Smorgasbord Health Column – Supplements – Absorbing the nutrients and avoiding the additives

Welcome to this week’s health column. Last week I looked at both prescription and over the counter pain medication.

This week I am looking at the use of supplements, the ingredients you should avoid and which ones are more easily absorbed by the body.

My research into absorption of supplements goes back to my days of running my diet advisory clinic and health food shop twenty years ago here in Ireland. I noticed that herbal remedies in tincture form appeared to work more effectively than their tablet format, and as a consequence I usually suggested that customers and clients use the tincture or liquid form whenever it was available, and if not move to capsules. The capsules were easy to break apart and mix with water, rather than have to crush tablets which was recommended if hard to swallow or digest.

Roll forward a few years when I was taking care of my mother who was on several medications (all tablets) to keep age related problems under control. She was 92 and had developed early stages of congestive heart failure. She had a pacemaker but she was now largely inactive, getting picky about eating and reluctant to drink fluids (except for banana milkshakes and black coffee). Her digestive system was unable to absorb her medications in tablet form and after changing to liquid or capsule forms showed a marked improvement in a number of physical symptoms. This was confirmed when diuretic pills she was taking stopped working and she needed an intravenous diuretic to clear the build up of fluid.

Methods of improving the absorbability of pills and tablets has improved in recent years but there are also new ways to take your supplements that increase that process significantly.

I have taken supplements in one form or another since my 20s, so for 45 years. However, I moved any supplements I take, to oral sprays via the inside of my cheek or under my tongue for quick absorption into the bloodstream, about 18 months ago. I was taking a cross section of separate nutrients but now find that a multi-vitamin spray, with additional Vitamin D in the winter months sufficient. I also use an oral spray for Turmeric which seems to have been effective against my usual joint pain in the wet Irish winters and is hopefully maintaining my immune system. I cannot say definitively that they work, only that I find they do so for me.

Why do we need to take supplements?

I would love to be able to tell you, that eating a healthy and varied diet provides you with all the essential vitamins you need, but I would be misleading you.

Good nutrition does begin with food, but today there is no guarantee that the food you are consuming, contains the same level of nutrients that it did 50 years ago or even 20 years ago. In some areas of the world, the soil we grow the food in is becoming depleted, and this results in less nutritious food.

For the younger generation with a very active lifestyle combined with heavy work schedules or parenthood, taking a booster dose of nutrients is probably necessary.

Also, as we age, we absorb food differently as I mentioned earlier, and this can impact the amount of nutrition we are obtaining. Once you become less active, you are likely to reduce your food intake, further restricting your ability to consume enough to provide all the nutrients you need.

Once you are in your mid-60s both men and women lose their hormonal protective elements. We need to maintain our organ health, including our brains and also bone density to prevent age related physical and mental decline. This requires maintaining a balance of healthy fats, moderate wholegrains and plenty of fresh vegetables and fruit and this can become hard to achieve.

Here is a brief summary of the nutrients we need to be healthy and the foods you need to consume. However, despite eating these foods, it is usually necessary to take some form of supplementation. to maintain healthy levels across the nutritional spectrum.

It is also important that the food that you do eat is fresh produce that has been processed as little as possible. For example, it may seem more convenient to buy your vegetables already cut up, but your cabbage or chopped lettuce has lost half its vitamin C before it went into the packet. And loses more each day it sits on the shelf. Take the extra five minutes to prepare yourself and you will gain a much bigger nutritional hit.

If you are going to take supplements it is important to do so with the help of a naturopathic doctor or from a recognised health food shop. I also suggest that you do your research online and find out from users their opinion of the product you are choosing.

What exactly is in the supplements that you are buying.

It is very important that you buy supplements for quality and not quantity. They are not all created equal, and some of the cheap deals that you find online, come with small amounts of the expected nutrient, but an abundance of other ingredients that are not going to add to your nutritional profile and could be harmful. There is even an ingredient to make sure the pill rolls through manufacturing machines smoothly!

I know it is time consuming, but it is important to read the small print (very small print) on the side of the bottles before buying. 

It is important to make sure that the supplement is FREE from artificial colourants and flavours, dairy, wheat, yeast, and added sugar.  Also that it is suitable for Vegetarians and Vegans, which means that no animal products have been used. That is except in the use of high quality fish oils and here is a list of the top recommended for purity, freshness and EPA and DHA Omega 3 Fatty Acids:

Check the brand against others for amount of active ingredient, usually expressed as percentage of RDA – Recommended Daily Allowance and you will find these tables useful:

The problem with most supplements in tablet form is that the active nutritional ingredient is wrapped up in a bundle of additives to give it shape and substance. Apart from making it difficult for the body to process and absorb, it can introduce unwanted contaminants into the body. This is particularly the case with some of the cheaper nutritional supplements on the market that may have more of the latter than the intended nutrient.

