What Are Compound Ingredients and Why Should You Care?
Continuing with our vitamin and mineral series, in today’s blog post I will be discussing compound ingredients and the labelling requirements that apply to them. I’ll begin with the admission that I only learned about compound ingredients in vitamins and minerals very recently while developing a new product that I hope to have with you later this year. I had never given much thought to them before then – I think I just assumed that vitamin B1 powder was made only of vitamin B1, that vitamin C powder was made only of vitamin C, and that magnesium citrate powder was made only of magnesium citrate. Beyond the vague notion that they must be made in some sort of laboratory by chemists, I had really never considered that vitamins and mineral powders might themselves be made with other ingredients. I suppose I thought of them as being extracted from things rather than perhaps being mixed with things or coated in things! I feel quite silly now, as it seems like such an obvious thing once you know; however, when you don’t know, you tend to take supplement labels at face value and not question them too much.
You might be surprised to know, as I was, that compound ingredients are not always listed on supplement labels. In this post, I want to talk about that. However, first, let me explain what compound ingredients are. Suppose you purchase Tiny Pioneer Simply PEA Capsules. They contain only water-dispersible palmitoylethanolamide in a vegan HPMC, with no other ingredients added. In this sense they can be described as ‘clean’ – no fillers, binders or flow agents are added during the manufacture process and each capsule contains only water-dispersible palmitoylethanolamide powder. However, that palmitoylethanolamide powder is itself made from palmitoylethanolamide derived from sustainably sourced palm oil, medium chain triglycerides, and sunflower derived phosphatidylcholine. These are known as compound ingredients – they are the ingredients that make up the active ingredient itself.
We listed the compound ingredients on our Simply PEA products because the palmitoylethanolamide supplier disclosed them to us when we purchased the powder, along with examples of how we might display them on our label. You might think that it is a legal requirement for compound ingredients to always be listed on labels, but this is something of a grey area and actually not all companies do it.
Technically, listing all of the compound ingredients in a product is the correct thing to do both legally and ethically. As discussed in the first post of this series, it is also a requirement to display any inactive ingredients that are used as fillers, binders or flow agents. This should make it possible for consumers to see everything that it is in every product they buy. However, there are loopholes that companies can use in order to omit compound ingredients from their labels in order to make their products seem cleaner than they really are.
If a carry-over food additive contained in an active ingredient does not serve a technical function in the finished product, it may be omitted from the label. This might mean that if maltodextrin is added to an active ingredient to serve some sort of technical function, but then that active ingredient is mixed with some other ingredients to make a final product that does not itself require any maltodextrin, then maltodextrin may be left off the label. You as the consumer would never know that it was there. A compound ingredient may also be omitted in certain situations where it constitutes less than 2% of the finished product. This might mean that an active ingredient containing 10% maltodextrin could be mixed with a few other ingredients, so that in the end maltodextrin only amounted for 1% of the fill weight of a capsule. In this case, maltodextrin could be left off the ingredients list. Compound ingredients might also be considered ‘processing aids’ and omitted from labels. This means that consumers don’t always know exactly what ingredients are in the products they are buying, because various substances like maltodextrin, silicon dioxide, sunflower oil, corn syrup solids, and gum arabic are often left off labels in order to make products appear cleaner than they really are.
You might be very shocked by this, but what is even more shocking is that manufacturers themselves don’t always know that they’re doing it. I am going to be completely honest with you here and say that on our No 6, Please! label, we unknowingly omitted two compound ingredients because we simply didn’t realise they were there. By the time you read this post, the website ingredients will be up to date and we are having the label itself amended on the next batch of product. Mercifully it is nothing drastic: the thiamine mononitrate contains 2% HPMC which is the same material as the capsule shells are made out of; and the choline bitartrate contains 0.6% silicon dioxide. Only tiny amounts of HPMC and silicon dioxide will therefore be present in the finished product, but even so, it’s an oversight I’d rather not have occurred and I’ll certainly be checking all ingredients for compound ingredients in future.
