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The Hidden World of Ultra Processed Food Supplements

You’ve heard of ultra processed foods but, look out, there’s another source of unwanted chemicals found in ultra processed supplements! Nutritionist, Corin Sadler exposes the dark side of fast-vitamin manufacture, digs deep into the research, identifies what to avoid and makes straight-forward recommendations for your family’s health.

Processed vs Ultra Processed?

Most food that we eat goes through some kind of processing and not all of it is bad. Simply cooking it in our own homes, for example boiling rice, scrambling eggs, or chopping and making a fresh vegetable dish is the simplest form of processing. More industrial processing however, is often detrimental. Refining grains like wheat or rice to create ‘white’ versions is a good example, this strips them of fibre and many of their nutrients. Go further up the scale and you get ultra-processing. Ultra-processed food includes anything with a long list of ingredients that you wouldn’t add if you made it at home yourself, think preservatives, colours, flavours, thickeners, stabilisers, or anything chemical sounding. This category includes many foods found commonly in our cupboards like breakfast cereal, mass-produced bread, and meat or plant-based ready meals [i].

Ultra-processed foods tend to be higher in sugar, and or sweeteners, as well as higher in saturated fat and calories. There are significant health consequences of a highly processed diet, including increased risk of diabetes, cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease, IBS, depression, cancer, and obesity, as well as allergic and autoimmune disorders, childhood asthma and childhood cardio-metabolic changes [ii] [iii] [iv]. Eating an ultra processed diet often leaves people overweight yet malnourished meaning they are lacking in key nutrients, vitamins and minerals. Avoiding these ultra processed foods can therefore be beneficial for all ages.

Many of us choose to avoid the extra additives that processed foods contain. But do we, and can we apply this same logic to our choices of food supplement? It’s true that by its very nature you can’t avoid processing when making supplements, but you can certainly take steps to keep them as pure and minimally processed as possible. In particular, avoiding excipients which don’t have any nutritional benefits and in fact may have detrimental effects – on your health, the environment and on the factory workers employed at the start of the manufacturing chain.


How to Identify an Ultra Processed Supplement

On the market, readily available in supermarkets and online, you will find highly coloured and flavoured liquids, effervescent tablets and chewy gummies which are commonly stacked full of additives and excipients. The additives are designed to make things taste pleasant and also reduce the cost of production. Often aimed at children’s health, although increasingly adults too, clever messages divert focus from their additive laden, less than healthy formulas. . However, research has linked many additives to health concerns, including artificial preservatives such as sodium benzoate contributing to behavioural issues in children and hyperactivity.[v] So, what should you be looking to avoid? Choosing a clean and pure supplement over an ultra-processed one can be done by reading the label. Let’s dig a bit deeper into the ultra processed ingredients you will find in the small print.

Sugar, glucose syrup, malt syrup and dextrose. The problem with sugar is that’s it’s addictive, most of us know the feeling of needing a sweet treat for a pick me up. Whilst it’s okay as an occasional treat, these sugars are detrimental to tooth enamel, blood glucose control (therefore diabetes risk) and weight, not to mention gut health where they disrupt balance of flora in the gut microbiome towards pathogenic strains.[vi]  This means they have no healthful place in everyday foods or supplements.

Artificial sweeteners like sucralose or aspartame. Aspartame is often in the news, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has classified it as a ‘possible carcinogen’ and is continuing to monitor research into its effects. [vii]  Recent research links sucralose to increased intestinal permeability or leaky gut which is where the normally tight gut barrier allows passage of partially digested food, toxins, and pathogens  which would ordinarily be kept out, triggering the immune system.  Sucralose also leads to gut microbiome changes and increased inflammation. This may result in bloating, food sensitivities, fatigue, digestive issues and skin problems. [viii]

Emulsifiers. These are used to help mix water and oil which naturally would separate. Polysorbate 80 is an example that is commonly used in food supplements but this has been shown to disrupt the gut lining, causing inflammation and may be factors in Crohn’s disease, type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease [ix].

Artificial Preservatives. These are used to ensure a good shelf life and quality, especially for liquids, water-based or even oil-based formulations which are prone to bugs or oxidation. Avoid the synthetic versions such as potassium sorbate and sodium benzoate. Look for natural alternatives including vitamin C, vitamin E or botanicals with strong antimicrobial action like rosemary. Choosing an alternative format like capsules, which effectively preserve the ingredients, is another way to avoid these additives. Nutritional oils can be preserved using nitrogen at the bottling stage avoiding the need for artificial additives.

Carrageenan. This is found in vegan gummies and liquid capsules and also used to thicken products or emulsify ingredients. It is a seaweed derived excipient which might sound healthy but it is processed using acid, and there are concerns over its potential to cause inflammation in the gut, either directly or by its breakdown products.[x]

Magnesium stearate and stearic acid. These are commonly used in chewable and tablet supplements to help speed up manufacturing or to coat tablets for pressing. Whilst they are both found in the diet, the jury is still out as to their detrimental effects, and if you are taking a number of supplements with them in, your intake could be racked up. Although it might sound like a nutritional ingredient, magnesium stearate contains very little magnesium.

