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The animal products in your medicine cabinet
February 27th, 2012
06:30 PM ET

The animal products in your medicine cabinet

Most of us put a good deal of thought into the food we put in our bodies. But do we ever consider the food in our medicine?

That's right, the food in our medicine.

While television and print ads alike are loaded with messages about potential serious side effects, prescription drug disclaimers are issued to warn against possible unintended consequences resulting from a drug’s active ingredient(s).

But what you may not know is that the bulk of your prescription pill is made up of inactive ingredients, known as “excipients," and that your drugs couldn’t be made without them. Quite simply, excipients are what encapsulates your capsule or forms your pill into a solid as opposed to a powder.

Here’s the rub: One of the most common excipients used is gelatin, which is almost universally of animal origin. This presents a problem, as you might imagine, to those living within religious or dietary restrictions.

According to a new study released Monday in the BMJ Postgraduate Medical Journal, 43.2% of the study population “would prefer not to take animal product-containing medication, even if no alternative were available.”  500 people participated in the study.

Of the study participants with dietary restrictions, 88% said they would prefer to take oral medication containing only vegetable products. Of the patients who preferred vegetarian-only treatment, 85.2% said they would not take any oral medication which contained animal products, though more than half said they would do so if no alternatives were available.

Perhaps most surprising, less than a quarter of those patients with dietary restrictions specifically asked the doctor who prescribed the drug or the pharmacist who dispensed it about its composition.

Previous studies have shown that doctors do not regularly discuss a medication's inactive ingredients with their patients, and very few patients think to ask.

Of the participants who were surveyed, those who followed a Halal diet and those who designated themselves as pure vegetarian/vegan were far more like to ask about a drug’s constituents than those who avoided only certain animal foods, such as chicken, beef, or pork.

The data from the study shows that the majority of the people who were surveyed found it completely acceptable that their medications contained gelatin, an animal by-product. But if it's important for you to know and to control exactly what food is entering your body, the takeaway here is simple: ask your doctor - or your pharmacist.


soundoff (31 Responses)
  1. Galina L.

    So, is it a problem that the religious believes of vegans that meat is unhealthy could come in a conflict with some consumption of a small amount of gelatine in a pill? It doesn't belong to a health news category, rather to the religious news, why doctor should discuss such nonsense? Too much attention is paid to vegetarians.

    February 28, 2012 at 09:38 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Mahmood

      I commend the authors for undertaking such a study. There are several societal sectors that follow dietary restrictions i.e Jewish & Muslim Population refraining from Porcine products, Vegetarian sectors – refraining from meat products including fish and eggs, etc. etc.

      It is about time the consumers are given the choice of decision making in their pharmaceutical and medical device products.

      We are beginning to seek niches like organic foods, sustainability and environmental stewardship initiatives. It is just a beginning.

      February 28, 2012 at 12:14 | Report abuse |
    • Galina L.

      @Mahmood,
      Faith and religious believes do not belong to the discussion about health , what if some religious group starts to believe that red color is offensive or unlucky, should be the red color to be avoided on pill boxes? If religious people have to go around some common practice like using animal products as a non-medical part of a pill, let then take care of themselves and find ways to do it, whole society has other concerns that need research and resources.

      February 28, 2012 at 12:51 | Report abuse |
    • JeramieH

      We're just barely starting to get conditions like AIDS and cancer under control, and now we have to worry about whether somebody has an objection to the pill color as well. You know, because curing cancer isn't difficult or important enough already.

      February 28, 2012 at 13:06 | Report abuse |
    • erica1112

      Your response is completely idiotic. "Too much attention is paid to vegetarians ".... Really? You don't have to worrry about it though as vegetarians don't access the health care as much as carnivores. Meat eaters, on average, have more health problems than vegetarians. They are fatter and have higher incidence of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer than non-meat eaters. This is a fact. Clearly, you don't care about what goes into medications. You probably don't care what's in your food either. As well, I can assure you that the pharmaceutical companies have already thought that certain colors might be offensive in some countries. However, if you enjoy a "really" good piece of meat... I hope you know a "really" good doctor and live close to a "really" good hospital. Enjoy!

      February 28, 2012 at 14:01 | Report abuse |
    • JeramieH

      At some point, the combined overlap of every group's dislikes will exclude anything from being acceptable.

      February 28, 2012 at 16:47 | Report abuse |
    • Ms

      Wow, Galina, no one is forcing you to change YOUR prescriptions, they just want options to suit their lives.

      February 28, 2012 at 19:28 | Report abuse |
    • Galina L.

      Just in order to clarify what I think about eating meat, I mostly follow the Weston Price foundation recommendations, eat pasture-raised animal products,avoid sugars, 51 years old with no health problems , with healthy family members because they eat food I cook for them from the scratch. I think that vegetarianism is dangerous especially for children, more like a religious group.http://www.westonaprice.org/vegetarianism-and-plant-foods/myths-of-vegetarianism Healthy benefits is a myth (look where Steve Jobs is now and how Clinton looks like now), maybe just slightly better than the Standard American Diet on a short run. Most vegetarians I met are unhealthy and cranky, look even you without knowing me wished me to be in hospital soon or worse. You mistake meat eaters with the Standard American Diet eaters.

