The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly on Vitamins
The American Medical Association recommends supplementing the diet with vitamins due to nutrient deficiencies in food (JAMA. 2002;287:3116-3126). However, not all vitamins are made equal.
The biggest difference between big box-store brands and higher quality supplements like those you may get from a holistic health professional are in how the nutrients are derived and how the pills are constructed. Drug-store vitamins are chemically derived sometimes even made from coal tar or other industrial byproducts, while natural vitamins are derived from plants or other organic sources. Believe it or not, your body can tell the difference. Drug store vitamins must be processed by the liver, are absorbed less and take longer to enter the blood stream. Organically derived vitamins are digested and absorbed in the intestinal track with ease just like food and are far superior for a number of reasons.
Vitamins derived from plant sources are concentrated raw ingredients that often contain co-factors such as bioflavonoids. These co-factors work synergistically with vitamins. Many studies have been done on isolated nutrients like vitamin D, E and A and have found that they do not have a positive effect on health, however, when studies are done using plant sources that include naturally occurring co-factors, results show a completely different picture. Naturally sourced vitamins typically are made without sugar, chemicals, preservatives or fillers. This ensures maximum absorption and purity.
Below is a list of additives and preservatives that are commonly added to leading drug store brand supplements. These additives can cause anything from inflammation to neurological damage:
Color Additives – these are neurotoxins and should be avoided in any product.
FD&C Red 40 Aluminum Lake, FD&C Yellow #6 Lake,– has been shown to damage DNA in mice – Toxicol Sci. 2001 May;61(1):92-9.
FD&C Yellow #5 (tartrazine) Lake – show to adversely affect biochemical markers in the vital organs of rats. Food Chem Toxicol. 2010 Oct;48(10):2994-9. Epub 2010 Aug 3.
Hydrogenated Palm Oil – This is a transfat that causes inflammation and is being banned in cities across the U.S.
Butylated hydroxytoluene(BHT) – being investigated for its ability to damage genetic materials
Sugar – added to many supplements, especially children’s vitamins
Aspartame – a neurotoxin
Lactose (milk) – common food allergen
Soy – common food allergen
Corn – common food allergen
Another factor to consider with the brand of your vitamin is its absorbability. It’s estimated that synthetic vitamins are 30% absorbable. This is due to the extreme amount of pressure used to compress the isolated nutrient into a tablet, chemical binding agents to hold it together and the excessive heat used during processing that renders much of the nutrients inactive. This makes for nutrient rich urine but not nutrient rich cells. Some drug store brands use an extremely hard coating which to an extent is necessary for bypassing the stomach, but if it doesn’t dissolve in the small intestine, then your body isn’t absorbing much. Nurses at the hospital call these vitamins “bed pan bullets” because they go right through and aren’t being utilized by the body. Conversely, some brands use very thin coatings or nothing at all, and the nutrients get destroyed by the stomach’s acid before they can be utilized by the body. Higher quality supplements use delivery systems that bypass the destructive acid in the stomach and then are absorbed in the intestines. They also tend to be gentler on the stomach.
What to Look for in a Quality Nutrient
- Testing Standards: Does the manufacturer of your supplements have a standard of quality for which they test for? Standards such as active nutrient levels, contaminants, and correct plant species?
- Tableting/Encapsulation: This refers to how the nutrients are formed into tablets/capsules. This is critical as the tablets need to maintain form but also be easily digestible for optimal absorption. Does the manufacturer control the tableting/capsulation process or is it outsourced to a 3rd party?
- Synergistic Formulas: Vitamins work synergistically meaning that their benefits are compounded when another nutrient is present. Synergistic formulas in a small way mimic the body’s way of controlled absorption for example, the presence of vitamin D allows for the absorption of calcium.
- Supply Chain/Distribution: Do you know how old the nutrients are? Have they been sitting in a warehouse for years, transported on a non-temperature controlled truck through Texas, or left on a shelf for 10 months?
Keep these tips in mind the next time you are shopping for a vitamin and you’ll be in good shape. Any questions, you know who to call.