The Truth About Minerals in Nutritional Supplements Part A
by Robert Thiel, Ph.D., Naturopath
Abstract: Even though natural health professionals agree that humans should not try to consume industrial chemicals, most seem to overlook this fact when mineral supplementation is involved. And even though many people interested in natural health take minerals, the truth is that nearly all the minerals taken are “natural” for nothing except plants and/or industrial chemicals. While plants are designed to ingest and break-down minerals, humans are not. The truth about nearly all minerals in supplements is that they are really industrial chemicals made from processing rocks with one or more acids. The consumption of this “other half” of the mineral compound is not only unnatural, it can lead to toxicity concerns. Humans were designed to eat food and to get their minerals from foods. Foods DO NOT naturally contain minerals bound to substances such as picolinic acid, carbonates, oxides, phosphates, etc. When supplementation is indicated, only supplements made from 100% food should be considered for supporting optimal health.
In a nutritional context, minerals are certain elements, such as iron and phosphorus that are essential for the physiology of living organisms to exist.
When it comes to nutrition, plants and humans differ: “a typical plant makes its own food from raw materials… A typical animal eats its food” . For plants, these raw materials include soil-based inorganic mineral salts . Soil-based mineral salts can be depleted through synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, as well as repeatedly growing crops on the same soil [3,4].
Plants, with the aid of enzymes and soil-based microorganisms, can take in from soil the mineral salts that they have an affinity for through their roots or hyphae . After various metabolic processes, when these minerals no longer exist as salts, they become complexed with various carbohydrates, lipids, and proteins present in the plant as part of the living organism . Thus for nutrition, humans eat plants and/or animals that eat plants, whereas plants can obtain their nutrients from the soil . This process is commonly referred to as the “food chain” .
Unfortunately most mineral supplements contain minerals in the form referred to as ‘mineral salts’. Even though mineral salts are often called “natural”, they are rocks (e.g. calcium carbonate exists as the rock commonly known as limestone) or they are chemically produced in accordance with the United States Pharmacopoeia (USP). Mineral salts are natural food for plants, they are not a natural food for humans–humans do not have roots or hyphae!
Dietary Guideline number 18 of the Weston A. Price Foundation, an organization devoted to consuming real foods, is: “Use only natural, food-based supplements” . One of the standards of naturopathy agreed to in 1947 was, “Naturopathy does not make use of synthetic or inorganic vitamins or minerals” . Why would naturopaths have mentioned minerals since they are ‘natural’? Because even back then, most naturopaths knew that the inorganic minerals being placed into supplements were often simply industrial rocks and not foods. Little has changed in the nearly seven decades since. This paper documents the availability, sources, and some of the chemical differences between minerals found in foods and the industrially processed mineral salts that are found in most ‘natural’ mineral supplements.
Mineral absorption is affected by many factors including the chemical form, structural form, existence or lack of protein chaperones, health, dietary factors, and even medications.
“Absorptive efficiency for many minerals is governed by homeostatic feedback regulation. When the body is in a depleted state, the intestine upregulates absorption of the nutrient. At the biochemical level , this regulation must be expressed by the control of intraluminal binding lignans, cell-surface receptors, intracellular carrier proteins, intracellular storage proteins, or the energetics of the transmembrane transport…In general mineral bioavailability decreases because of many drugs, decreases with age, and in the presence of malnutrition, is associated with poorer integrity of the small intestine. Therefore, older individuals who are often taking numerous medications and who are eating more poorly than young people are at greater risk of mineral deficiencies” .
The basic difference between minerals found in foods and those found in industrial mineral salts is chemical.
“The chemical form of a mineral is an important factor in its absorption and bioavailability…there is evidence that the form in which minerals are ingested affects absorption. For example, particle size, surface area, and solubility of a substance affects is dilution rate…In many solid foods, elements are not free, but firmly bound in the food matrix” .
