Here's What's Really in the Popular Vitamins and Supplements Everyone's Taking

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The inconvenient truth about vitamins is that some brands — often, the affordable ones — are a bit of a sham. Nutritionists agree the best way to get the vitamins and minerals our bodies need is to consume them in food form. That's less-than-ideal news for the busy and/or cash-strapped masses who can't make regular organic shopping a part of their routines, but it's worth paying attention to. Because taking a battery of supplements to meet nutritional standards could be harmful to one's health.

Read more: Are Vitamin Supplements Good for You? It All Depends on What You're Taking

Vitamin supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, which means they could contain ingredients that wouldn't otherwise be given the OK. It also means they don't necessarily have to do what's promised — and of course, many of them can't. Here are a few of the unpalatable items that sneak into many vitamin supplements on the market today.

Hydrogenated oils

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Because they lower costs and extend shelf life, hydrogenated oils are a staple ingredient in processed foods, which is one reason nutritionists tell us to avoid them. Hydrogenated oil is heavy in trans fats, potentially the worst kind of fat a person can eat. Why? According to the Mayo Clinic, they lower good cholesterol and raise bad cholesterol, which in turn increases a person's risk of heart disease. 

On his website, clinical nutritionist Josh Axe warns against vitamins containing hydrogenated oils, saying that partially hydrogenated soybean oil is one of the most widely spread fillers vitamin manufacturers use and that it shows up in the majority of supplements found on shelves today. 

Lead, mercury and PCBs

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This one will be of particular concern to anyone who takes fish oil supplements. Maybe the omega-3 fatty acids give you silky, flowing locks, or a glorious and glowing complexion, or a superhuman brain, or cause your nails to grow at fantastic speeds — maybe they also contain traces of lead, mercury and polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB, an environmental pollutant and carcinogen). 

Fish oil, of course, is made of fish; the FDA cautions us to cool it on the sushi consumption because the fish can build up high levels of these toxins. What's more, fish oil supplements have been linked to an elevated risk of prostate cancer in men. As reported on Harvard Medical Center's health blog, the body needs more than just the fatty acids found in fish oil — it needs "the entire orchestra of fish fats, vitamins, minerals and supporting molecules" that come from eating fish as a protein source.

 Read more: 12 of Your Favorite Foods That Contain GMOs

Magnesium stearate and silicate

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Both magnesium stearate and magnesium silicate are common parts of the vitamin manufacturing process because they keep things from clumping, according to the Health Cloud. Stearate, a lubricant, prevents pills from sticking to the machines or one another; silicate allows for an even distribution of ingredients within individual supplements. 

As Health Cloud reported, the effect of silica on the human body is unclear, though some research has suggested it causes cellular inflammation. According to Axe, stearate may function as an immunosuppressant or produce a "biofilm" that keeps vitamins from being absorbed.

Titanium dioxide

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According to Axe, titanium dioxide — a coloring ingredient in both cosmetics and some supplements — can mess with the immune system. According to the Canadian Center for Occupational and Health Safety, it's a possible carcinogen. Titanium dioxide may also be linked to inflammatory bowel disease, and while more research is needed to demonstrate its health risks, it's best to approach with caution.

Read more: What Are GMOs? Here's What You Need to Know About Genetically Modified Organisms

Artificial colors

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From where do vitamins draw their bright and visually pleasing hues? Often, from artificial colors. According to Natural News, two possible neurotoxins — FD&C Blue No. 2 Aluminum Lake and FD&C Red No. 40 Aluminum Lake — live in some Centrum supplements and Flintstones Complete vitamins (or did, as of 2013). Artificial coloring may be related to behavioral disorders such as ADHD and hyperactivity.