One question that I'm often asked is how to choose a vitamin or mineral supplement. With countless options available on grocery store shelves, health shops, and online marketplaces, it can be quite overwhelming to figure out which one is best. Old me would just go with whatever “looked” nice (e.g. had nice packaging or wording on the bottle) while also being relatively affordable. I would do a quick scan of the supplement facts on the back of the bottle and it seemed to meet the daily value percentage then I wouldn't think twice about it and throw it into the cart. I definitely did not read the additional ingredients on the label, either.
It wasn’t until I started researching prenatal vitamins (pre-nutrition school, by the way) that I started to take the search of supplements more seriously. I was making a conscious effort to decrease my exposure to artificial flavors and colors, along with other artificial and allergenic ingredients- so why was I going to make an exception with my supplements? And while it would be amazing if we could just rely on eating a nutrient-dense diet to meet our nutritional needs, that might not be enough. The quality of our soils have been depleted and most farming practices are not ideal, which is leaving us with nutrient deficiencies. Plus, with many Americans consuming a Standard American Diet (mostly processed and refined foods), leading to more health issues due to unmet nutritional needs. Even folks who are trying their best to eat a nutrient-dense, may still have deficiencies if they are taking medications that can deplete the body's reserves (like hormonal birth control) or have gone through pregnancy and child-birth, which takes a toll on the mother's nutrient levels.
While you cannot out-supplement a poor diet, there is a time and place for dietary supplements. Some people take supplements, such as a daily multi-vitamin, to help prevent deficiencies in the body. For others with confirmed deficiencies, taking a targeted vitamin/mineral can help address those deficiencies while also eating foods rich in that vitamin or mineral. Supplements can also be used in a therapeutic setting where, under a medical provider's care, supplementation can be used at high levels (well above the recommended daily allowance) for a short duration as treatment to address certain issues and deficiencies.
When choosing supplements, it can become quite overwhelming to decide which brand to go with. If you haven't done so already, speak with your doctor or nutritionist to determine what your body actually needs and at what dosage. If you're choosing individual vitamins and minerals on your own, you can run into some issues if the supplement does not contain cofactors. Cofactors are additional nutrients that are with the supplement to help your body use the primary nutrient effectively. For example, if taking iron, a high-quality supplement will also have vitamin C to help optimize its absorption. When taking individual nutrients without cofactors over an extended period, it is easy to throw off the delicate balance with other nutrients.
Along with ensuring you are taking the right nutrients at the right levels, there are a few other things to consider. When choosing a multi-vitamin, strive to source your vitamin from a brand that sources their vitamins and minerals from whole foods. Next time you are in the grocery store, take a stroll down the vitamin aisle. I guarantee you will find countless brands using synthetic versions of the vitamins and minerals. Synthetic ingredients are usually less expensive for the company to produce, making it less expensive for the consumer. Unfortunately, synthetic vs. natural nutrients do differ in their chemical characteristics and the body can tell the difference as well. A few examples of brands that source from whole foods are Garden of Life, New Chapter, and Innate Response.
While looking for high-quality ingredients, another thing that you want to keep an eye out for are additional agents added to the supplement. Common agents added to supplements include fillers, disintegrants, colorants, flavors, binders, flowing agents, and lubricants. Some supplements contain allergenic agents such as soy or lactose, or their binders (which help the supplement hold together) can contain shellac, talc, tree sap, waxes, rancid oils, or cornstarch, so be sure to read the labels if you have any sensitivities or would prefer to avoid certain ingredient. When seeking out a supplement, aim to find one that clearly states on its packaging that it does not contain things such as fillers or binders when possible.
You might be wondering if there is anything else to look for when seeking out a supplement? Definitely! Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) is a system that has been put in place that confirms a product has been consistently produced in a controlled setting according to quality standards. This helps eliminate the likelihood that contaminates can enter the body through a supplement. Look for a product that has been GMP Certified. More information on GMP can be found here. Other things to look for are: have the ingredients been validated by a third-party tester? Is there a certificate of analysis for the ingredients? Is there documentation of the purity of the ingredients? Also, where has the product been stored before purchased? If buying from a third-party (for example, some random seller on Amazon), you have NO IDEA how that product was stored. If it was exposed to high temperatures or in direct sunlight, you can best believe the quality of the product has been compromised.
When considering taking a vitamin or mineral supplement, it is best to seek out guidance from a trained nutrition and/or medical professional. Trying to guess what supplements you may need can without taking into consideration any current medications you are on, any herbal supplements you might be taking, and other over-the-counter drugs can be unsafe due to possible interactions. If you choose to supplement, be sure to also continue (or begin) to consume a nutrient-dense diet as the vitamins and minerals in real foods work synergistically within the body.