      My main point was that the fact that there are animal products in medicine is not a health concern and the piece of information belongs to religious news or probably to marketing rather then to the health news.

      February 29, 2012 at 08:06 | Report abuse |
    • Scott

      Galina, no offense, but you are showing your ignorance. You keep saying that this should have been in religious news as opposed to more mainstream health news. Not everyone that practices a meat-free diet does it for religious purposes. I and my wife have been vegetarian for nearly 10 years now, and neither of us do it for religious beliefs. In my case, I have NEVER been a huge fan of meat and I only realized in my late 20s that I actually have a bad reaction to certain meats. In my wife's case, she wanted to try out what she considered a healthier lifestyle, and she has been very happy with that choice. Both of us are in our mid-30s, in good to excellent health, and we are both generally very happy people. I also have several friends that practice meat-free or low-meat diets for non-religious purposes. It is true that any diet, taken to the extremes, can be dangerous, but as long as a person is aware of the issues involving their diet and they act accordingly, they should be just fine. By the way, if this article had been posted in religious news, I NEVER WOULD HAVE SEEN IT, which is why it is perfect right where it is.

      February 29, 2012 at 10:43 | Report abuse |
    • Vegan

      Veganism or vegetarianism is not a religion. It is a belief but not a religion. If you believe in something, it does not matter how much or how little of that gelatin gets to your body. You believe it is bad for you and therefore you don't want to eat that. It's that simple.

      We don't ask for attention. Am not sure if that's what the article is trying to do. It is educating us that medicines could include gelatin and frankly, most people don't know that.

      February 29, 2012 at 13:48 | Report abuse |
    • Galina L.

      Vegan,exactly, if you didn't know that gelatin in pills was an animal product, it wouldn't harm you , but now you have some information which would only complicate your life. What if somebody would tell you there are some animal produced specks in the dust? Thank you for admitting that veganism is a system of believes. For me any religion is a system of believes, but if somebody sees the difference...I disagree only when people mistakenly embrace meat avoiding for health reasons.

      February 29, 2012 at 15:09 | Report abuse |
    • Vegan

      Galina,

      I knew the moment I embraced this lifestyle that gelatin is derived from animal skins and bones. Most people who go through this transformation know what they are in for. We invest time to understand what we put inside our mouth. We read labels. We read books and research studies. Did it complicate my life? Absolutely not! I have a clear set of priorities and I just found myself worrying less about the latest in fashion or the best deals online. I feel great and at peace knowing that am not causing any harm to the animals and the environment the best way I can. How about you? You must be worried about dusts.

      February 29, 2012 at 21:12 | Report abuse |
    • Galina L.

      I did my research about what comes into my mouth as well, I also care about the Earth. From what I learned, agriculture doesn't look sustainable and destroys habitats, unlike raising animals and poultry on pastures. I don't eat grains, members of my family do, but they don't rely heavily on it. By eliminating bought snacks and drinks, I dramatically reduced the amount of garbage my family generates.

      March 1, 2012 at 07:43 | Report abuse |
    • a vegan

      i'm a vegan and i wouldn't call it a religious belief (while you could argue that it may fit into your definition of religion...i'm going to differ here). it's a philosophy, for me. it's how i live my life. and one of the few things i am genuinely proud of. not sure why people get "upset" about vegans. i get lectured on what i should eat, what we were "meant to eat", etc, etc, more often than not when people find out i'm a vegan. i don't push my beliefs on anyone. i do my own thing. not harming anyone in the process and i would think people would/could respect that.

      March 2, 2012 at 16:26 | Report abuse |
  2. shakemeup

    Don't make me pay for insurance that would cover these medicines, It's immoral! Just ask the Vegan Bishop.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Mathew

    Why stir the pot, Mr. Tinker, when the stew tastes just fine?

    February 28, 2012 at 10:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Notso Commonsense

    My will to survive must be stronger. I would eat nails if it would keep me alive.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Fiona

    In my experience, you should skip asking your physician or pharmacist about the ingredients and just research it yourself online. Docs don't know and pharmacists can't be bothered (if you get your meds from a drugstore chain, the pharmacist is either not there or never available anyway). You are your best advocate. Do the research.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Jer

    My question is, why is it that pharmaceutical companies are permitted to release a medication for use without a list of the "inactive ingredients" are in each pill and the percentage. All generic forms of meds are filled with "inactive ingredients" with only have a minute amount of the "active ingredient" in it, leaving it far less effective than brand meds.

    February 29, 2012 at 03:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. DD

    This is an important issue to those with allergies. I have a child that can't have artificial colors and has bad reactions and rashes to various preservatives. Another child has milk and egg plus intolerance to soy. So I try very hard to keep them healthy and explore all other options before the pill. When one child got an ear infection it took far to long to locate an antibiotic. I would love to have more alternatives.