This, of course, is not true of most minerals in supplements as they are normally industrially processed inorganic rocks (mineral salts) hence they are void of the factors found in a food matrix. Only 100% food minerals have minerals attached in a food matrix.
Minerals are normally found in food and in the body they are attached with some peptide [9,10]. When humans eat plants or animals they are consuming minerals in those forms. Humans are not supposed to directly consume soil components . With the exception of sodium chloride (common table salt), humans do not normally in any significant quantity consume minerals in the chemical forms known as mineral salts. When they do, it is considered to be a disorder called ‘geophagia’ or ‘pica’ [11,12].
It is a fact that mineral salts are often called “natural”, but they are not food minerals. Mineral salts are normally inorganic molecular compounds that look like rocks . Mineral salts are a compound containing a mineral element, which is the mineral normally listed on a supplement label, and some other substance it is chemically bound to. Mineral salts are either rocks (e.g. calcium carbonate exists as the rock commonly known as limestone) or they are rocks that are chemically-altered. Mineral salts are natural food for plants which can chemically change and detoxify them ; they are not a natural food for humans, although some people do consider crushed bones and naturally-calcified sea algae, etc. as food. Minerals bound in mineral salts simply are not treated the same way in the body as are minerals found in food.
Minerals vs. Industrial Chemicals
The following list describes what many mineral salts/chelates used in supplements actually are and what they are used for when not in supplements:
Boric acid is the rock known as sassolite. It is used in weatherproofing wood, fireproofing fabrics, and as an insecticide .
Calcium ascorbate is calcium carbonate processed with ascorbic acid and acetone. It is a manufactured product used in ‘non-food’ supplements .
Calcium carbonate is the rock known as limestone or chalk. It is used in the manufacture of paint, rubber, plastics, ceramics, putty, polishes, insecticides, and inks. It is also used in fillers for adhesives, matches, pencils, crayons, linoleum, insulating compounds, and welding rods .
Calcium chloride is calcium carbonate and chlorine and is the by product of the Solvay ammonia-soda process. It is used for antifreeze, refrigeration, fire extinguisher fluids, and to preserve wood and stone. Other uses include cement, coagulant in rubber manufacturing, controlling dust on unpaved roads, freezeproofing of coal, and increasing traction in tires .
Calcium citrate is calcium carbonate processed with lactic and citric acids. It is used to alter the baking properties of flour .
Calcium gluconate is calcium carbonate processed with gluconic acid, which is used in cleaning compounds. It is used in sewage purification and to prevent coffee powders from caking .
Calcium glycerophosphate is calcium carbonate processed with dl-alpha-glycerophosphates. It is used in dentifrices, baking powder, and as a food stabilizer .
Calcium hydroxyapatite is crushed bone and bone marrow. It is used as a fertilizer .
Calcium iodide is calcium carbonate processed with iodine. It is an expectorant .
Calcium lactate is calcium carbonate processed with lactic acid. It is used as a dentifrice and as a preservative .
Calcium oxide is basically burnt calcium carbonate. It is used in bricks, plaster, mortar, stucco, and other building materials. It is also used in insecticides and fungicides .
Calcium phosphate, tribasic is the rock known as oxydapatit or bone ash. It is used in the manufacture of fertilizers, milk-glass, polishing powders, porcelain, pottery, and enamels .
Calcium stearate is an octodecanoic calcium salt and can be extracted from animal fat. It is used for waterproofing fabrics and in the production of cement, stucco, and explosives .
Chromium chloride is a preparation of hexahydrates. It is used as a corrosion inhibitor and waterproofing agent .
Chromium picolinate is chromium III processed with picolinic acid. Picolinic acid is used in herbicides .
Copper aspartate is made “from the reaction between cupric carbonate and aspartic acid (from chemical synthesis)” . It is a manufactured product used in ‘non-food’ supplements .
Copper (cupric) carbonate is the rock known as malachite. It is used as a paint and varnish pigment, plus as a seed fungicide .
