Make Your Own Supplement Pills and Save Money?

I was browsing the aisles at Apple A Day on SoBe yesterday, and this pack of empty pill caps caught my eye. They were made of plant cellulose, and therefore vegan, although the shop also carries traditional gelatin-based tabs (gelatin is derived from animal bones and tissues). My mind immediately went to my cabinet full of superfoods - maca, turmeric, cinnamon, spirulina, wheatgrass powder, raw cacao, etc. -- and how it might be cool to make my own super-charged supplement blend.

Right now I eat all those things as foods - I blend them into smoothies, sprinkle them on quinoa, or in the case of the cacao and maca, stir them into soy-milky coffee or dishes like chia pudding. And with the exception of the spirulina and wheatgrass powder, which mostly taste like dirt (and stain my teeth green), I like the flavor of these potent foods. So why mess with a good thing?

One thought is that when you put, say, un-encapsulated spirulina powder directly in your mouth, some of the live enzymes might be killed by saliva and stomach acid before you actually get the material into your intestines, lessening the food's probiotic effect. I didn't just make that up; when I interviewed Miami-based holistic health counselor Dr. Jose Sandoval for an article on probiotic supplements, he said that well-coated gut flora capsules are the most effective because they protect those live cultures until they reach your digestive tract, where they can do the most good. But not all nutrition experts agree.

"Yogurt has live enzymes and bacteria, and they're not killed in the mouth," says Coral Gables nutritionist Laura E. Eichenbaum. She also said that because of the sheer difference in volume one would consume of supplements in powder, rather than pill form, using powder makes more sense.

"If you put it in a smoothie, you can eat a whole scoop of the spirulina. If you put it in capsule form, you'll only get one-eighth of a spoonful. So unless it changes the flavor of your smoothie in a really negative way, you're better off putting the supplement in your food, or else you probably won't get enough."

But for those who aren't big on smoothies, or who want the nutritional benefits of weird-tasting supplements (like fish oil for non-vegans -- although I recommend vegan DHA instead) without the weird taste, does it make sense to make your own pills at home?

The cost of the pill pack is $25 for 1000 capsules - not bad at at less than three cents per tab. You will also need a capsule filling machine, like the "Cap-M-Quick" model from Herb Affair, which costs $23. So you need to make a $48 investment before you get started.

Once you have that stuff, let's say you want to make spirulina pills. If you buy spirulina in bulk powder form, you can get a pound of the organic stuff for $18. Or you can buy two bottles of already-stuffed organic spirulina pills (400 tablets at 500 mg per tablet means each bottle contains about half a pound of spirulina) for about $45. So basically, if you were to make the equivalent of those two pre-made tablet bottles in your own home, the 800 empty capsules you would need would cost you $20 and the spirulina itself would cost $18, for a total of $38. Not considering the time you spent filling those capsules (most people say it takes only five minutes), or the fact that you purchased the filling machine, you come out $7 ahead.

So if you are a supplement nut and enjoy taking pills, it might make sense to make supplements at home. This is just one illustration. But between the nutritionist's advice, which implies that pills may have little benefit over powders, the relatively small financial savings and the temporal costs, it doesn't seem like this is a useful practice for most people.

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