extra mile to source for wild Chaga. Fewer are transparent about their product specs. Since wild Chaga is scarce, manufacturers use fillers to give their products a fuller look whilst having as little active ingredients as possible. 

Flow agents, on the other hand, are meant to make the manufacturing process seamless. They reduce caking and other processing hurdles. Agents such as Magnesium Stearate and Silicon dioxide have been hailed for making the products flow seamlessly during manufacturing. But, there are questions about their necessity.

Modern extraction methods (such as dual-extraction) incur significantly less caking since extracts have less moisture. Supplements manufactured using such processes are also richer because the extract contains both the water-soluble and non-water-soluble compounds. However, they tend to be slightly more expensive because dual extraction requires extra investment by the manufacturer.

It is easy to see that fillers and flow agents only help the manufacturer get a better profit. But, their effect goes beyond the manufacturer’s balance sheet. Some can affect your health. 

Common fillers and flow agents and how they affect your health

Although manufacturers consider fillers and flow agents as inactive substances, it is hard to believe that they have zero effect on your health. Questions over the safety of some of the most popular fillers and flow agents are hard to ignore. 

Here’s a look at what you should consider as you scroll the supplemental facts panel of your bottle.

Starch is the most common filler used in supplements, and it’s considered safe. In most cases, supplement manufacturers use plant-extracted starch which is also regarded as suitable for vegans. However, many manufacturers use GMO-sourced starch. It makes more economic sense and is easier to access. There’s much controversy about the effect of GMO products on human health. Although the jury is still out there regarding GMO products, you may want to avoid consuming them in your supplement. 

Magnesium Stearate is a flow agent used to prevent clumping of a supplement’s ingredients in the manufacturing process. It is made from a combination of Magnesium and Stearic acid. Although it’s an efficient flow enhancer, there’s much controversy over how it can affect human health. A study released in the 1990s found that it suppresses the immune system in rats; suggesting that the same could also happen in humans. But more recent studies have disputed this claim. 

Silicon dioxide is yet another common anti-caking agent. It draws moisture from the ingredients without interfering with the composition of the ingredients. It is also thought not to interfere with your health. But studies suggest that micro granules of Silicon dioxide can sneak past the brain-blood barrier and affect your health. 


Choosing a supplement

Studies are yet to prove that fillers and flow agents are harmful. However, this is an area of controversy which you are better off on the safer side. 

Scrutinize the supplemental facts panel on the supplement’s label, and choose products that have no filler and flow agents. Manufacturers who go the extra mile to source natural ingredients, and use top-notch processes, do not need to add fillers and flow agents. Their products are purer and healthier. Although they may cost slightly more, you have the guarantee of a richer and more effective supplement. Most importantly, there’s a lower chance of affecting your health negatively.

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