Copper gluconate is copper carbonate processed with gluconic acid. It is used as a deodorant .
Copper (cupric) glycinate is a copper salt processed with glycine. It is used in photometric analysis for copper .
Copper sulfate is copper combined with sulfuric acid. It is used as a drain cleaner and to induce vomiting; it is considered as hazardous heavy metal by the City of Lubbock, Texas that “can contaminate our water supply” .
Dicalcium phosphate is the rock known as monetite, but can be made from calcium chloride and sodium phosphate. It is used in ‘non-food’ supplements .
Ferric pyrophosphate is an iron rock processed with pyrophosphoric acid. It is used in fireproofing and in pigments .
Ferrous lactate is a preparation from isotonic solutions. It is used in ‘non-food’ supplements .
Ferrous sulfate is the rock known as melanterite. It is used as a fertilizer, wood preservative, weed-killer, and pesticide .
Magnesium carbonate is the rock known as magnesite. It is used as an antacid, laxative, and cathartic .
Magnesium chloride is magnesium ammonium chloride processed with hydrochloric acid. It fireproofs wood, carbonizes wool, and is used as a glue additive and cement ingredient .
Magnesium citrate is magnesium carbonate processed with acids. It is used as a cathartic .
Magnesium glycinate is a magnesium salt processed with glycine. It is used in ‘non-food’ supplements.
Magnesium oxide is normally burnt magnesium carbonate. It is used as an antacid and laxative .
Manganese carbonate is the rock known as rhodochrosite. It is used as a whitener and to dry varnish .
Manganese gluconate is manganese carbonate or dioxide processed with gluconic acid. It is a manufactured item used in ‘non-food’ supplements .
Manganese sulfate is made “from the reaction between manganese oxide and sulfuric acid” . It is used in dyeing and varnish production .
Molybdenum ascorbate is molybdenite processed with ascorbic acid and acetone. It is a manufactured item used ‘non-food’ supplements .
Molybdenum disulfide is the rock known as molybdenite. It is used as a lubricant additive and hydrogenation catalyst .
Potassium chloride is a crystalline substance consisting of potassium and chlorine. It is used in photography .
Potassium iodide is made from HI and KHCO3 by melting in dry hydrogen and undergoing electrolysis. It is used to make photographic emulsions and as an expectorant .
Potassium sulfate appears to be prepared from the elements in liquid ammonia. It is used as a fertilizer and to make glass .
Selenium oxide is made by burning selenium in oxygen or by oxidizing selenium with nitric acid. It is used as a reagent for alkaloids or as an oxidizing agent .
Seleniomethionine is a selenium analog of methionine. It is used as a radioactive imaging agent .
Silicon dioxide is the rock known as agate. It is used to manufacture glass, abrasives, ceramics, enamels, and as a defoaming agent .
Vanadyl sulfate is a blue crystal powder known as vanadium oxysulfate. It is used as a dihydrate in dyeing and printing textiles, to make glass, and to add blue and green glazes to pottery .
Zinc acetate is made from zinc nitrate and acetic anhydride. It is used to induce vomiting .
Zinc carbonate is the rock known as smithsonite or zincspar. It is used to manufacture rubber .
Zinc chloride is a combination of zinc and chlorine. It is used as an embalming material .
Zinc citrate is smithsonite processed with citric acid. It is used in the manufacture of some toothpaste .
Zinc gluconate is a zinc rock processed with gluconic acid. Gluconic acid is used in many cleaning compounds .
Zinc lactate is smithsonite processed with lactic acid. Lactic acid lactate is used as a solvent .
Zinc monomethionine is a zinc salt with methionine. It is used as a ‘non-food’ supplement.
Zinc orotate is a zinc rock processed with orotic acid. Orotic acid is a uricosuric (promotes uric acid excretion) .
