The vitamin aisle can be overwhelming, and even more so considering what's available online. How do you choose between vitamin supplements? Here are 5 easy things to look for to help you sort out some of the wheat from the chaff, so to speak - the possibly good from the definitely bad. I want to clarify, that not all vitamins that meet these requirements are guaranteed to be high quality - there's much more that can and should be considered - but lets start with these 5 easy things to identify to get you started down the right path.
There are a minimum of 13 essential vitamins and 16 essential minerals that your body needs adequate amounts of in order to survive and thrive. There are even more when we start considering things like co-factors, antioxidants, amino acids, and trace nutrients. Count up the ingredients on the label - it should have at least 29 ingredients (i.e. 13+16 essential vitamins and minerals). The whole point of taking a multivitamin is to give your body those essential nutrients, so if it has fewer than 29 ingredients it's obviously falling short somewhere.1 You can find a better balanced and more complete product.
Consider how many ingredients need to be included in a well-balanced multivitamin, and how much needs to be included to provide a significant dose: it is impossible to fit all of that in a single capsule or tablet that most people would be able to easily swallow without creating a choking hazard. Remember that each additional ingredient takes up room inside of the capsule or tablet, so generally the more ingredients on the label, the more capsules/tablets are needed to give you significant amounts.
A quality multivitamin will have more than one capsule or tablet per serving.
Please note: if your vitamin is only one capsule/tablet per serving, you SHOULD NOT just take an extra serving. Refer back to item #1 on this list - taking more of a poorly balanced vitamin can just cause you to take too much of some nutrients while completely missing out on others. Find a properly balanced vitamin and only take the suggested serving size unless a licensed medical professional advises you otherwise.
A note on gummy vitamins: it's even harder to fit all of those ingredients into a gummy candy, so with gummy multivitamins you would likely need to eat over 10 pieces of candy to start getting into the same dosing range as just a couple of capsules - but again, that doesn't mean you should just take more gummies. Instead, find a vitamin with the proper balance of nutrients - preferably not in the form of candy.
Iron should not be in your multivitamin. The most common forms of iron used in multivitamins frequently causes stomach aches and constipation, and some people mistakenly attribute this to the multivitamin instead of the iron ingredient.2 Iron and other minerals like calcium, zinc, and manganese can interfere with the absorption of each other - so including it in a multivitamin reduces the efficacy of the product.3
Iron is an important mineral - but you should only take it if the proper blood tests indicate you need it - a simple hemoglobin test is not enough to determine this. Iron has been a leading cause of accidental poisonings and overdose through the early 1990's, especially in children, in part due to the inclusion of iron in flavorful candy-like vitamins. Occurrences have decreased with better product warnings and education, however it still remains a threat and highlights the fact that it's best to have your blood levels routinely monitored while using iron supplements.2
If a doctor tests your blood and determines you need to supplement iron, it is best to take it at least 2 hours apart from a multivitamin/multimineral supplement and with an acidic drink like orange juice to get the most out of it.
There is potentially a lot to look at here because you could analyze the specific form of each and every ingredient included in the product, but I'll just discuss a couple here that represent a good starting place.
Vitamin E: Natural dietary vitamin E comes in at least 8 different forms and that's how it should be included in your multivitamin. Look for the words "mixed tocopherols and tocotrienols" and that tells you it's using a mixture of the 8 natural vitamin forms.
One of these natural forms is d-alpha tocopherol that is commonly found in supplements, but what you want to avoid is the synthetic form that has a very similar name - "d,l-alpha tocopherol." Look for that little "L" and if you see it, avoid it. If the vitamin is using the synthetic d,l-alpha tocopherol instead of the 8 natural forms, that should tell you a lot about how the rest of the multivitamin was formulated.
Vitamin A: Similar to Vitamin E, there's several different forms of vitamin A but many low quality vitamins use the cheapest option that tends to be the forms that have toxicity issues. It's listed several different ways on the label including vitamin A acetate, vitamin A palmitate, preformed vitamin A, retinyl acetate, or retinyl palmitate -these are the forms you should avoid, especially in doses over 100% DV. (Note: this is also the type of vitamin A found in fish liver oils and other animal sources).
Instead look for beta-carotene and/or mixed carotenoids. These are precursor forms of vitamin A found naturally in plants that your body easily converts to the active form when it's needed. The carotenoid forms do not have the same toxicity issues seen with pre-formed vitamin A. Note that some beneficial carotenoids like zeaxanthin and lycopene may be listed individually on the label because while they are similar to vitamin A, your body uses them in other ways.
Other vitamin forms to look for that can indicate a higher quality product:
- Methylated B12 (methylcobalamin instead of cyanocobalamin)
- Methylated folate (5-MTHF or methyl folate instead of folic acid)
- Amino Acid Chelates (also abbreviated "AA chelate") for example "manganese amino acid chelate (chelate is pronounced "key-late")
In #1 we told you to look at the essential nutrients, but lets also consider other nutrients that we know to play vital roles in our health that can become depleted by medications, stress, illness, exercise, or poor nutrition. This includes nutrients like Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), carnitine, alpha lipoic acid, lutein, biotin, amino acids, and more. Additional antioxidant support from natural food sources can also be a great addition. I would, however, avoid herbs that you and your healthcare providers aren't familiar with - especially in a product like a multivitamin where there are potentially dozens of other ingredients that all need to "play nice together." Stick to dietary nutrients and plant extracts from foods you are familiar with that would typically be found in a natural healthy diet.
Even though they are essential minerals, you may notice we do not include calcium or magnesium in the Pinnaclife MultiVitamin. We instead recommend supplementing calcium and magnesium separately by adding our D3+Magnesium product as a mineral boost in addition to the MultiVitamin. There are a couple good reasons for doing it this way:
1. Many people use calcium supplements for their bone health, but it needs to be properly balanced with magnesium and Vitamin D3. Your doctor may tell you to take more or less calcium and magnesium based on your personal situation. Keeping these minerals separate from your MultiVitamin allows you to adjust your dose without worrying about changing your dose of the MultiVitamin.
2. Magnesium and Calcium are both very bulky ingredients that take up a lot of room in capsules and tablets. If we were to add these ingredients to the MultiVitamin in meaningful amounts, we would need to increase capsule size and/or quantity per serving. We like to keep all of our supplements at a 2 capsule suggested serving size to keep things simple and consistent across the product line.
I recommend adults take 2 capsules each of MultiVitamin and D3+Magnesium. If your doctor recommends that you need to take more calcium and magnesium you can increase your dose of the D3+Magnesium following your doctors recommendation.
Kyle Hilsabeck, PharmD., is the Vice President of Pharmaceutical Affairs at McCord Holdings and licensed by the Iowa Board of Pharmacy. He completed bachelors degrees in biology and biochemistry at Wartburg College before earning his Doctorate of Pharmacy from the University of Iowa College of Pharmacy. Upon graduation, he completed a community pharmacy practice residency through the University of Iowa where he focused primarily on nutritional aspects of care including the use of vitamin, mineral, and herbal supplements. He has taught courses for the University of Iowa College of Pharmacy on vitamins, minerals, herbs, and nutritional supplements and given many presentations on the subject as well. He has a passion for improving patient care specifically with regards to the safety and quality of the nutritional supplements and health information people use.
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