A common piece of advice on nutrition I hear from people ranging from layperson to “expert” is to invest in foods or supplements that have labels with few ingredients, whose ingredients contain four syllables or less, or something along those lines. This type of advice is, in my eyes, well-intended but off the mark.
The logic behind this notion is generally that food labels with lots of elaborate ingredients with really scientific-sounding names must be artificial and thus detrimental to your health. Often times it is the case that ingredients with complicated names were contrived in a lab, but not always. The enzyme AMPk, for example–which is short for adenosine monophosphate-activated protein kinase–has a name that hardly rolls right off the tongue. Yet it plays a key roll in regulating cellular energy levels and is naturally found in a myriad of tissues, including brain, liver, and skeletal muscle.
Moreover, just because an ingredient was artificially manufactured does not mean that it’s inherently going to cause cancer or some other health issue. The vast majority of life-saving medications, for example, were contrived in a laboratory. I’ll be the first to champion fixing health issues with nutrition and lifestyle changes when possible, and I’m also somewhat dubious in general of Big Pharma, but the bottom line is that without these synthetic chemicals and interventions our health care would not be nearly as good as it is today.
It’s this fear of the “artificially manufactured” that has bred things like the movements against GMOs and High Fructose Corn Syrup, which I would argue are overblown concerns. I’m not saying that I’m not skeptical of these types of things–I generally avoid them myself–but I’m not going to claim they’re a ticking time bomb for cancer proliferation or the root cause of the obesity/metabolic syndrome epidemic. The science to make these claims just isn’t there, although there are studies underway and studies that will surely be undertaken in the near future that should shed more light on these controversial topics. Until then, I will be a wary bystander. No more, no less.
With all of this in mind, you might be surprised to learn that I actually follow the aforementioned advice of keeping my ingredient lists short, particularly on my supplements. The reasoning behind this is not a fear of artificial ingredients, though, but rather an adherence to an evidence-based approach: the effects shown in separate studies for separate compounds, even if they are extremely impressive, are not additive. In other words, just because a set of studies show that BCAAs are extremely effective at triggering the anabolic pathway and another set of studies show that ATP supplementation greatly increases resistance to fatigue does not mean that a supplement combining the two will give you the best of both worlds. The two (or twenty) compounds involved could be in competition for a common enzyme, for example, and so increasing the concentration of both at the same time actually diminishes the effect each one would normally have at those concentrations.
An example of such a pathway is the competition for the Large Neutral Amino Acid transporter. This one transporter is responsible for carrying the BCAAs, as well as phenylalanine, tyrosine, and tryptophan. If you increase the proportion of one these amino acids to the others, transportation of the others will suffer and the subsequent pathways those amino acids are a part of will suffer also. If you increase the concentrations of multiple types of these amino acids, the effect the increase would have for one amino acid is mitigated by the increase of the other.
Interesting (at least in my mind) side note: This pathway is actually thought to be a contributor to depressive symptoms that some people see on low-carb diets. Since most dietary proteins have a high BCAA:tryptophan ratio and since insulin spikes are responsible for clearing BCAAs from the bloodstream, reducing carbohydrate intake can potentially shift the BCAA:tryptophan ratio to the left in a big way. Tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin, and so serotonin levels can be impaired as a result.
My main point is that, despite what the little girl in the AT&T commercials might tell you, more is not necessarily better. The only way to truly verify that a combination of ingredients is effective at improving a particular set of parameters is to design controlled studies that prove/disprove the given hypothesis. This is why instead of buying a product with lots of fancy ingredients (Xplosive Muscle Matrix Energy Proprietary Blend, anybody?), I just get what I know works. For example, I take a creatine/beta-alanine combo post-workout. Studies have been done to show that these two work well together, so I know I’m getting my money’s worth and not paying for extra junk. Long story short: in my opinion, keeping the ingredients list short and sweet is good advice, but often given for the wrong reason.