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What is Magnesium Stearate?

Depends on who you ask. To some magnesium stearate is "nothing." To some it is a very significant "something" that can seriously affect your health.
I will let you decide, but not without scientific facts being presented. Let's get started.

First of all, how did you get here?  What made you curious about magnesium stearate?

Did you look at the ingredients panel on your supplement and see that it contained all the nutrients you wanted?
The sales rep at the local store said it was the right product for you because of those nutrients. You were sold.
A few weeks later, you feel no change. No improvements. You feel ripped off and instead of the hassle of going back to the store, you look at the ingredients panel again.
You see the ingredients panel and given the research you've done in the last couple weeks on the nutrient, you also feel that it is the right product for you.
Then, wait, what is that? There is another panel and it is called:
Other Ingredients.
That's odd.
You see: Magnesium stearate.
"What is that? Magnesium is good, right? But I don't know what stearate is."
You google, 'What is Magnesium stearate' looking for some credible looking resource.  Here's what Wikipedia has to say about Magnesium Stearate:

"Magnesium stearate is often used as a diluent in the manufacture of medical tablets, capsules and powders (E470b).] In this regard, the substance is also useful, because it has lubricating properties, preventing ingredients from sticking to manufacturing equipment during the compression of chemical powders into solid tablets; magnesium stearate is the most commonly used lubricant for tablets. Studies have shown that magnesium stearate may affect the release time of the active ingredients in tablets, etc., but not that it reduces the over-all bio-availability of those ingredients."
About.com is also a great resource and you read what they have to say about magnesium stearate:
"The magnesium stearate or calcium stearate is a waxy solid that you know as soap scum."2
Now do you know what Magnesium stearate is?
Not really, right?  Don't feel bad.  

I graduated from the University of Washington with a BS in Cellular and Molecular Biology. I then attended Bastyr University for 5 years obtaining my degree in naturopathic medicine. I went all through medical school being told differing opinions about magnesium stearate. I researched. I looked. I hunted.  Every response I got pretty much amounted to the information that pops up in a simple Google search.
I couldn't find the answer to 'What is magnesium stearate?'. Until just now.
It is exactly 12:00 AM, Sunday, July 25, 2010. I wanted to watch a movie, relax and chill, but after seeing Al Czap finally offer the answer I was looking for, I had to share it with you.
Al Czap is the President, Founder and CEO of Thorne Research, Inc. If you don't know Thorne Research, they are one of the biggest, if not the biggest physician-only supplement companies out there. They provide insanely high quality, very well-researched products.
Al and Tye, President and CEO of Natural Partners, Inc, did a video series on 'What is Magnesium Stearate. The Truth' in a three part series.
For those who don't have the time to watch nearly 25 minutes of video about magnesium stearate, here is my summary:
Al and Tye discuss magnesium stearate. Al states it is used as a flow agent so companies can make more tablets or capsules per hour. When companies use magnesium stearate, the machines running at full speed don't gum up from the nutrients. This means higher profits. The problem is that magnesium stearate is mixed with the nutrients. Magnesium stearate surrounds the nutrients preventing dissolution and absorption. A demonstration of vitamin C dissolution test in plain water is done. One capsule contains magnesium stearate and vitamin C while the other contains only vitamin C. The vitamin C only mixes completely in the water and quickly. The vitamin C with magnesium stearate does not mix well at all. You can visually see the gumming of the vitamin C and it floating on the water's surface.
Al and dissolution specialist, Kate, demonstrate how they perform dissolution testing. They add a few different supplements containing the same nutrients from different companies into different beakers, stir for 1 hour, then test to see what percentage of nutrients become bio-available. The supplements containing magnesium stearate only allowed a maximum of 18% bio-availability of the nutrients after mixing for 1 hour, at body temperature in lower then normal stomach acid which is equivalent to someone eating something like a piece of bread. The supplement which did not contain magnesium stearate presented over 95% bio-availability of the nutrients after mixing in the same style of solution. The only difference: no magnesium stearate.
Need another test to show you what magnesium stearate does to your nutrients? Why not. Remember the lab experiment you did in school with acetic acid and sodium bicarbonate? The volcano and massive bubbling over the beaker. I loved that experiment. My son just repeated it in his 1st grade class. Al adds acetic acid to a beaker and opens a capsule of sodium bicarbonate to show the reaction. It bubbles intensely. Al then adds acetic acid to another beaker and adds a capsule of sodium bicarbonate mixed with the same proportion of magnesium stearate as what would be used by manufacturers (up to 5% of the capsule contents). There is very limited to no reaction. The magnesium stearate has surrounded the sodium bicarbonate preventing its release into the acetic acid. Al also shows some published works about magnesium stearate.
So, the evidence is pretty damning that magnesium stearate does indeed prevent full dissolution of nutrients.
When you take a vegetarian capsule full of nutrients which are the best quality but mixed with magnesium stearate, you are not getting what is stated on the supplement facts table. Not even close. Compound magnesium stearate with people taking antacids such as Tums, Pepcid, Prilosec, Zantac and others, they definitely are not getting what is stated on the supplement facts label.
When you take a tablet full of the best quality nutrients without magnesium stearate, you are likely not getting what is stated on the supplement facts label. This is because tablets are made by compression. We have teeth. We are made to chew our food. Tablets are rocks. Rocks don't dissolve in our stomachs. I have seen x-rays of patient's abdomens which show calcium tablets completely intact passing through their digestive tract.
The manufacturers who use tablets realized people started knowing this fact so they began adding enzymes and acid to the outer coating of the tablet to help it break down in the digestive tract. This should allow it to dissolve better right? Well, yes. But what about the tablet companies who also mix their nutrients with magnesium stearate? They can add all the enzymes and acid they want to the outer coating of the tablet but that won't do anything to break apart the magnesium stearate from the nutrients. You saw the demonstrations by Al.
It is not easy to find supplements that do not contain flow agents like magnesium stearate. It is not even easy for me as a physician to find ones to recommend to my customers or patients.
Now that I have concrete evidence what magnesium stearate does, I am cracking down.
I started manufacturing my own line of supplements to personally ensure that none, absolutely none, contain magnesium stearate. I cannot tell you how difficult it is for me to find laboratories that will work with me on this. I have gone through many many laboratories as they all said they use magnesium stearate. You know what else they tell me? They say it is fine. BS.
I am also ensuring that all my supplements are in liquid, powder or vegetarian capsules. I will not produce tablets unless I discover a laboratory that will make them and prove they dissolve well.
It is expensive manufacturing my own line of supplements. In fact, it cost me over $20,000 to just make one formula. But I did it because I know people are seeking pure products without magnesium stearate.
People are seeking health, not the cheapest vitamin C they can get. If they are, well, then they are not seeking health.
You get what you pay for in the supplement industry. Quality can be expensive. The active form of nutrients are expensive. Purity is expensive.
We live once. I personally want to ensure that my sons get the nutrients they need. If I want to save money, I save it by going to the local library and checking out books instead of buying them.
Don't skimp on your own health. You are obviously seeking health otherwise you would not be reading this article. You are a person that demands answers and credible information.
So am I.  That is why Seeking Health is here, and why I'm so pleased to finally be able to make the best health tools available to you.
Resources:
  1. Wikipedia: Magnesium stearate
  2. About.com: Why It's Harder to Rinse off Soap with Soft Water
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