“Fillers”. “Binders.” The “other ingredients” in tablets
“Fillers”. “Binders.” The “other ingredients” in tablets. They are called excipients, and for some reason many people fear them without even knowing what they are, or why they are used.
Excipients are inactive, non-medicinal ingredients that are used in tablets to impart desirable characteristics important for manufacture, convenience of use, stability and product efficacy. Excipients are not just “fillers.”
Pharmaceutical manufacturing is a science, and quality manufacturers approach excipients with the same scientific scrutiny that are given to active ingredients. Safety, quality, and effectiveness should be paramount considerations for all high quality product ingredients.
Small variations in physical properties of an excipient can produce significant differences in the behavior of a finished product. In other words, using top quality excipients (inactive ingredients) is as important as using top quality active ingredients.
The lowest dosage of excipients is used to make the tablets functional. But, the actual percentage varies considerably depending on the product. Here are a couple of examples from both ends of the spectrum.
A quality multivitamin/mineral is generally packed with active ingredients, and only about 8-10% of the tablet weight would be excipients. On the other hand, a product like a Vitamin D tablet would be mostly excipients. That’s because the amount of vitamin D being delivered is so small, there is no other way to provide it. Think of the size of one single salt crystal (just regular table salt). The amount of vitamin D in 1,000 IU is only 25 micrograms (25/1,000,000th of a gram). This is more than twice the recommended (RDA) amount, yet it is only the weight of one half of a crystal of salt. Non-medicinal ingredients are absolutely essential to the integrity and function of the product.
This is really no different than nutrients in foods. Many compounds and elements in foods provide little to no nutritional benefit, but are still important in the structure and function of the food.
Let’s use an orange as an example. We all know oranges are a good source of vitamin C and potassium. But if we add those to all the known essential micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) in a small 100-gram orange, combined they only make up 1/324th, or 0.324%, of the weight of the fruit. And, the total of all the macronutrient content (protein, carbs, fat) adds another 12.7 grams (75% of which is sugar). So, all the important micro- and macro- nutrients make up 13% of the orange. Does that mean the rest of the orange is useless, or unhealthy? Of course not.
There are certainly ingredients and excipients used by many companies that aren’t necessary or of high quality. There is generally no need for artificial colorings and sweeteners, preservatives, or any excipients that aren’t both safe and effective. The next time someone questions the use of tablets instead of capsules, powders or liquids, consider this: if tablets were not a very effective method of delivery, why would most pharmaceuticals utilize tablets when precision and accuracy of dosage are so important?
So, let’s have a little respect for the “other ingredients” and the science behind tableting. Without them, delivering the consistent, high quality essential nutrients in high quality products would not be possible.
See the following links for more on tablet excipients and tablet manufacturing (with video).