Here's what's really in the popular vitamins and supplements everyone's taking

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Do Vitamins Really Improve Health?

The inconvenient truth about vitamins is, some brands (often, the affordable ones) are a bit of a sham; nutritionists agree that the best way of getting 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

Here's What's Really in the Popular Vitamins and Supplements Everyone's Taking
Source: The Washington Post/Getty Images

Because they lower costs and extend shelf life, hydrogenated oils are 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, because they lower good cholesterol and raise bad cholesterol, which in turn increases a person's risk of heart disease.

On his website, clinical nutritionist Dr. 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 adthat it shows up in the majority of supplements found on shelves today.

Lead, mercury and PCBs

Here's What's Really in the Popular Vitamins and Supplements Everyone's Taking
A lab technician holds up two vials of fish oil.
Source: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Getty Images

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 reason that the FDA cautions us to cool it on the sushi consumption is that the animals 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'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.

Magnesium Stereate and Silicate

Here's What's Really in the Popular Vitamins and Supplements Everyone's Taking
Source: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Both magnesium stereate and magnesium silicate are common parts of the vitamin manufacturing process because they keep things from clumping, according to Health Cloud. Stereate, 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 Dr. Axe, stereate may function as an immunosuppressant or produce a "biofilm" that keeps vitamins from being absorbed.

Titanium Dioxide

Here's What's Really in the Popular Vitamins and Supplements Everyone's Taking
Source: Matt Rourke/AP

According to Dr. Axe, titanium dioxide — a coloring ingredient in both cosmetics and some supplements — can mess with the immune system. According to the Canadian Centre for Occupational and Health Safety (CCOHS), 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.

Artificial colors

Here's What's Really in the Popular Vitamins and Supplements Everyone's Taking
Source: Scott Olson/Getty Images

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 like ADHD and hyperactivity.

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