But maybe we haven't heard enough of this … it isn't our fault. Because although we may strive to eat a clean and healthy diet, there are many things (and food manufacturing practices) that are beyond our control … things like factory-farming, which depletes our soil of its necessary minerals and microorganism content, thus depleting the nutritional value of our healthiest foods.
At SmartyPants, it's our mission to make it easier for people to be healthier everyday — both by making products that help supplement for gaps in our diets and by sorting through the thousands of conflicting recommendations and studies to find the kernels of truth we think are worth sharing.
That's why our research team has created the below list. Here are seven things you definitely don't want to see on the labels of your foods and supplements...
1. Artificial colors and sweeteners.
There’s no nutritional value in adding anything artificial to our foods, medicines, or supplements. And it's surprising that even though many supplements are pills we swallow and never taste, so many of them still contain artificial colors and sweeteners.
All artificial sweeteners like sucralose, saccharin and aspartame are synthetic and have been the subject of intense scrutiny for decades. Critics say that they cause a variety of health problems, including cancer.
In fact, there's now even a disease associated with artificial sweeteners — Artificial Sweetener Disease (ASD), which is characterized by migraine headaches, low moods, joint and muscle soreness, chronic fatigue, gastrointestinal disorders, tinnitus, vision problems, nausea, dementia, brain cancer, and fibromyalgia.
Contrary to popular belief, there are ways to add color to food without using chemicals, and many manufacturers are now using natural colorings derived from actual fruits and vegetables.
2. Cyanocobalamin, a form of B12 that has traces of cyanide.
Vitamin B12, like other B vitamins, is important for your metabolism. While many companies often claim (on their labels) that B12 "gives you" energy, B12 itself does not generate energy. It helps your body process fats, carbohydrates and protein which, in turn, are used for energy.
While an absence of B12 in your system hinders (if not outright prevents) the body's use of these fuel sources, thus inhibiting energy production, it's inaccurate to state that B12 itself is a fuel source. B12 is instead a facilitator of macronutrient processing. It also helps in the formation of red blood cells and in the maintenance of the central nervous system. In it's natural form, B12 is called cobalamin and can only be found in animal products – which is why the synthetic form of B12 is preferable to anyone limiting their meat intake.
There are two types of lab-created vitamin B12: (1) cyanocobalamin and (2) methylcobalamin. Cyanocobalamin is a man-made form of vitamin B12. As its name implies, it contains a minute dose of cyanide (you read that right) and is the most common and least expensive form of B12, which is why most manufacturers use it. Although the cyanide molecule found in this form is relatively insignificant, it is still a toxin your body will need to remove before it can be used.
Methylcobalamin, as the name implies, is part of the methyl group and is nontoxic. It's also been shown to be potentially more beneficial for your liver, brain, and nervous system and is the more bioavailable form of B12. Finding this on a supplement label is a good indicator that it is high quality.
3. The "unnamed" omega-3.
Omegas from algae or small fish contain the critical omega-3 fatty acids: DHA and EPA. While vegetarian forms of omegas contain ALA, which the body can convert into DHA and EPA, it can only do so at a very low ratio. This means getting omegas from both sources is very important.
Most supplements will list "fish" without providing any detail about the kind of fish, how it was sourced, how it was prepared and what it contains. If your product doesn't list the source of omega-3 (or if it just says the source is "fish") it's most likely sourced from tuna or other larger fish.
Sourcing omega-3 from "fish" or "tuna" is often problematic because virtually all larger fish have some heavy metals contamination and farmed fish also often come loaded with other pollutants as well. Look for omega-3's sourced from sustainable small fish sources made into an ultra-pure small fish oil, processed using only a patented cold-vacuum filtration. This process also prevents exposure of the fish oil to oxygen, which can turn the oil rancid, nullifying any fish oil benefits and putting extra burden on the body to remove the rancid oil.
Using small fish addresses the risk of environmental toxins such as mercury and PCB’s found in larger fish like tuna or salmon.
4. D2, a cheap form of vitamin D.
Vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol) is derived from plant sources and isn't normally found in the human body. Therefore many experts believe that D2 doesn't get absorbed properly by the body, and may produce unknown and possibly detrimental effects when digested in your gastrointestinal tract.
D3 (cholecalciferol), on the other hand, is the exact form of vitamin D your body produces when your skin comes into contact with sunlight. D3, for this reason, is considered the type your body is programmed to recognize and the vitamin D form that experts agree should be included in your supplements.
5. Vitamin A from beta-carotene (and/or getting 100% of your vitamin A from a vitamin at all).
Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin (meaning any excess stays in your tissue vs. water soluble vitamins like B12 that your body flushes). You can get vitamin A from your diet so you don't want a multi with 100% vitamin A or vitamin A from beta-carotene, a red-orange pigment found in carrots and colorful vegetables that the human body converts into vitamin A (retinol).
Beta-carotene from food is an essential nutrient and is perfectly safe to consume. However if you are taking it as a supplement and you have ever smoked (even casually and are no longer smoking) or have been exposed to secondhand smoke, the conservative approach is to avoid any supplement with beta-carotene in it.
In its supplemental form, beta-carotene has been shown to possibly increase the risk of heart disease, from death of all causes, and to possibly increase the risk of lung cancer in smokers and non-smokers alike. Even so, beta-carotene is dubbed the "natural" form of vitamin A.
Despite its health risks, many vitamin manufacturers will opt for beta-carotene and market their product as containing the "natural" form of vitamin A, taking advantage of a keyword that attracts shoppers.
6. Products that aren't manufactured in a GMP facility.
GMP, or Good Manufacturing Practices, facilities have conformed to a set of regulations enforced by US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). They're factories held to a different standard to assure us that the products manufactured/produced are of high quality and do not pose any risk to the consumer or public.
The specific types or forms of nutrient (including its source) should be specified on every label. Since a multivitamin is meant to be taken regularly, the manufacturer should guarantee its safety by getting a GMP certification, so make sure your product states that it was made in a GMP certified facility. By purchasing a supplement without this certification, a consumer is quite possibly risking their health and well-being on a daily basis.
7. Products without third-party label testing.
Having the FDA GMP stamp on a supplement label unfortunately doesn't guarantee that the product will be free of things you want to avoid, so it's important to look at the ingredients. A manufacturer can meet the FDA Good Manufacturing Practices, but if it contains ingredients such as aspartame or mercury from "big fish" it's still worthy of scrutiny. The FDA does not penalize a supplement for containing either of these ingredients.
To ensure that a product contains what it says it does, look for a statement saying every batch of vitamins is tested by a third party lab. That statement is another good clue it's a high quality supplement.
While supplements contribute to helping people close the nutritional gap that is so common today, they shouldn't be regarded as cure-all magic pills. These products are called "supplements" because they support — but do not replace — a balanced whole food diet.
Make sure to read the vitamin labels and know where (and what) the nutrients are coming from. As always, we recommend checking with your healthcare professional before adding any supplementation to your diet.
Photo Credit: Bukowsky18 from Flickr