    February 29, 2012 at 06:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. AC

    Sometimes I get a cough that is unexplainable after taking some medications. I have always sworn it was from the inactive ingredients as I would talk to the pharmacist and they would tell me the drug is the same. So what is the difference? The inactive ingredients. I have never known who to go to about my theory. What other chemicals will we find out are in our medications?

    February 29, 2012 at 13:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. erica1112

    Galina – ignorance is truly bliss, yes? Clearly you don't understand that being a vegan is NOT a religion, it is a lifestyle. Vegans and/or vegetarians do not eat meat or animal products because we don't like to harm animals. When an animal is slaughtered, it releases adrenaline and cortisol. These substances are later consumed by meat eaters. Both substances are suspected to cause cancer. Some of us crazy people don't wear fur either – because you know the animal dies for fashion. And you " disagree only when people mistakenly embrace meat avoiding for health reasons"... Sorry, but I don't understand your point. Steve Jobs' died of cancer and Bill Clinton looks better than he did (remember his cardiac health pre-vegan diet thanks to, ahem – cheeseburgers). No one is talking about taking these diets to extremes. Vegan or vegetarian diets can be healthy for kids – IF they are probably done. As well, most people do not have access, or can even afford "pasture fed" meat. MEAT is not necessry for humans to be healthy. We are not physiologically designed to properly digest and process meat. Check your science. And no one is wishing you or anyone else to the hospital. My previous line is a direct quote from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Look them up and see what they have to say.

    February 29, 2012 at 16:04 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Vegan

      Erica1112,

      Couldn't agree more!

      February 29, 2012 at 21:16 | Report abuse |
    • tacc2

      "We are not physiologically designed to properly digest and process meat." Dude, that statement is totally false, and before you accuse me of having some meat eating agenda, I'm a vegetarian. First, we weren't "designed". If we were, the designer was an idiot. Second, humans developed as omnivores. We are physiologically well adapted at eating both meat and non-meat foods. As for the science, as we now understand it, it looks like we may have our ancestors love of fatty meat to thank for the development of our big brains (please don't read this as, "you need meat to be smart" because that isn't the case). Anyhow, my point is, there are plenty of reasons not to eat meat, but the physiology of our digestive tracts isn't one of them :)

      March 1, 2012 at 10:30 | Report abuse |
  10. Galina L.

    I answered to you, Erica, but don't see now my response. So, I am writing again. I have been interested in healthy life-style my whole life and tried different diets during my life because I am really prone to allergies. The least successful diet I tried 6 years ado was the one recommended in Dr. Weill's books (he is the member of Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, btw) the noninflammatory diet when I really limited meat, especially red one, saturated fats, I was already not eating sugar and eating plenty of fruits and veggies and cooked my food. All my health issues got worse, I gained weight. Probably, his advice would be an improvement for some junk-food consumer, but not for me. I was surprised, did a lot of research, as a result ditch soy products, whole grains, introduced more red meat , eggs, coconut oil and pasture butter. No, we are not vegetarians by design. I am not wealthy, but I pay for good food from the money I don't spent on lattes, snacks, cereals, store bought drinks, fast food. Half of my meat is organ type which is much cheaper. You live in your bubble and that think I am ignorant.
    My previous comment with comparison of GI tracts of different animals gone, so here is the link http://www.second-opinions.co.uk/carn_herb_comparison.html, I am sure you are not interested.
    Clinton developed the need for the heart surgery after years spend under care of Dr. Ornish. The physicians for responsible medicine is a group of people withe a vegetarian agenda, Dr. Neil Bernard is a fine example, recommends whole grains for diabetics. I formed my opinions after excessive reading. My bottom line is health, and I am getting great result for myself and my family members. Not many people my age with no need for medical care, medications, with always perfect blood pressure.

    February 29, 2012 at 21:23 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Through the Looking Glass...

      Hi Galina,

      There seems to be a lot of friciton about veganism here. I'd just like to point out, that unlike religious beliefs, veganism is not puritanical, it does not say one 'must' . It's a conscious choice. Many vegans choose thier lifestyle for ethical reasons, and choose to believe that in pain and suffering we are all equals. Just like you have the choice of an animal protein based lifestyle, we have one for a plant based one.
      Tempers run high as 'veganism' really runs to the intrinsic value of who and what people are. As far as research is concerned, we'll find plenty on both sides, so that really renders the argument moot. I hope you find it in yourself to extend the same liberty to vegans as they do to all of humanity.

      June 9, 2014 at 21:12 | Report abuse |
  11. Anne

    Well when I was taking Premarin I found out that the ingredient was horse urine. Those the name. Pregnant Mare In. Guess a person will take anything that relieves them of their pain or symptoms. Actually I did feel much better taking in, and was sorry when the risk came up that it was giving women heart attacks. So if most of our medicatons contain animal products, maybe we should all quit taking them until they come up with another solution. The drug companies make enough off of us now.

    March 1, 2012 at 05:56 | Report abuse | Reply
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