Finding a Multivitamin, Why and How (May 5, 2015)
Vitamins are funny things. They are a class of nutrient, of course, a nutrient being a thing you get from food that is essential for your health. More specifically vitamins are micronutrients, meaning they are needed only in very small quantities. The body either cannot make them at all or it can't make them in sufficient quantities, and therefore they must be obtained from other sources. But that's it for the definition and beyond that, exactly what a vitamin is becomes a bit vague.
Proteins, carbohydrates, and fats are macronutrients, needed in large quantities, and they are grouped by their molecular structures in a fairly cut-and-dried fashion. But whether or not something is a vitamin is determined by its function, not by its structure, and that makes vitamins an entirely different ball game. Which tiny little things in food are essential for health and which are not is constantly subject to change and re-examination, and surely there are at least a few micro-substances essential to our health that we have not yet pinned down.
What we HAVE managed to pin down are 13 micronutrients that we KNOW we need to obtain from food in order to be healthy, whatever else might be out there that we finally realize we need, and we honor them with the classification "vitamin". At least the micronutrients that are of organic (or living) origin are vitamins. There are also 16 micronutrients of inorganic (or nonliving) origin which fall into the same category, which we call "minerals" because they mostly are essentially, well, rocks. Which brings us to multivitamins, which are a heroic attempt to cram the minimum necessary amount of each of these substances into one pill. Kind of a neat idea.
But although they may seem simple and boring, in reality multivitamins are a strange breed. There is a whole lot less science on the subject than you might think. For one thing, there’s no standard recipe for what should be in a multivitamin/multimineral, so every manufacturer has a different formulation. There’s no government agency that tests them, so if you just buy something randomly off the shelf you may not be getting what the label says it contains. On top of THAT, who needs a multivitamin – if anyone does – is still up in the air despite more than a little research. So even though the things have been around for quite some time, they are still a work in progress.
If you go by simple logic, yes, most people can use a multvitamin. The average daily consumption of fruits and vegetables (which is where vitamins and minerals mainly come from) is one serving of fruit and one-and-a-half of vegetables (one of those vegetables usually being some form of potato – not that there’s anything wrong with that) when the recommendation is ten to eleven servings total. Yes, you read that right. When you add in that most people are eating somewhere around 2000 calories per day, which historically is not really that much, and that about 500 of those calories are from sugar of various types, meaning their micronutrient content is zip, we’re looking at a pretty inadequate diet. So if you are one of these people, I feel safe in suggesting very strongly that you consider taking a multivitamin/mineral as cheap insurance.
Not that that really ensures ANYTHING except that it lessens your chances of being marginally deficient in a few essential nutrients. But that’s worth something in itself. Marginal deficiencies of micronutrients play a part in quite a few of the chronic health problems we’re afflicted with these days. Seems like that might be worth something.
So you decide to take a multivitamin. What’s next? Well, you figure out two things. The first is how much you need of each of those essential micronutrients. And then you figure out who you should buy them from.
For part one, then, you basically want something that ponies up most of the minimum required amounts for those 29 essential micronutrients I referred to earlier. Just FYI, this table lists the daily values (sufficient for the average adult) for those essential vitamins and minerals and are what most multis provide. Any label on a multivitamin bottle should give you most of this information as well.
There are a few additional rules, which I am shamelessly plagiarizing here from WebMD:
Since no one is peering over vitamin manufacturers’ shoulders to see whether they are really following the rules, you should be safe if the USP symbol is on the label. If it's not there, you should try to find out if any third party has ever checked out that brand before you spend you money. Here is what the symbol looks like:
It looks kind of like Marvin the Martian from the Warner Brothers cartoons, so it should be easy to remember:
Finally, because I’m going to get as much out of my ConsumerLab subscription as I can, here are the two brands of multivitamin/mineral tablets they recommend. Over a third of the pills they tested didn’t meet the standards I listed above. They rated multis rate by quality, cost and how well the things actually break down in liquid, since apparently they’ve heard the urban legends about people with undigested pills piling up in their colons the same as I have.
So their top two recommendations (meeting all quality standards AND lowest cost) were the “21st Century Sentry Multivitamin & Multimineral Supplement” (said pills costing three cents per day) and “Kirkland Signature Daily Multi” which is the Costco brand (four cents per day). These were the cheapest high-quality multivitamin-and-mineral combinations. Hooray for ConsumerLab!
So there you have it. I hope this is of some use. Eat good and if you have the slightest doubt, pop a multi. We ain't we used to be, and neither is our food.
--dr. diane holmes
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