What lurks hidden in food supplements?

Vigilance is essential!

Consultations in Founex or Versoix

What lurks hidden in food supplements? Vigilance is essential!

What lurks hidden in food supplements?  Vigilance is essential!

As a naturopath and member of the APTN (Association des Praticiens en Thérapies Naturelles), objective scientific information is essential.  It allows me to develop critical thinking, which is essential to my professional competence and ability to transmit knowledge.

The abundant availability of food supplements presents a potential misunderstanding of what is ultimately beneficial to health.

Food supplements can be used to support fitness and to compensate for certain nutritional deficiencies. The key is to obtain the formulation as found naturally in foods, plants or minerals in a concentrated form (as a therapeutic dose would be too big on the plate).

Synthetic substances in food supplements are harmful over time, in contradiction with the naturopathic approach of treating with natural remedies.  A natural approach is fundamental to my practice and drives my understanding of the “supermarket” of food supplements.


Nanoparticles (‘nanos’) are used by the food industry to obtain water- or oil-soluble plant extracts and nutrients, or to serve as additives that facilitate and accelerate their production.  However, the nano-technological processes applied to these plant extracts use synthetic substances such as polyoxymethylene and solvents to obtain an aesthetic transparency effect in liquids or for uniform colouration.  Nanos penetrate all biological protective barriers in an uncontrolled manner and are problematic for the body to eliminate.

Nanos are too small to be seen through a microscope: they are roughly 30,000 to 50,000 times smaller than the thickness of a hair.  Nanos have been artificially introduced into cosmetics – even more worrying, these nanos are now found in nutritional and herbal products, particularly in the form of colloidal minerals. 

Ghislaine Gerber, a biologist and researcher of phyto-nutrients, warns of the ingestion of nanoparticles from consumable products.  Most people are unaware that they are consuming nanoparticles with increasing frequency.  Research shows that nanoparticles can be toxic and dangerous to health through DNA damage, which may provoke inflammatory disorders and even cancer.

Ghislaine Gerber explains that varying extraction formulations of the same plant can result in vastly different properties.  She cites a study [1] which found that green tea nano-polyphenols damaged cell DNA, while conventionally extracted green tea polyphenols had beneficial and protective properties.

Nanos represent a clear health hazard.  In 2014, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) confirmed its stance toward banning certain nanos in consumer products.  They cite potential effects on living organisms including “growth retardation, developmental or reproductive abnormalities in model species, genotoxic and carcinogenic effects, effects on the central nervous system, immunosuppression phenomena, hypersensitivity and allergy reactions”. 

While EFSA recommends lowering the threshold for mandatory labelling to 10%, many nanos can bypass this threshold when diluted.

Colloidal minerals, additives, nano-emulsions: Be careful!

Nanos have insidiously slipped into European colloidal-based minerals and plants without the awareness of health professionals.  Some offenders include turmeric nano-emulsions and soy nano-isoflavones.

Nano additives have been on the market for a long time.  Common culprits include:

  • Silica dioxide (or “silica”) – used to prevent moisture in plants and tablets or to facilitate capsule filling.
  • Titanium dioxide (E171) and iron oxides (E172) – used as colouring agents.
  • Nano silver (E174, or “colloidal silver”) – used to eliminate bacteria without consumers being informed that they are nanos.
  • The presence of polysorbate 20 to 80 is also often a sign of nanotechnology.

An alert on the harmful effects of colloidal silver and nano minerals can be found on the website of Amis de la Terre [2].

Deciphering food supplement labels

The presence of synthetic additives and associated nanos can be determined through review of the list of ingredients, which details the concentration of main ingredients provided per portion. 

The method of extraction is highly important to obtain the full potency of the nutrients from plant, bark, mushroom and seaweed products.  When ginger and turmeric are extracted, for example, the curcuminoids, polyphenols and other phytonutrients form an effective synergy, working together to produce benefits which are not available from these components in isolation.  

It is essential to be aware of the use of low-cost synthetic solvents and additives that have harmful effects on health – in contrast to conventional extraction processes.  Many invisible enemies can contribute to micro- and nano-perforations of intestinal cell membranes (intestinal permeability, or “leaky gut syndrome”) and food intolerances (mainly due to additives present in industrial flours and grain products).

Synthetic supplements

Similar problems arise with the use of synthetic supplements in place of natural formulations.

A synergy of natural folates (B vitamins) can be highly beneficial to health, in stark contrast with a synthetic form taken in isolation.  Based on clinical studies [3], Ghislaine Gerber explains that synthetic folic acid (vitamin B9) is a less metabolized form, for which excess inhibits the MTHFR enzyme, essential to human physiology.  Deficiency of the MTHFR enzyme is correlated with various health disorders. 

The MTHFR receptor gene is dependent on folate, B6 and the methylated form of B12 (methyl-cobalamin).  The body has great difficulty using synthetic vitamin B12 (cyanocobalamin) and must convert it to the active B12 (methyl-cobalamin).  Unconverted forms of synthetic B12 can directly cause enzyme deficiencies, particularly when associated with methyl folate (B9) deficiencies, which functions together with B12.

This double deficiency in the natural bioavailable forms of B9 and B12 is often linked to disorders of the nervous, cardiovascular, dermatological and hormonal systems.

Synthetic B12 (cyanocobalamin – the unmetabolized and non-active form) can mask a deficiency in methylated B12 (methyl-cobalamin), despite apparently sufficient B12 blood levels.

Vitamins B9 and B12 must be obtained together in their natural methylated forms, alongside vitamin B6 to support methylation of lipids in the liver.

Providing a synergy of vitamins in their natural form is therefore of utmost importance for overall health.  The role of the naturopath is to awaken vigilance, advise and support recovery through natural remedies that are well absorbed without harmful effects.   There are many criteria for a high-quality natural remedy to meet, and relatively few suppliers who can meet these standards – a good naturopath can help you to identify and navigate this process and appropriate products for positive health outcomes.

[1] Alotaibi A, Bhatnagar P, Najafzadeh M, Gupta KC, Anderson D. Tea phenols in bulk and nanoparticle form modify DNA damage in human lymphocytes from colon cancer patients and healthy individuals treated in vitro with platinum-based chemotherapeutic drugs. Nanomedicine (Lond). 2013 Mar;8(3):389-401. doi: 10.2217/nnm.12.126. Epub 2012 Sep 3. PMID: 22943128.

[2] https://www.amisdelaterre.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/nanoargent-rapport-foei-.pdf

[3] Tsang BL et al. Assessing the association between the methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase (MTHFR) 677C>T polymorphism and blood folate concentrations: a systematic review and meta-analysis of trials and observational studies. Am J Clin Nutr. 2015 Jun;101(6):1286-94.