How could it be the case that we didn’t realise these compound ingredients were present? Because I didn’t know to look for them and so I never asked the question. As I said at the start, I had always just thought that raw vitamins and mineral ingredients were pure – I didn’t realise that they could come with other ingredients in them. I had already stipulated the need for a clean product and had listed various ingredients that must not be present – maltodextrin, magnesium stearate, any allergens, etc. – but I never asked to see a breakdown of compound ingredients for each active ingredient, because I didn’t know to do so. The written specification did not mention any compounds, so I thought each active ingredient was 100% pure.
I’m actually under no obligation to declare the HPMC or silicone dioxide to you, because:
- They can be considered carry-over ingredients that do not serve a purpose in the final No 6, Please! Capsules;
- Each is present in the final product at far less than 2%.
A less ethical company would likely continue to keep quiet about them and leave them off the label in order to compare favourably to other B complexes on the market. However, I believe you have a right to know exactly what is in your products, whether or not I am legally obliged to tell you, and so labels of future batches will show all compound ingredients.
Before you judge me too harshly for my oversight, you should be aware that some very, very big names do not declare their compound ingredients either. I actually reached out to one relatively small company to ask about the presence of compound ingredients in its multivitamin and was told that there were not any. In a multivitamin product it is highly implausible that there will be no compound ingredients for reasons I’ll get into shortly, so this probably means that either the company does not itself know about compound ingredients, or it does know and is lying about them.
I won’t name any of the companies that don’t list their compound ingredients, because I don’t want to get into any kind of legal trouble. However, I will say that there seem to be more companies omitting compound ingredients than there are including them, even at the highest levels. I find this really shocking as it denies consumers the opportunity to know exactly what is in their products.
Obviously the ideal when choosing any nutritional supplement is to find one that is as clean as possible. At the extreme, this would be a powder product containing 100% active ingredient and nothing else. Our Simply Aloe Powder is an example of this – it contains no bulking agents, no flavours, no flow agents, and no compound ingredients. It is 100% aloe vera powder and because it is not encapsulated, it is free even from capsule shell ingredients. At the other end of the scale, you might have a multivitamin tablet or chewable gummy that will require binding ingredients to hold the active ingredients together in a solid shape, perhaps with colours and flavours to make the item more palatable, as well as bulking ingredients and anti-caking agents.
Unfortunately, as discussed in the first post of this series, it is not possible for every ingredient to be manufactured completely cleanly. If, for example, you want to purchase a vitamin K2 supplement, chances are the daily serving size will be 100 or 200 micrograms. This is an amount far too small to encapsulate or tablet on its own, never mind to handle at home. You’d need a microscope and tweezers to pick up such tiny capsules, were it possible to make them in the first place! Something like vitamin K2 will therefore be mixed with some inactive ingredient to add some bulk, so that it can be put into capsule, tablet or liquid form. However, high quality supplements keep inactive ingredients to a minimum, using them only where absolutely necessary.
Compound ingredients are not always a bad thing. Just as some ingredients require extra bulk to enable practical handling, some vitamins and minerals require compound ingredients to optimise their performance. This seems especially to apply to the fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Whereas vitamin C and many of the B vitamins can be made and stored without using compound ingredients, others like vitamin A and vitamin D are generally enrobed with substances that protect them from oxidation and improve their shelf life. If they were not mixed with other ingredients in this way, they would oxidise very quickly and lose potency. Fat soluble vitamins might also require carriers, emulsifiers, or anticaking agents as part of their manufacture process, by which I mean their literal manufacture process, not their eventual encapsulation, tableting, or mixing.
If you were to purchase a 100% pure vitamin A powder, it would be unstable and would quickly degrade in the presence of air and light. This would obviously affect the efficacy of the product. Likewise, a vitamin D3 product with no compound ingredients would quickly lose potency. Fat soluble vitamins and beta-carotene require compound ingredients to ensure stability, shelf life and, by extension, efficacy. Substances like gum Arabic, corn syrup solids (which are not the same as high fructose corn syrup), tocopherols and maltodextrin can play a vital role in keeping active ingredients…well, active!