If you look on the label, you are likely to find some of the following ingredients. Some are across all types of supplements and are relatively harmless, but others have been identified as carcinogens or allergens.

Lactose, malitol, sorbitol, xylitol – these are used to bind the ingredients together.. especially when the active ingredient is very small and needs some substance and weight to resemble a tablet.

Specific coatings to make larger tablets easier to swallow, and also to prevent the breakdown of the pill before it reaches the intestines where it dissolves (allegedly) and is processed along with food to be distributed into the blood stream.

Propyl paraben as a preservative. Parabens have long been identified with changes in hormonal function and linked to breast cancer.

Artificial colours are used so that pills can be identified which is important if you are taking several prescription drugs. This includes Tartrazine which can result in behavioural changes, allergic reactions (Hayfever symptoms and sometimes hives in certain individuals). Some of the collective side effects include respiratory problems including asthma, gastrointestinal upsets, headaches and joint swelling.


Artificial flavourings – chemically manufactured to make your liquid or dissolvable supplement taste good. Some will say that they are free from artificial colourants and you may find that it contains beetroot powder or similar.

One of the questionable additives to supplements and other pills is Magnesium stearate which is called a ‘flow’ agent. It does not add magnesium to your diet but is used to ensure smooth flow of the tablets through the manufacturing process. Recent research has identified, that when in the gut it may dissolve into a film, inhibiting absorption of other nutrients into the blood stream, and may also result in a compromised immune system function.

Another is Titanium dioxide used as a whitening agents in some pharmaceuticals and supplements. It is believed to be a potential carcinogen for humans. Along with silica which is also used, it has been shown to result in respiratory problems and in some cases lung cancer.

You may also find other suspect ingredients – MSG Monosodium Glutamate (allergic reactions and has been identified as a neurotoxic agent), Cellulose produced from wood pulp and gelatin from collagen in animal skin and bone from animals who may have been injected with growth hormone. Also starches made from wheat and corn which should be avoided by those with celiac disease.

To sum up.

I hope that this has given you something to think about when you are choosing your supplements. Ask advice, check the product for reviews and the amount of nutrient content, as well as the other ingredients.

Look for verified FREE from artificial colourants and flavours, dairy, wheat, yeast, and added sugar.  Also that it is suitable for Vegetarians and Vegans, which means that no animal products have been used unless it is high quality fish oil.

Choose a delivery method that suits you best and take the supplement at the recommended time of day, before or after meals.

For example – In the morning.

B.Vitamins – water soluble –  to give you an energy boost.

Vitamin C – water soluble  – does not stay in the body long so better to split your dose into three, morning, afternoon and night.

Vitamin E is a fat soluble vitamin and is easily stored in the body.. take with dietary fat such as a glass of milk or after fatty foods.

In the evening.

Calcium and magnesium aid sleep and are best utilised by the body at night when it is in repair mode, including bones and muscles.

I hope you have found this useful and I look forward to your feedback. thanks Sally



Smorgasbord Health 2017 – Cook From Scratch – Multi-vitamin on a plate – Brown Rice Pilaf

health column final

I do take supplements from time to time. If I feel that I am going through a stressful time and not eating as well as I should, then I will take a multi-vitamin or appropriate supplement. As we get older some of our systems become less efficient and the digestive system is one that needs careful monitoring. You will find a whole directory of posts here:

I know that if you have been following the blog for the last three years or so, you will have seen this recipe before, but for those of new to the blog you might find it a useful illustration of how you can pack a plate with not just food but nutrients.

My philosophy about food is very simple. ‘Cook from Scratch’ avoiding industrialised foods that have been infused with chemical enhancers and gift-wrapped in plastic. This does not mean that you stop eating the occasional food that comes in a packet or carton.. but if you eat at least 80% of your food from fresh produce with only 20% that is manufactured you are doing pretty well.

However, all of us go through times when we might need a little addtional help and that is where taking the right supplements is useful.

And the word supplement means in addition to not instead of. Your body is designed to process food to extract the nutrients that it requires and many supplements on the market, especially the cheaper brands may not be in a form that your body can utilise.

You can reproduce some of those often expensive vitamin and mineral supplements yourself, and here is my version.

It contains most of the food groups and a great many of the nutrients we require on a daily basis. Protein, wholegrain carbohydrates, good fats and a wide range of nutrients.  Whilst it makes a delicious main meal for the family you can make it in bulk and keep some in the fridge for two to three days and freeze portions for later in the week. You only need a couple of large serving spoons to get a great nutritional boost.


But before I give you the recipe I would like to show you how this meal is in fact a delicious form of a multi-vitamin pill that the body understands and you will gain more benefit from.

