Well Being

Multivitamin Scams: Do Your Research

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photo: Thinkstock

There’s this disturbing story about a woman who took her multivitamin and it came out the other end looking exactly as it did when it was in the bottle. (No, this not a personal story about me wrapped up in a fake urban legend.)

However, I admit that for years, whenever I stopped in a GNC or took a stroll down vitamin row at my local drugstore, I’d become so paralyzed with confusion and anxiety, I worried that I might be using up vital nutrients.

I’d stare at the calcium chews and think: “there’s osteoarthritis in my family.” During flu season I wondered if I should geek myself up with vitamin C and zinc. I invested hope in the purported wonders of B-12 when I felt run down and lethargic.

Then I’d usually leave the pharmacy empty-handed. Well, except for that candy bar and can of Coke Zero.

People — and by that I mean my primary care doctor — kept telling me that a good multivitamin was the answer. But I just couldn’t gain the strength to choke down one of those horse-size tablets every day. As time has passed, I’ve come to realize that unfortunately, I’m not getting any younger, so unless I want to only eat leafy greens I'd better start doing a little bit of choking.

So there I was, back to that familiar problem: What the hell should I take? I’m a journalist by trade (that’s code for “cheap and very poor”), so if I’m going to pony up the cash for some riboflavin and magnesium, and, like, 30 other nutrients, the regimen better make me look as vital as Jay Kordich, a.k.a., The Juiceman. (I’ll skip the bad tan and silver hair, thanks.) But how exactly do I ensure that by taking a multivitamin, I’m not flushing away my Friday night movie money?

“To a great extent, everything we eat and drink gets flushed away, including that expensive meal and wine. The body doesn't absorb everything,” according to Jack Challem, a bestselling author and member of the American Society for Nutrition. “And the situation is made worse because many people now get their meals from fast-food restaurants and microwavable convenience foods.” Chellem added that data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that most Americans don’t get enough nutrients from their diet, so a supplement really is essential.

This means that the onus is on the consumer to find the right multivitamin for them. First it’s important to realize that while the FDA puts out a guideline for a recommended daily allowance (RDA) of nutrients, the FDA does not approve any claims the company makes on a bottle, explains Dr. Connie Guttersen, a dietician and author of the bestselling book, The Sonoma Diet. And what’s worse, OD-ing on certain minerals or vitamins may actually do more harm than good — like nerve damage from too much B-6 or tingling and flushing from too much niacin.

Consumerlab.com, the leading independent group that tests and reports on vitamin quality offers a clearly outlined RDA here.

It’s always good to select a bottle that promises a lack of artificial colors, flavors, and especially yeasts. (Due to lousy industry regulations, it’s true that vitamin companies may not always fulfill those promises, but it’s a step in the right direction.) Next, scan the labels for a Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) stamp, which ensures proper compliance with testing — often by a third party. You're best off selecting a product that says it's been made in the U.S. (as opposed to where your skinny jeans may have come from). And as much is it pains me to admit, the cheapest bottle on the shelf may not the best option for you.

Many experts I consulted suggested a supplement that splits up your daily allowance into three servings. While this may alleviate some of the potential choking hazards, it may not be realistic for a (busy) novice such as myself. More often than not, I would likely skip doses.

“If you can only take a multivitamin once per day, take it early in the day, when you're most active, because you'll get the most benefit from it,” recommends Dr. Eric R. Braverman, best-selling author of Younger You and Younger (Thinner) You, and the director of the PATH Medical Center and PATH Foundation in New York City. (Which completely contradicts what my editor has always been told: Take your multivitamin before bed, because it'll help you sleep better and then recharge you the next morning.)

Perhaps obviously, for optimal absorption, take your supplement with a little food. Dr. Mayur Dev, the staff pharmacist of Nutra Summa, a supplement company, recommends taking a fat-soluble product like an omega-3 to help with multivitamin absorption. His ideal choice would be a fish oil capsule.

Still, if getting that thing down your throat is still too much of challenge, consider another approach all together.

“I really like the effervescent delivery system because it has a high absorbability factor and allows an adult or child to drink their nutrients. You simply add water to the powder and drink,” says Dr. Jennifer L. Johnson, a licensed naturopathic doctor based in Connecticut who specializes in women's health. Her top choice for an effervescent vitamin is Oxylent from Vitalah.

Lastly, if you already have that bottle of tablet vitamins and you’re wondering if you should even bother, why not check their dissolvability on your own? Who isn’t up for a little afternoon science experiment?

“Tablets can be overly coated or pressed too tight,” explains Tod Cooperman, president of Consumerlab.com, which is why the organization offers this simple dissolvability test so you can ensure that tablet of yours is actually breaking apart in your stomach as it's meant to do.

Finally, we don't shill for Consumerlab.com, but for $30 a year, you can subscribe to the site, which rates multiple dietary supplement products. I took a peek at the results for women’s multivitamins, and was glad to know that some of the less pricey brands, like One-a-Day and the CVS-brand multi met the organization's guidelines.