It can be very difficult when reading supplement labels to know which substances are compound ingredients and which are unnecessary inactive ingredients. As I said previously in the series, good quality supplements use the absolute minimum amount of inactive ingredients, so seeing several items like maltodextrin, magnesium stearate, silicon dioxide, calcium diphosphate, rice flour, et cetera is usually a sign of a cheap nasty product. However, if compound ingredients are being displayed, they should appear in brackets after the relevant main ingredient. This differs from inactive fillers, binders or flow agents which would appear as standalone items in the ingredients list.
Ingredients: thiamine mononitrate (thiamine mononitrate, HPMC); riboflavin; niacinamide; choline bitartrate (choline bitartrate, silicon dioxide); HPMC capsule shell.
Here there are no added fillers or binders – the only extra ingredients appear as constituents of active ingredients.
Ingredients: thiamine mononitrate (thiamine mononitrate, HPMC); riboflavin; niacinamide; choline bitartrate (choline bitartrate, silicon dioxide); magnesium stearate; silicon dioxide; HPMC capsule shell.
Here magnesium stearate and silicon dioxide have been added as flow agents – you can tell they are not compound ingredients because they are in the list on their own and not just in brackets attached to some main ingredient.
Of course not everyone displays their compound ingredients and not everyone labels their supplements properly. This often makes it quite difficult to know what you’re actually getting and why it has been included! As I said earlier, even some very big names don’t display compound ingredients and where they do, it is often inconsistent and confusing.
You might be wondering why companies don’t routinely list all of the compound ingredients in their products. Here is what I think. You’ve probably heard of greenwashing – this is where companies give the impression that their products are more environmentally friendly and sustainably sourced than they really are. I believe the reason so many supplement companies omit compound ingredients from their product labels is because they are ‘cleanwashing’ – they want to create the impression that their products are cleaner than they really are. After all, if product A’s label displays ‘vitamin K2 (menaquinone-7)’ and product B’s label displays ‘vitamin K2 (glycerol monostearate, ascorbyl palmitate, menaquinone-7, rosemary extract)’ which are you most likely to buy? You’ll buy product A, of course, because it looks like a cleaner product!
This has presented me with something of a headache about how we should display our own ingredients here at Tiny Pioneer. I am not legally obliged to disclose to you any carry-over ingredients that serve no technical purpose in our final products. I too could choose to cleanwash our products by leaving inconvenient ingredients off the label and you’d never know. If I decide to display compound ingredients, our products appear to compare less favourably to other brands who keep quiet about them. It is an unfortunate fact that companies who choose to be transparent about compound ingredients end up looking inferior to companies who claim that absolutely all of their ingredients are 100% pure and clean.
Personally, I think you have a right to know what is in your products and I am not comfortable with relying on legal loopholes and grey areas to pull the wool over your eyes. It is therefore going to be Tiny Pioneer policy to declare compound ingredients on our labels. I wanted to write this post so that you’d know why some of our products might sometimes look ‘dirty’ and so that you’ll be aware when you buy products from other companies that not everything is desirable or even possible without compound ingredients. Please beware of products containing fat soluble vitamins that claim to have absolutely no compound ingredients. By all means ask the manufacturer for clarification – they might not be aware that compound ingredients are present and they may need to contact their own supplier for details. However, if they come back to you and say that their fat soluble vitamins contain no compound ingredients and are 100% pure then the overwhelming likelihood is that either they’re lying, or the product will not be very stable.
Before I end this post, I want to reassure you. The good news is that unlisted compound ingredients are usually present in only very small quantities. Allergens must be declared by law and so must compound ingredients that amount to more than 2% of a finished product. You’re therefore very unlikely to experience any negative effects from unlisted compounds, even if you’re sensitive to them. Chances are you’ve been exposed to unlisted compound ingredients in products without knowing many times before. That might be annoying and disappointing, but it’s probably not done you any harm and it’s unlikely to do so in the future!
Wishing you the best of health,