Confused about vitamin and mineral supplements? I don't blame you. How can a consumer be sure that a product really contains what's on the label? Or that the manufacturer is using the best form of a substance, since research has shown that not all types of vitamins or parts of plants are equally effective. I'm not sure which is rising faster -- interest in nutritional and herbal supplementation or confusion about where, how and what to purchase. It is time to sort things out.
I spoke with Tod Cooperman, MD, president of ConsumerLab.com. ConsumerLab.com has been conducting quality-control testing on vitamins, minerals, protein drinks, energy bars and the like for years and reporting its findings on its information-packed site. It is one of the most respected companies in the country when it comes to product quality evaluation of this kind.
"We've tested 1,300 products in the last six years," Dr. Cooperman told me, "and we've found that one out of four has some type of problem. The product might be missing an ingredient, or it might be contaminated. For example, we test most supplements for lead. And if we're testing a fish oil, we'll check for rancidity, mercury and PCBs. Rancidity in particular is a potential problem with fish oil."
Most Common Problems
Problems with supplements run a very wide spectrum, ranging from too little of an ingredient or too much to some kind of contamination.
Not surprisingly, complex products are more prone to problems than single-ingredient products. "A multivitamin has a 40% chance of some problem," he said. "The chance of a problem with a simple product such as vitamin C is much less."
In many cases, a product will not acquire an "approved" rating -- not because it has too little of a compound, but because it has too much. One startling finding was that Weil Balanced Cal-Mag contained 2.3 micrograms (mcg) of lead per daily serving. Theragran-M Advanced Formula High Potency multiple vitamin also contained lead -- 3 mcg per serving. Both of these amounts are more than the amount allowed by the state of California without a warning label! And Lil Critters Gummy Bears Vites, a vitamin marketed for children, contained a high amount of lead and was missing half of the folic acid content claimed on the label. Lead is of particular concern to children -- even minimal amounts can affect mental functioning.
I asked Dr. Cooperman about the tales I've heard of vitamin tablets found completely unabsorbed, intact in toilet bowls. Dr. Cooperman explained to me that it's very important to find out if a product breaks apart properly. "We'll do a disintegration test in which we drop the tablet or capsule in a solution at the correct acidity and temperature to simulate what happens to it in the body," he told me. "Just recently, we found a product that would not break apart at all. We even gave it extra time in the acidic solution and extra agitation."
According to Dr. Cooperman, the top problems with supplements are...
Too little of the active ingredient
Too much of the active ingredient
Misleading or unsupported health claims
(especially with herbal products)
Dangerous or illegal ingredients (sometimes found in
Poor disintegration (product is not digested properly or fully).
WHAT'S IN A NAME
In the absence of more knowledge, consumers often assume that a well-known brand will mean better quality. As was seen with Weil's Balanced Cal-Mag, this is not necessarily the case. Similarly, consumers assume that a generic product from a discounter will be of lower quality. Interestingly, Wal-Mart supplements are actually higher quality than other mass brands. "Wal-Mart has used its considerable economic clout to demand that its suppliers produce products to higher specifications," said Dr. Cooperman. "I'm much more comfortable with Wal-Mart's Spring Valley line than I am with many other drugstore brands, such as Rite-Aid's." Dr. Cooperman also said that he'd put more faith in a Costco or a Sam's Club than a supermarket brand because of the pressure they are placing on manufacturers.
According to Dr. Cooperman, it's impossible to say which brands are the very best. However, some companies choose to participate in programs, such as Consumerlab.com's Voluntary Certification Program, on a regular basis, so consumers are more likely to find product information on the following brands...
If you buy your supplements from a multilevel marketing company, such as Usana and Shaklee, you will be pleased to know that most do a surprisingly good job of quality control and produce excellent products in spite of their high prices. "Every company makes mistakes from time to time, but in general, the multilevels do a very good job. Their supplements are correctly labeled, they go out of their way to give you good information and they recommend a dose that's appropriate. They break apart, they're pure and they have all the ingredients on the label," said Dr. Cooperman.
NATURAL versus SYNTHETIC
I wondered if "natural" products are better than "synthetic." Daily Health News contributing editor Andrew L. Rubman, ND, says that synthetic is the same as natural. He also reminded me that if you eat well with lots of fresh whole foods and simply use supplements to augment your nutrition, then either version will usually provide support.