If you are taking any supplements right now, I have a mini assignment for you.
Step away from the computer for a moment, check the ingredients, and see whether you see “magnesium stearate” (also known as “stearic acid”) listed.
If you take anything other than the very highest quality, most natural supplements, chances are that this substance – contained in over 90% of supplements and in most pharmaceutical drugs – will feature on the label/s.
You may have seen it there before and, like me, not batted an eyelid, assuming it was a supplemental form of magnesium, and therefore no cause for concern.
But magnesium stearate is not a substance added for your nutrition, nor for any health benefits whatsoever.
It’s machine lube.
No, I’m not kidding, but I wish I was.
Magnesium stearate is a flow enhancer, added so that production machinery will run at maximum speeds, and require minimal cleaning, thereby maximising profits.
In other words, it is an excipient; a synthetic substance added to enable supplement manufacturers to mass-produce their wares more easily and cheaply. Other common excipients are titanium dioxide and talcum powder, or talc.
Where magnesium stearate is used in the supplements industry it is only used in tiny quantities. (Or rather it should be – the industry is grossly under-regulated.)
Still – if you’re taking 5-10 or more capsules every day containing this substance, as many health seekers do, it adds up.
Magnesium stearate is generally manufactured by hydrogenating cottonseed or palm oil. During the hydrogenation process, the oil is subjected to high heat and pressure.
Hydrogenated fats contain highly altered toxic molecules, and cottonseed oil additionally has an extremely high level of pesticide residues, due to the fact that cotton crops are heavily sprayed.
The company ScienceLab produces chemicals and laboratory equipment. Its Material Safety Data Sheet for magnesium stearate contains the following information:
“Potential Acute Health Effects:
Hazardous in case of ingestion.
Potential Chronic Health Effects:
CARCINOGENIC EFFECTS: Not available. MUTAGENIC EFFECTS: Not available. TERATOGENIC EFFECTS: Not available. DEVELOPMENTAL TOXICITY: Not available. The substance may be toxic to liver, skin. Repeated or prolonged exposure to the substance can produce target organs damage.”
In other words, we simply don’t know the full effects of magnesium stearate on the body.
Magnesium stearate is a grossly under-tested substance, given its ubiquity in pills manufactured by both the pharmaceutical and nutritional supplement industries.
Some point out that there isn’t research that conclusively proves that magnesium stearate is harmful to humans.
And maybe it’s not. But let’s not forget that the same was once said about cigarettes, and is still vehemently argued about aspartame, mercury fillings, vaccines and many other synthetic substances – most often by the parties who profit from their sale.
And those who assure us that magnesium stearate is a safe substance to consume generally fall into that very same category.
Some of these further contend that magnesium stearate has been unjustly maligned by sellers of natural supplements who want to create false alarm in order to boost sales of their own products.
The argument is uncannily similar to the argument that, “there’s nothing wrong with conventional (or even genetically modified) food and organic food isn’t better for you – that’s just what the organic farmers want you to think”.
Others argue that they, or others they know, have been consuming handfuls of magnesium stearate containing pills for decades, and it hasn’t affected them.
This is missing the point.
There are numerous manmade substances in our air, water and food supply, the full effects of which on human health – as they silently accumulate, year on year – are not known.
We can’t avoid exposure to all of these substances, but we can choose to avoid synthetic substances whenever possible, so as to lighten our toxic load.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating neuroticism about any of this.
I’m passionate about eating wholesome real food…and I eat rubbish sometimes.
I do my best to source natural and eco versions of everything I use…but where those haven’t worked for me (foundation, conditioner, wall paint, to name three) I compromise.
When it comes to supplements, it’s an easy decision as far as I’m concerned.
Most contain a synthetic flow agent – magnesium stearate – whose full effects in the human body are unknown.
But not all do. It’s becoming easier and easier to source excipient-free supplements, and these tend to be lines that contain the highest-quality (often whole-food) ingredients, produced by companies that really care about purity and ethics.
My go-to brand is Viridian Nutrition (and no, I’m not on commission). All their products contain 100% active ingredients – no synthetic nasties of any kind – and 40% of the range is certified organic. Find out more here.
June 2015 addendum
Every now and then, someone writes in regarding this article to point out that stearic acid, of which magnesium stearate is one form, occurs naturally in certain foods, and is therefore safe.
It sounds like a convincing argument, but it’s actually just like saying that sugar occurs naturally in foods so therefore sugar must be fine – including the refined white variety. The magnesium stearate that supplement manufacturers buy to add to their products is another highly processed white powder which is about as far removed as it’s possible to get from anything that occurs naturally in food. Here’s a picture of it. Any further questions? 🙂