Titanium dioxide. This mined white powder is used in paint, plastic and paper to create an even colour. It can also be found in toothpaste and food stuffs such as ice creams, chocolates, sweets, creamers, desserts, chewing gum, spreads, dressings and lots more. In medicines and food supplements it is used to ensure a consistent appearance to tablets and serves no purpose other than to ease manufacturing and minimise consumer queries about variations. In 2022 the European Food Standards Authority banned titanium dioxide and confirmed it is no longer considered safe as a food additive[xi] (classifying it as a probable carcinogen), yet it is still used on a huge scale in many UK foodstuffs as well as medicines and supplements. Not only is it unwise to consume, this E number (E171) is known to cause serious long term lung conditions in factory workers where titanium dioxide is processed and is also exceptionally harmful to aquatic life.[xii]

Talc. This is another filler often used in pharmaceutical medicines but can creep into supplements. Talc is most frequently used as an anti-clumping agent to stop ingredients from sticking to machinery, thus speeding up manufacture. Although commonly used, there are no nutritional benefits and safety is uncertain due to a lack of reliable toxicity data. There is preliminary concern over the mining of talc in proximity to asbestos mining.[xiii] [xiv]

Palm Oil. Used as a flow agent to prevent sticking and clumping, this is a major environmental concern. Palm oil plantations have increasingly had a detrimental effect on the fragile forest ecosystems and habitats in areas of Asia and Africa. [xv]



The compound effect

Though many of these ultra processed ingredients appear in food supplements in small quantities, added up over time and, in many cases, layered on top of ultra processed medicines and, perhaps, a largely ultra processed diet, it’s not hard to see how the accumulation can have potentially negative outcomes.

The ethical question

When we dig a bit deeper behind the pharmaceutical and food supplement brands and into the supply chain, we begin to understand the impact that many of these additives have, not only on our own health, but on the health of the planet and the health of the workers involved in growing or mining these ingredients. Mass-market manufacturing to produce cheap food leans on ultra processed methods and, likewise, food supplements made quickly and cheaply often do the same, frequently to the detriment of not only nutritional benefit, but also on the lives of those employed in the sector.

Selecting good supplements

In a nutshell, it’s best to keep it simple as far as ingredients go. Choose from a brand that includes organically certified supplements within its range, this indicates that they take purity and ethical considerations seriously. This is especially true for children, as they are growing and developing and their bodies smaller and more sensitive than healthy adults. The same applies to those planning pregnancy or who are pregnant.

Always read the label. Some brands choose to list ‘active’ ingredients in a more prominent position and then tuck a full ingredients list round the back of the label in smaller size print. You’ll find the hidden additives in the second list, so be sure to check both. Most reputable brands will have a single list and will have 100% active ingredients with no nasty additives whatsoever.

Ask for help. The experts in effective, ethical and pure food supplements can be found in your local independent health food store. In most cases, they have been trained to advise on these issues and can help you choose the right supplements for you and your family.

If you or your child has allergies or sensitivities, labels should also be checked for this. Allergens on the allergen list detailed by the Food Standards Agency must be labelled in bold so should be easy to spot. There are 14 allergens on the list: celery, gluten, crustaceans, eggs, fish, lupin, milk, molluscs, mustard, nuts, peanuts, soya, and sulphur dioxide/sulphites.



Our lives have the potential to be ultra processed from every direction and there is now a large body of research identifying how detrimental this can be. Making the decision to choose unprocessed and low processed, in particular, pure, 100% active supplements could be the best move you can make for the health and happiness of generations to come.



[i] BBC ‘What is ultra-processed food? - BBC Food

[ii] Pagliai G, Dinu M, Madarena MP, Bonaccio M, Iacoviello L, Sofi F. Consumption of ultra-processed foods and health status: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Br J Nutr. 2021 Feb 14;125(3):308-318. 

[iii] Elizabeth L, Machado P, Zinöcker M, Baker P, Lawrence M. Ultra-Processed Foods and Health Outcomes: A Narrative Review. Nutrients. 2020 Jun 30;12(7):1955.

[iv] Srour, B., Fezeu, L, K., Kesse-Guyot, E., Allas, B., Majean, C., Andrianasolo, R, M., et al (2019) ‘Ultra-processed food intake and risk of cardiovascular disease: prospective cohort study’ (NutriNet-Sante), BMJ, 365:l1451

[v] McCann, D., Barret, A., Cooper, A., Crumpler, D et al (2007) ‘Food additives and hyperactivity behaviour in 3-year old and 8/9-year-old children in the community: a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, The Lancet, Vol: 370 (9598), pp. 1560-1567

[vi] Satokari R. High Intake of Sugar and the Balance between Pro- and Anti-Inflammatory Gut Bacteria. Nutrients. 2020 May 8;12(5):1348. 

[vii] Aspartame hazard and risk assessment results released (

[viii] M C ArrietaL Bistritz, and J B Meddings. Alterations in intestinal permeability. Gut. 2006 Oct; 55(10):1512-1520

[ix] Partridge D, Lloyd KA, Rhodes JM, Walker AW, Johnstone AM, Campbell BJ. Food additives: Assessing the impact of exposure to permitted emulsifiers on bowel and metabolic health - introducing the FADiets study. Nutr Bull. 2019 Dec;44(4):329-349.

[x] Martino JV, Van Limbergen J, Cahill LE. The Role of Carrageenan and Carboxymethylcellulose in the Development of Intestinal Inflammation. Front Pediatr. 2017 May 1;5:96.


[xii] Identification of research needs to resolve the carcinogenicity of high-priority IARC carcinogens (

[xiii] Talc | FDA[xiv] mono100C-11.pdf (

[xv] Rainforest-Action-Network-Leuser-Report-FINAL-WEB.pdf ( 



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