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How is a professional supplement brand different from an over-the-counter

By: Erewhon
Date: June 4, 2014

Consumers have become accustomed to seeing the vague “we use only the purest ingredients” in the promotional materials of almost every dietary supplement company. But how does the average person really know what makes an ingredient “pure?” How is one supplement manufacturer different or, “better” than another and, how is a professional supplement brand different from an over-the-counter brand?


Most professional supplement companies use high-grade raw ingredients which are routinely tested for impurities and quality. Many over-the-counter brands do not make the extra effort. For example, instead of purchasing prediluted vitamin D, as some companies do, top quality companies perform their own dilution to avoid detrimental ingredients such as preservatives, excipients (inactive substances added to a supplement), or lactose that are found in many commercially available vitamin D dilutions. Why must vitamin D be diluted? Because in its pure form, it is too concentrated to safely blend into a vitamin product. Pure vitamin D is 40 MILLION International Units (IU) per gram. The RDA for adults is 600-800 IU per day. To ensure proper mixing, it must be made into a diluted powder that flows and does not lose potency. So, companies that use prediluted vitamin D are often using unacceptable excipients in their products unless, of course, they manufacture their own products (many do not) and perform the dilution in-house.


Liver markers on lab tests can reveal elevated enzymes (a marker of dysfunction) when the liver is forced to process supplements that contain contaminants. Doctors often blame nutritional supplements in general and advise patients to stop taking any supplements. Thankfully, professional supplement brands routinely exclude impure additives and are more likely to be free of excipients which can interfere with absorption and bioavailability in sensitive people.

Magnesium Stearate and stearic acid are examples of such excipients. They’re good for speed-hungry encapsulating machines but not necessarily good for you. Excipients are utilized as flowing agents to ensure that maximum productivity is obtained from capsuling and tableting machines. There are documented detrimental effects directly attributed to long chain fatty acids like magnesium stearate that are utilized as manufacturing flowing agents. These lubricants have similar negative properties that reduce dissolution and inhibit absorption. When layers of magnesium stearate encapsulate the nutrients, the digestive system must break down the magnesium stearate before absorption can take place. In people with compromised gut function, this can be another insult to a fragile physiology. Also, nutrients are meant to be absorbed in the small intestine. Nutrients bound with magnesium stearate may be delivered to less effective absorption sites.

Manufacturing encapsulated dietary supplements isn’t easy. Pure powdered ingredients are difficult to mix because they are either extremely dry, sticky with botanical oils, or attract unwanted moisture. So many manufacturers add magnesium stearate and other agents such as lactose and dextrose to make the powder flow quickly and easily through their high-volume machines. The problem with this is, these additives may compromise the bioavailability of the nutrients in the supplement, and could potentially cause allergenic problems.

Every qualified pharmaceutical compounder recognizes that these large fatty acids can interfere with product dissolution and influence absorption. Unfortunately, a large percentage of supplement companies, because of the economic impact, ignore this data. As with most industries, the bottom line dictates the level of quality. The dietary supplement industry has just a few exceptions, companies who are not willing to compromise. Perhaps, if a supplement company cannot manufacture products without using detrimental excipients, they should not allude to being either “hypoallergenic” or “pure.”


Tablets require binders, lubricants, coatings, disintegrates and other excipients. Some are even sprayed with shellac (called pharmaceutical glaze) or vegetable protein, frequently derived from corn, corn which in the U.S. is usually, a GMO crop. Many tablets also contain colorings and flavorings. Most high-quality supplements are only found in capsule form using hypoallergenic vegetarian capsules to provide the purest supplements possible.


The body requires conversions of many vitamins from the form in which they’re originally ingested, to the activated form that our bodies utilize most readily. Whenever possible, seek out products with raw ingredients that are active versions of nutrients, like Pyridoxal-5’-phosphate which is the active form of vitamin B6. Other examples include: Riboflavin – as riboflavin 5’-phosphate, B12 -as methylcobalamin and folate as L-methylfolate (5-MTHF.) Why is this important? People who are extremely allergic, chemically sensitive, and immune-compromised often have trouble making these types of biochemical conversions. Other factors such as age and genetic predisposition can also contribute to an inability to absorb nutrients through food or supplements. When activated forms of nutrients are taken, the risk of supplements not being absorbed is minimized.

Professional supplements are generally speaking, more potent and as such, can require they be taken while under the care of a medical practitioner. Their manufacturers tend to formulate products based on dosages used in scientific studies. This is important because studies form the basis from which most supplements are created and from which most dosages are recommended. If the recommended dose is too low, it will not be efficacious (meaning the supplement won’t have the desired effect.) With some supplements, taking higher doses than what is recommended can be harmless. But with others, taking a supplement in too high a dose can be dangerous, resulting in liver toxicity and perhaps even leading to something more serious, what in the supplement industry is often called an “adverse event.”


  • Purchase supplements from a manufacturer that you trust. Particularly if you are extremely allergic, chemically sensitive, or have been told by a physician that your immune system is somewhat compromised.
  • Purchase supplements from a manufacturer that uses only the highest quality raw ingredients, free of any hidden additives, are routinely tested for impurities and quality, and one which manufactures their products in-house.
  • Consult a qualified healthcare practitioner for advice in choosing the right type of supplement(s) in the appropriate doses.
  • Purchase supplements from a manufacturer that produces products in capsule form vs tablets.
  • Purchase supplements from a manufacturer that make supplements with raw ingredients in their activated forms, the forms that our bodies utilize most readily.

Professional grade products are more expensive. But, considering all the benefits, it’s a small price to pay for your health and your peace of mind.

Please note that the information provided on this site is intended for informational purposes only. Nothing contained herein is intended to treat, diagnose, prevent, or cure any illness or medical condition. Consult a doctor before beginning any diet or exercise regimen or before taking vitamins or supplements. Statements on this site have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.