Which Vitamin and Mineral Supplements Are Better for You?
WASHINGTON — Last week The Well News ran what turned out to be a wildly popular piece entitled “Older Adults Should Take Calcium, Vitamins D and B12.”
In fact, we got so many responses that we decided to contact the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements and follow up with readers’ questions.
Among the most prevalent questions readers asked were, “Which type of supplements should we take?” and “Which brands are most reliable?”
For answers, we turned to Carol Haggans, M.S., R.D., scientific and health communications consultant with the NIHODS.
It should be noted here that while the NIHODS supports scientific research on dietary supplements, it does not have any regulatory responsibility over them.
“The term ‘dietary supplement’ is a broad term that includes vitamins (such as vitamin D and vitamin B12), minerals (such as calcium and magnesium), multivitamins (which combine several vitamins and minerals in one pill), herbs (such as echinacea and elderberry), amino acids (such as leucine and isoleucine), as well as probiotics, fish oil, melatonin, glucosamine, and other ingredients,” Haggans said in an email to The Well News.
“Dietary supplements come in various forms, including tablets, capsules, gummies, and powders. One form isn’t necessarily any better than another,” she said.
Haggans noted the agency has a background fact sheet on dietary supplements that has more information about these products, including a brief section on how they are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. That fact sheet can be found here.
Haggans went on to say that because of the wide range of dietary supplement ingredients, it is not possible to categorize their effectiveness or safety as a whole — it depends on the specific ingredient(s).
Once again though, the agency has fact sheets posted online on many supplement ingredients that summarize research on their safety and effectiveness. Many of these fact sheets are available in versions for health professionals and for consumers, in both English and Spanish, here.
“You’ll see from our fact sheets that vitamins and minerals have recommended intakes because these nutrients are ‘essential,’ meaning we need to consume them in certain amounts for good health,” Haggans said. “Some dietary supplements, such as multivitamins or individual vitamin/mineral supplements, can help people get adequate amounts of vitamins, minerals, and other essential nutrients, but not everyone needs a dietary supplement.
“If, for example, someone gets all of the vitamin C they need from foods, such as orange juice or red peppers, they don’t necessarily need a vitamin C supplement on top of that,” she continued. “And in fact, it’s important to know that many vitamins and minerals can be harmful at high doses, so they have upper limits. Our fact sheets also list these values.”
Dietary supplement ingredients that are not essential, such as herbs, do not have formally established recommended intakes. In other words, while these ingredients can have physiological effects in the body, people don’t need to consume them in certain amounts for good health like we do for vitamins and minerals.
“As far as the reliability of particular dietary supplement brands, we always recommend that people talk with their health care provider for advice,” Haggans said.
“Their health care provider can help them determine which supplements, if any, might be valuable,” she continued. “Their health care provider might also be able to recommend a particular brand. In addition, there are a few independent organizations that offer dietary supplement quality testing and allow products that pass these tests to display a seal of quality assurance.
“These seals indicate the product was properly manufactured, contains the ingredients listed on the label, and does not contain harmful levels of contaminants. However, these seals do not guarantee that a product is safe or effective,” Haggans said.
Below is a short list of independent organizations that offer dietary supplement quality testing (please note, these organizations have not been endorsed by the NIH):
- ConsumerLab.com approved quality product seal: https://www.consumerlab.com/.
- NSF International dietary supplement certification: https://www.nsf.org/knowledge-library/supplement-vitamin-certification.
- U.S. Pharmacopeia dietary supplement verification program: https://www.usp.org/verification-services/dietary-supplements-verification-program.
In addition, the NIHODS has a database of thousands of dietary supplement products that are available on the U.S. market. It’s called the Dietary Supplement Label Database and can be found here.
“The DSLD isn’t a retail site, so it’s not used to purchase products, but people can search the DSLD to find and compare various supplements. Each entry has a picture of the product label, so people can view the Supplement Facts panel and other information printed on the label,” Haggans said.