* * *With a quick stroll down the supplement aisle, you'll be greeted with so many bottles of supplements they'll make your head spin. With hundreds of brands, there's often more than 10 or 20 supplements to choose from in just one category. Where do you start? Do you just grab what's least expensive? Most expensive? Reach for the most appealing looking label? The short answer is none of the above. Here, I will explain what to look for so you can feel less overwhelmed in the supplement aisle, and have the confidence that those supplements are actually doing you some good. First off: most supplements are not created equally. Many of them have nasty ingredients that are nowhere near health promoting to the point of being borderline harmful to your body. These subpar vitamins can actually work against the body, containing toxic compounds that wreak havoc to cells, promoting body-wide inflammation and poor gut health. At the same time, they offer minimal useable vitamins and minerals for the body to actually benefit from. Cheap mass marketed vitamins like Centrum are made not for your health, but are in fact the result of big businesses riding the $60 billion dollar wave of the American supplement industry. Made as cheaply as possible so the bottom line is always the top priority, supplement companies replace the better, more expensive ingredients with a potentially toxic, unusable alternative. To avoid these alternatives, turn to the back of the bottle and read both the active and inactive ingredients.
GMO ingredientsThese can be found in the coatings, fillers, binders and the vitamins themselves. For instance, almost all vitamin C – unless whole foods based – is ascorbic acid, which is produced from GM (Genetically Modified) corn. Vitamin E is made from GM soy. Common inactive GM ingredients are soy lecithin, cornstarch, maltodextrin made from corn, and sucrose (often in kids’ vitamins for sweetness). Gelatin capsules are another source of GMOs. For more on why everyone would be avoiding GMO’s, I wrote a blog post that goes into greater detail on the topic here.
Artificial colorsLook for anything with an FD & C color (for example, “FD & C Yellow 6”) in the inactive ingredients section. Artificial dyes have long been a controversial subject and widely used in supplements, especially children’s vitamins. Unfortunately, they are linked with various toxic effects, as well as contamination with cancer-causing byproducts. The FDA has even acknowledged that certain colors are cancer causing. Here’s a quick summary of what artificial dyes can do, according to the non-profit Center for Science in the Public Interest: “In addition to considerations of organ damage, cancer, birth defects, and allergic reactions, mixtures of dyes (and Yellow 5 tested alone) cause hyperactivity and other behavioral problems in some children.” Scary stuff.
Trans fatsWe’ve all heard about the dangers of trans fats. They are public enemy #1 when it comes to fats, and are incredibly damaging to your heart, blood vessels, nerves – and that’s just the start of it. You will find trans fats hiding in the coatings of supplements, and they should be listed plainly as a hydrogenated oil of any type.
Lab-made synthetic vitaminsUnless you specifically buy a 100% whole food supplement, you’re getting vitamins that are created in a lab. I’m not saying that all synthetic vitamins are bad by any means. Studies show that when it comes to certain vitamins, the synthetics are just as “available” for the body to use as whole foods-derived ones. However, some synthetics aren’t used as efficiently by your body’s cells, because they are missing the building blocks to help unlock the benefits of the vitamin. Synthetics never contain those important building blocks, so you’re always missing out on the maximum effect of the nutrient. Building blocks means the cofactors, coenzymes, trace minerals and phytonutrients that are each unique to one particular vitamin and only found in nature – never a lab. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (AJCN), for example, demonstrates that it's not the isolated Vitamin C in an apple that provides antioxidant activity, but rather the nutrients working synergistically with the Vitamin C that yields results. In a synthetic vitamin, you have zero "other nutrients,” as this essentially removes the synergy of the way nature intended for the food to be used, and draws on a single nutrient, assuming it will bring the same effect. According to the AJCN, "The isolated pure compound either loses its bioactivity, or may not behave the same way as the compound in whole foods.” Food for thought indeed.
So where do we get vitamins that meet these criteria?The easiest way I’ve found to avoid all these things is to buy organic, whole foods vitamins. This ensures the vitamins are being used to the best of our bodies’ abilities, as they will recognize the entire array of natural nutrients and use it readily. There are multiple companies that make their entire line from whole foods (some of my favorites are Synergy Company, Whole Earth & Sea and New Chapter). Whole foods vitamins are always my first choice – and for me, this narrows the playing field significantly when in the supplement aisle, while still giving you the freedom to pick and choose individual vitamins or great daily multivitamins. One caveat to be aware of, particularly with whole foods vitamins, is if you have allergies. Whole foods vitamins usually contain multiple other foods to help absorption and bioavailability. For instance, various types of mushrooms, berries or plants will be listed (in very small letters) on the nutrient label on the back of the bottle, so be sure to read through this thoroughly if you have food sensitivities. Also keep in mind that any vitamin, synthetic or whole foods based, can be absorbed poorly due to our bodies’ internal issues, such as low stomach acid or a leaky gut. If you have difficulties like these, no matter what type of vitamin you take, absorption will always be an issue.
In sum, a whole food organic supplement is the best choice almost all the when it comes to choosing the best vitamin for you, a healthful addition to your lifestyle that can bring positive changes such as increased energy and a boosted immune system. So, next time you find yourself feeling overwhelmed in your pharmacy’s health aisle, choosing organic, 100% whole foods supplements is an easy rule of thumb in a world already plagued enough by the paradox of choice – because making healthy choices should not be a complicated matter.