Zinc oxide is the rock known as zincite. It is used as a pigment for white paint and as part of quick-drying cement .
Zinc phosphate is the rock known as hopeite. It is used in dental cements .
Zinc picolinate is a zinc rock processed with picolinic acid. Picolinic acid is used in herbicides .
Zinc sulfate can be a rock processed with sulfuric acid. It is used as a corrosive in calico-printing and to preserve wood .
There is a relatively easy way to tell if minerals are industrial chemicals. Whenever there are two-words on a label describing a mineral, it is a logical to conclude that the substance is an industrial mineral product and not 100% food. The exception is chromium GTF (the GTF stands for glucose tolerance factor) which is food if it is from nutritional yeast .
Chelated minerals are generally crushed industrial rocks that are processed with one or more acids.
Probably the biggest difference in minerals now compared to 1947 is that some companies have decided to industrially produce versions of minerals attached to peptides. Essentially they take a rock or industrial mineral salt, chemically alter it, and attempt to attach it to the mineral. This results in a mineral that is different from normal mineral salts, but does not turn the substance into a food. Examples of this include the various mineral ascorbates, picolinates, aspartates, glycinates, and chelates. It needs to be understood that since there is not a universally accepted definition of the term ‘chelate’, when this term is used on a label, one generally does not know if the chelate is amino-acid based or some type of industrial acid.
While it is true that humans can, and do, utilize minerals from USP mineral salts or chelated minerals, this is not as safe (or even normally as effective) as consuming them from foods (or in the case of real food supplements, food concentrates).
Non-Food Attachments, Including Some “Chelates,” Are Not Desirable
Is it wise to consume non-food minerals?
Dr. Bernard Jensen, an early 20th century advocate of food-based nutrition, once wrote, “When we take out from foods some certain salt, we are likely to alter the chemicals in those foods. When extracted from food, that certain chemical salt is extracted, may even become a poison. Potash by itself is a poison, whether it comes from a food or from the drugstore. This is also the case with phosphorus. You thereby overtax your system, and your functions must work harder, in order to throw off those inorganic salts or poisons introduced… The chemical elements that build our body must be in biochemical, life-producing form. They must come to us as food, magnetically, electrically alive, grown from the dust of the earth… When we are lacking any element at all, we are lacking more than one element. There is no one who ever lacked just one element. We don’t have a food that contains only one element, such as a carrot entirely of calcium or sprouts totally made of silicon” .
It should be noted that the addition of “citric acid and picolinic acid do not appear to enhance zinc absorption” . Chromium picolinate is a human-made substance, created by Gary Evans ; it is not a natural food. Picolinic acid is used in herbicides ; furthermore “picolinic acid is an excretory or waste product. It is not metabolized by or useful to the body” . Scientists report, “some research groups recently suggested that chromium (III) picolinate produces significantly more oxidative stress and potential DNA damage than other chromium supplements” .
Concerns are being raised from various sources about the implications of intentional ingestion of inorganic substances in supplements by human beings [22,25,26]. These substances are not natural for humans to consume and a long period of consumption may cause some type of toxic accumulation [22,25,26]. Yet, many people supposedly interested in natural health are daily consuming various carbonates, gluconates, oxides, picolinates, phosphates, sulfates and other rock components that were not intended to be ingested that way. Since there are many possible negative implications associated with “the other half” of these non-food minerals , people truly interested in their health would be much better off consuming foods that are high in minerals or supplements made from those foods.
Jay Patrick claims to have originally developed procedures to manufacture all seven of the mineral ascorbates ; thus it would seem highly inappropriate to call supplements with ascorbate attached minerals ‘food’.
Actually, it does not appear that any of the minerals marketed as ‘chelated’ are food concentrates, though there are foods which contain naturally chelated minerals, but these are normally marketed as food minerals. Even though there are some theoretical advantages to industrially-produced mineral ‘chelates’ as compared to inorganic mineral salts, these chelates are not natural food.