This recipe provides you with a great vitamin B-Punch. I am only including those nutrients that are available in a higher concentration, but I think it illustrates that if you compare this to the information on your multivitamin supplement; you are getting most of what you need in this simple to make dish.

Ingredients with main nutritional elements.

Brown rice – any form of brown rice will contain more of the nutrients as it loses only the outer layer of the grain called the hull. During the process that turns brown rice to white rice it loses 67% of its vitamin B3 (niacin) 80% of B1, 90% of B6 – half of its manganese and phosphorus, 60% of its iron and all the dietary fibre and essential fatty acids. Do you realise that to make white rice acceptable as a food it has to be artificially enriched with B1 B3 and iron? It is amazing the difference that processing a food can have on its nutritional content. It also contains selenium and copper.

Olive Oil – Omega 9 Fatty Acid and Vitamin E. Inflammatory disease throughout the body is one of the leading causes of health problems for major organs such as the heart and brain. Using Extra Virgin Olive oil even in cooking helps reduce inflammation in the body. Also contains Vitamin E.

Onions and Garlic Folate, B1, B6 Vitamin C, biotin, manganese, copper, chromium, quercitin, potassium, phosphorus – heart health, blood sugar levels, inflammation, digestive system.

Red Peppers – Vitamin A, Vitamin B1, B2, B3, B6, Folate, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Vitamin K, phosphorus, magnesium. Antioxidant.

Mushrooms – Folate, B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B12, copper, selenium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, manganese and a great source of protein.

Walnuts – Omega 3 fatty acids, copper, manganese and biotin. Heart health.

Spinach – Vitamin K, Vitamins A, Folate, B1, B2, B6, C, E, Calcium and potassium.

Tuna/Salmon – Omega 3 fatty acids, vitamins B3, B6, B12, selenium, phosphorus, iron, magnesium, potassium.

Eggs – Omega 3 Fatty Acids, Folic Acid, Vitamin A, B2, B5, B12, D (very important) E, iron, iodine, selenium. (Research is indicating that having an egg a day is not harmful as unhealthy cholesterol is not caused by eating natural foods containing it but in eating industrial foods with high sugar levels and commercially manufactured fats).

Ingredients for four servings. You can freeze three portions and use as needed.

225gm /8oz of wholegrain rice (you can add some wild rice for flavour)
15ml/ 1 tbsp. Extra Virgin olive oil. (Recent research has indicated that this is safe to heat for cooking but do not burn).
30gm real butter (Spreads that contain half and half butter and margarine are also full of additives) Better to have a little of the real dairy fat.
1 large finely chopped onion.
Half a red pepper
Handful of mushrooms, button or shitake and as an alternative protein.
10 chopped walnuts.
4 oz. of finely chopped spinach or dandelion leaves.
Any leftover vegetables from the day before.
1 crushed clove of garlic.
1 teaspoon mild pimiento
Your choice of protein – One Egg per person, chicken, salmon, tuna, lean bacon or a mix of various kinds.
Salt and pepper to taste.

Wash the rice under cold running water until clear and drain to remove dust and any remaining debris. Cook until tender in boiling water for 20/25 minutes either on the stove or in a rice cooker in the microwave.

Hard boil four eggs. (A little tip is to put a teaspoon of bicarbonate in the water and it will make the eggs much easier to peel).

In a frying pan melt your butter into the olive oil and cook your bacon and remove from the pan. Add finely chopped onions, red pepper, mushrooms and garlic with a pinch of salt, the pimiento and a sprinkle of pepper to the bacon infused oil and butter and cook until soft. Add the bacon back in and then stir in the chopped spinach and walnuts.

Drain your rice and I usually pour boiling water over it in the colander to remove any starch residue. Add in one large serving spoon per person to the pan and on a low heat blend the rice through the ingredients.

Add in your cooked protein such as chicken, tuna or salmon or cooked shrimp.

Serve in a bowl and garnish with a hardboiled egg.


Add in the vegetables you enjoy to the base recipe and you can jazz it up for dinner parties as guests love the variety. You can also eat this cold. Keep in the fridge in a sealed container and serve with a garden salad.  It will keep for a day or two and you can reheat with a small amount of stock in a large frying pan or reheat in the microwave.

©Sally Cronin Just Food for Health 1998 – 2019

My nutritional background

I am a qualified nutritional therapist with twenty years experience working with clients in Ireland and the UK as well as being a health consultant on radio in Spain. Although I write a lot of fiction, I actually wrote my first two books on health, the first one, Size Matters, a weight loss programme 20 years ago, based on my own weight loss of 154lbs. My first clinic was in Ireland, the Cronin Diet Advisory Centre and my second book, Just Food for Health was written as my client’s workbook. Since then I have written a men’s health manual, and anti-aging programme, articles for magazines and posts here on Smorgasbord.

If you would like to browse by health books and fiction you can find them here: