Mineral supplements, especially zinc and magnesium, find growing opportunities in the health-focused COVID-19 era

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When a small, 43-subject observational cohort study1 (preprint, not peer-reviewed) published in June of this year showed that a combination of vitamins D3 and B12—plus the mineral magnesium—suppressed COVID-19’s progression in hospitalized patients, it created a small stir.

After all, current understanding holds that COVID-19’s pathogenesis lies less with the coronavirus itself than with the pro-inflammatory “cytokine storm” that the immune system unleashes upon infection—and that has scientists searching for compounds that exert some sort of immunomodulatory effect as a treatment. While no vitamin or mineral should be proposed as preventing, treating, or curing COVID-19, the aforementioned study had some reason to focus on this nutrient trio: vitamin B12 promotes a healthy gut microflora, vitamin D protects the respiratory epithelium, and magnesium pulls it all together by helping vitamin D function—serving not only as an enzymatic cofactor in the hormone’s metabolism but as a bronchodilator and vasodilator in its own right as well.

This is just an example of the high interest in how vitamins—and, in the case of this article, minerals especially—make a significant difference to human health and why researchers continue to study the potential benefits of supplementation as an adjunct for helping to fill any vitamin or mineral nutrient gaps in the daily diet.

Thankfully, more consumers are seeking out healthier vitamin and mineral intake strategies as they take a deeper interest in supporting their health these days especially. There’s no doubt that COVID-19 has drawn attention to the importance of general health and wellness—and to consumers’ power to attain it through diet and supplementation. Just ask Ohad Cohen, CEO, Gadot Biochemicals Ltd. (Haifa Bay, Israel). “Let’s face it: People are living in stressful times, and health-conscious consumers are seeking wellness help wherever they can get it,” he says.

That bodes well for minerals. “Due to the current worldwide health situation,” Cohen continues, “we’ve seen a major increase in food fortification as well as higher mineral use in supplements to help strengthen the immune system and assist with stress relief.”

Immunity’s Helper

Indeed, DIY immunity boosters are in particular demand. And, notes James DiNicolantonio, PharmD, director of scientific affairs, AIPD (City of Industry, CA), “The public is starting to realize that the health of the immune system is directly determined by the body’s overall nutrient status, with minerals making up part of our overall nutrient status.”

These essential elements are key components of endogenous antioxidants, acting as cofactors in their functioning and contributors to our antioxidant status, DiNicolantonio continues. “For example, copper and zinc make up superoxide dismutase, selenium is important for glutathione peroxidase, and magnesium is important for glutathione levels,” he says.

The upshot: “All the evidence indicates that poor mineral status leads to poor outcomes when it comes to viral infections,” he says.

The Zn and Mg Show

That’s more relevant now than ever, and sales of minerals with links to immune support have ranked among the fastest-growing in the supplement category over the past half year, notes DiNicolantonio. Copper and selenium have certainly benefitted, but the real winning minerals have been zinc and magnesium.

Patrick Stano, brand manager, Stauber Ingredients (Fullerton, CA), notes that demand for his company’s zinc products “has essentially doubled” lately, making them among the company’s top sellers. As for why, Stano says it’s no mystery: “It’s primarily due to their immune-health benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Cohen has also observed increased interest in his company’s zinc citrate—the form he says offers the highest bioavailability—and zinc gluconate, the high solubility of which is valuable in functional food and beverage formulations.

And while zinc’s immune effects are attractive to consumers and supplement brands, they’re not zinc’s only selling point. Cohen points out that research also associates zinc with better cell growth and wound healing, protein synthesis, improved use of vitamins like E and A, and the proper functioning of hormones—from sex hormones to insulin. And regular daily intake is essential, he adds, because “the body has no specialized zinc storage system.”

But zinc can’t do it all alone—which is where magnesium comes in. Magnesium helps the body regulate zinc levels, while zinc enables more efficient magnesium absorption, Cohen explains. “It only hinders absorption when taken in abnormally high doses of around 142 mg of zinc per day,” he says.

So zinc and magnesium—when taken jointly and in the right doses—“work together to each other’s advantage,” Cohen concludes. “They do this so well that a lot of oral supplements on the market—tablets, capsules, etc.—combine the two.” In fact, Gadot recently introduced a direct oral zinc formula with magnesium that he says requires no water, making it that much easier to take.

Letting It Sink In

The interplay between zinc and magnesium illustrates the extent to which “the correct mineral balance in our bodies is important,” Cohen says. “Lack—or too much—of any mineral can cause unwanted effects and lead to serious health outcomes.” And while the public could probably do a lot better at striking this balance, “the key is to take quality minerals that the body absorbs and doesn’t flush out,” he says.

DiNicolantonio agrees, adding that “more people are beginning to understand that mineral bioavailability isn’t enough. You have to get minerals into the cell once they’re absorbed into the body.”

And Tom Druke, marketing director, Balchem Human Nutrition and Pharma (New Hampton, NY), believes that “the most successful technologies are those that can improve the way the body absorbs or processes a nutrient—and a good example of this is chelated minerals.”

Chelates Demonstrate Results

For example, Druke says, the protection of an amino acid chelate “opens the possibility of more targeted delivery in the digestive tract.” What’s more, “By showing that a chelated mineral is more bioavailable and increases absorption, manufacturers have discovered that they can command a premium at a time when consumers are looking for health solutions that demonstrate results,” he adds.

Mark Mans, process chemistry group leader, Jost Chemical Co. (St. Louis, MO), also praises chelated minerals, pointing out that nutritionists often prefer them “because their complex structures better survive passage through the stomach and small intestine, where absorption into the bloodstream occurs.”

Jost’s newly developed zinc ascorbate glycinate chelate delivers three nutrients—zinc, vitamin C, and the amino acid glycine—in a water-soluble dose unit that eliminates the task of blending multiple components.

Adds Joe Hardimon, research and development manager at Jost, “This unique compound incorporates an equal molar ratio of ascorbic acid and glycine, completely neutralized with zinc in a metal ligand to a ratio of 1:1:1.”

Formulating Functionally

Chelated minerals aren’t just good for us, though; they’re good for formulations, too. As Druke says, “In the case of chelated minerals, the benefits go beyond enhanced absorption because chelated forms also have improved taste profiles and prevent interactions in the digestive tract, leading to better tolerance.”

As for other mineral-delivery formats, Mark K. Williams, PhD, biochemist, Mineral Logic (Kalamazoo, MI), notes that nanotechnology, in the form of liposomal ingredients, also improves mineral stability in the product environment, and that microencapsulation and time-release technologies are useful in formulation, too. “With the availability of products in chews, bars, sachets, shots, shakes, and other foods, appearance, odor, taste, and stability are gaining importance for consumers,” he notes.

Stano points out that the encapsulated nature of Stauber’s ZincNova—made by Lipofoods, which Stauber represents—improves product taste profiles and prevents possible interactions between the zinc and other ingredients. And the company’s Lipofer, an encapsulated iron salt handy in beverages, powders, and functional foods, also improves finished-product taste and forestalls ingredient interactions, he adds.

Given the expanding range of mineral-fortified products that these technologies make possible, consumers have no excuse not to strike that all-important mineral balance. But Williams exhorts all of us not to disregard the role of a balanced diet, too.

“A diet of whole foods is more complete and provides the supportive nutrients that our bodies need beyond minerals alone,” he notes. “Fiber, pre- and probiotics, electrolytes, and all the trace minerals and elements found in foods allow our bodies to properly digest minerals, proteins, carbohydrates, and fats in the most efficient way.”

Wise words. But mineral supplements belong in the mix, now and in the future. “As people live longer,” Druke notes, “there will be constant pressure to maintain quality of life as long as possible. Minerals that are well-positioned to address specific health benefits will continue to grow.”

Reference

  1. Tan CW et al. “A cohort study to evaluate the effect of combination vitamin D, magnesium and vitamin B12 (DMB) on progression to severe outcome in older COVID-19 patients.” MedRxiv preprint (June 10, 2020). Non-peer-reviewed. Accessed at: https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.06.01.20112334v1

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