I am frequently asked about multi-vitamins and what to look for in a supplement.
With so many different supplements saturating today’s market, choosing the right multi-vitamin can be quite daunting.
Hopefully the following guidelines can help you make the best decision for you and your family.
It needs to be said that supplementation is not an excuse for a poor diet nor is it a substitute for healthy eating habits.
As the word implies, supplements should be taken “in addition” to an already healthy diet that consists of high-quality, unprocessed whole foods.
Supplements should complement the foods that you eat, not replace it.
In a world that has become obsessed with pills and powders, supplementation is often perceived as the all end all solution for achieving optimum health.
In my opinion, no amount of science or manufactured formulations can outperform Mother Nature, which is why I stress the need for organic, whole foods before anything else.
I am not discounting the value that supplementation can have, I am simply addressing the question of “need” and highlighting the fact that the supplement industry is somewhat unregulated, which gives motive to question it.
Many people are unaware that the supplement industry is unregulated, meaning that government bodies do not test for ingredient purity or quality.
It is up to the dietary supplement manufacturer to ensure that the product is safe and effective and that the label is not misleading by relying on a “Certificate of Analysis” to ensure the safety of their ingredients.
But who do you think provides the manufacturer with this certificate of analysis? The ingredient supplier themselves!!!
There are currently no legal requirements to get independent third-party testing, so manufacturers have to take the supplier’s word for it, or choose to independently verify that the ingredients in the supplements are safe and efficacious, and that it contains what is listed on the label.
Reputable vitamin manufacturers however will voluntarily go through extensive auditing processes to receive international certifications to set themselves apart from the rest.
So when you’re choosing a vitamin manufacturer, check for international standards and certifications such as ISO, NSF, USP, and GMP (Good Manufacturing Processes if it’s manufactured in the United States).
This ensures that the company has met strict quality management standards and that their labs went through rigorous third-party accreditation.
This might require a few phone calls and a bit of research on your behalf, but at least you will ensure that the vitamin includes the listed ingredients, is easily absorbed, and does not contain contaminants or higher than reported levels of active ingredients, which can happen in an unregulated industry.
What to Look For In a Multi-Vitamin?
The right balance of nutrients and their bioavailability or form (i.e. how much of those nutrients are absorbed) are the key elements of a good quality multi-vitamin supplement.
A supplement can contain a wide array of nutrients but if the body cannot properly absorb the formula, it is a waste of money.
For example, vitamin D can be found in the form of D2 or D3, but D3 is the more useable form and usually costs more.
There is also a big difference between folate and folic acid, which is usually prescribed for pre-conception and pre-natal women.
Look on the label for a supplement that uses “5-methyltetrahydrofolate” or “5-MTHF” from natural food sources instead of folic acid, which is the synthetic form of folate.
Vitamin B12 should be listed as methylcobalamin and not cyanocobalamin.
Vitamin B6 as pyridoxal 5’ phosphate (P5P), and not the isolated pyridoxine, and instead of beta carotene for vitamin A, a mixed carotenoid is better.
Also, a supplement should contain synergistic nutrients or have the right nutrient relationships to be properly absorbed.
For example, there are two main groups in the vitamin E complex.
If a supplement only contains one of these groups, it’s not really useful.
It’s like collecting a bunch of metal pieces from a junk yard, putting them all together and expecting to build a functional car.
The Best Type of Multi-Vitamin
Every nutrient that you consume affects other nutrients in the body.
For example, vitamin C is needed for proper iron absorption, but large doses of vitamin C can reduce copper levels.
A high intake of calcium or iron can reduce magnesium absorption, but vitamin B6 can help with magnesium absorption, and so on.
Taking a synthetic supplement that isolates specific nutrients in excess of what is needed might worsen existing deficiencies if not taken in the right form or balance, especially if you are taking other prescription medications.
This is why a supplement made from whole food sources is the best option.
Whole foods have the complementary micronutrients that allow nutrients to work together as nature intended.
Tablets vs. Capsules
If you choose a multi-vitamin that has minerals as well, you should make sure that it comes in a tablet because capsules simply do not have the space to squeeze in all of those nutrients.
The concern with tablets however is whether or not they are easily digested; otherwise they are useless to you.
The only way to know is to ask the manufacturer for testing documents (if available) or cross-check the supplement with an independent supplement testing organizations.
Third Party Testing
There are currently a few independent organizations that test different brands of supplements but I only know of one who posts results that the public can access for a small fee.
ConsumerLab basically does the homework for you and will check to make sure that the supplement does in fact have the ingredients listed on the label, that the ingredients are safe, and that the supplement does dissolve and disintegrate appropriately.
You can check to see if your multi-vitamin supplement is in their list of tested supplements.
The Bottom Line
Many will argue that the food industry today is not what it used to be and that optimum nutrition can only be achieved with supplementation.
While I do agree that modern-day agriculture and practices have led to an inferior food system, I do believe however that eating a varied diet from unprocessed, locally grown organic whole foods, as much as possible, can be enough to meet our nutritional needs for good health.
A multi-vitamin can offer added health insurance for those who need it, especially during travel or during periods of high stress, but do consider all of the factors mentioned above.
Most importantly, check for a reputable manufacturer and choose a supplement that is derived from whole food sources instead of synthetic isolates.
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