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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.


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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.