Is it just me or have you noticed that the vitamin & supplement aisles in your store seem to be expanding more and more lately? While that is a great sign that consumer demand is increasing for healthy lifestyle products, it can also become a daunting task to pick and choose the right kind of dietary supplement for yourself or your family.
Should I even bother with vitamins?
I often get this question. The answer is “probably yes” so first off, here are the main reasons why adding a multivitamin is a good idea:
- Depleted soils lower nutrient levels of most produce: low nutrients in the soil result in low nutrient levels in our food.
- Poor digestion: your gut may be unable to fully break down and absorb the nutrients of the foods you eat, leading to deficiencies. Improving your gut health is key to improving your immunity and many chronic diseases.
- Lack of variety: most of us eat the same few foods over and over, but variety is what our body needs. Different foods have different levels of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and polyphenols.
- Different diets omitting different food groups: whether you’re leaving out certain foods by choice (e.g. vegan or paleo), or because of health issues like celiac, Crohn’s, or food allergies – find out what’s missing and supplement your body’s needs.
- Destroyed nutrients via improper storing and cooking: heat, light, and air oxidize our food and deplete their nutritional value. Overcooked vegetables, microwaved leftovers, as well as rancid oils, nuts, and seeds will do us more harm than good.
- Stress increases nutrient needs. The effects of physical, mental, and emotional stress deplete our nutrient stores. Even pesticides and herbicides from our environment add stress as the body has to work harder in order to metabolize and clear them out again.
But how do you choose the right kind of supplement?
Many companies claim to have the best products for the consumer at a price that can’t be beat. Beware of this type of marketing language. Cheap or pretty isn’t always best. If a supplement company seems more proud of its packaging design than their ingredients, you know their values aren’t completely aligned with their message – or your health, for that matter. However, price alone should not steer your decision.
Here’s what counts:
1. Detailed, descriptive labels:
Not the marketing claims on the front of the package, but the supplement facts and ingredient labels. You want to see what those ingredients are made of. Does the product state merely “calcium … 500 mg” or does it provide specific information on the form of calcium provided, say “calcium citrate” or “calcium carbonate?”
2. What is it made of?
Most store bought vitamins contain isolated synthetic vitamins that are cheap not well absorbed by our bodies. They lack the naturally occurring co-factors, enzymes, and micronutrients that control the way the body recognizes, metabolizes and uses them to make what it needs. While a chemist may argue that synthetic & natural forms are the same on a molecular level, our bodies do recognize these slight structural differences. Low quality brands often use these synthetic vitamins to keep the price down.
A quick way to determine quality when selecting a multivitamin/mineral is to look at the form of the minerals. Inexpensive, inorganic minerals often contain the term chloride, hydroxide, oxide, phosphate, or sulfate. Products containing more absorbable mineral chelates will cost more, but are worth it for increased absorption.
Some of the most commonly used synthetic vitamin forms are: folic acid, cyanocobalamin, retinyl palmitate, ascorbic acid, or dl-alpha tocopherol (the “dl” form of any vitamin is synthetic).
So what’s the better option?
Just like the ingredients of the foods you eat, you want your supplements to be made from natural, whole foods nutrients rather than man-made synthetics for the above mentioned benefits. But there are also “food-based” vitamins which means they still contain synthetic isolated nutrients that are just added to a base of food (like wheatgrass or herbs). While this is not 100% natural, it has the benefit of making the tablet and serving sizes smaller than those of whole foods supplements. Food based is a bit better than plain synthetics, but they still don’t give you the best quality.
Your best choices are “food-grown”, “food-formed” or ideally “whole foods” options which offer optimal nutrient absorption and therefore the biggest benefit for your money spent.
Here are some labels for comparison:
Choose folate instead of folic acid: folate is the natural form of vitamin B9 and thus has higher bioavailability. Folic acid has to be converted by your liver first provided you have sufficient enzymes necessary for this process. Do your body a favor and opt for the “ready to use” natural form.
Choose methylcobalamin over cyanocobalamin: cyanocobalamin is a low-quality form of vitamin B-12 that’s used by all the cheap vitamin manufacturers. Your body has to convert it to a usable form in your liver first. But weren’t we taking vitamins to help our body, not make it work harder?
3. Additional ingredients
This may be your biggest red flag when choosing a supplement (or any food product, really). Often listed under “other” or “additional” ingredients, these are the binders, fillers, coatings, colorings, disintegrants, flavors, and sweeteners added to make these supplements look better, go down smoother, hold together, and optimally release their nutrients.
What’s scary about these is that some of them cause more harm than the supplement may do you good.
Here’s what to avoid:
Artificial colors (such as Red 40 Lake, Yellow 6 Lake, Blue 2 Lake, …)
Sugars & artificial sweeteners (maltodextrin, corn syrup, sucralose, acesulfame postassium, …)
Transfats (any hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils)
Preservatives (such as BHA, BHT, sodium ascorbate, silicon dioxide, …)
A safe list of additional ingredients may read like this:
Plant cellulose, silica, vegetable lubricant.
Now take a closer look at one of the most popular multivitamins out there:
Also, don’t forget about:
Safety & Purity:
You want to make sure that your vitamins come from a reputable source, a clean manufacturing site, and actually contain what the label promises. To get this peace of mind look for the letters “NPA” (Natural Products Association) or “GMP” (Good Manufacturing Practices) on your bottle. The NPA assures accuracy in label claims, with manufacturers independently verifying the quality of their products. Since self-policing lacks even in the supplement industry, the FDA has put the GMP into place to mandate standards on the entire dietary supplement industry, and any manufacturer out of compliance faces legal action by the FDA.
The bottle should optimally protect the purity and potency of the product. Since most nutrients can be degraded by exposure to light, heat, or moisture you should only opt for opaque or dark-colored containers. Store them away from direct sunlight or heat sources (under 80°F). The silica packet enclosure should remain in opened bottles to protect against moisture.
Vitamins gradually lose their potency over time, and only have a shelf life of 1–2 years. Do not purchase a product that does not list an expiration date on the bottle.
The following is a list of brands I recommend. They are not all whole foods supplements, but offer superior quality over most other brands you’ll find at your local store: