Demystifying the Multivitamin

A look at the forms and formulations
By Cara Lucas

In the often-confusing world of natural supplementation—where, to some, getting the perfect health-boosting elixir is a downright science—the multivitamin seems like the ultimate catchall.

The name even implies how multi-task talented it can be, right? It’s multi-functional for multiple issues to a multitude of different people. With all the choices of multivitamins out there, it’s even more important to understand the intricacies of the most beneficial (or to some, the most unnecessary) natural supplement on the market.

Vitamins are natural substances that your body needs to grow, develop, and function normally. A multivitamin is a one-pill wonder to some, as it provides 100 percent of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for many important vitamins, including A, C, D, E, the B vitamins, and folic acid.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about half of US adults take at least one dietary supplement each day, with the multivitamin being the most popular.

Who needs a multivitamin?

There is debate in the medical community over whether everyone should take a multivitamin. Some medical professionals say that if you’re generally healthy and eat a wide variety of foods that includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, low-fat dairy products, lean meats, and fish, you likely don’t need a multivitamin. Even if you don’t follow this type of diet to a tee, the multivitamin is not intended to be a magic pill to good health, because it simply cannot replicate all of the benefits of whole food. The Mayo Clinic suggests talking to your doctor about taking a daily multivitamin if you:

Don’t eat well, or consume less than 1,600 calories a day

Are a vegan or a vegetarian who eats a limited variety of foods

Are a woman who experiences heavy bleeding during your menstrual period

Have a medical condition such as chronic diarrhea, food allergies, food intolerance, or a disease of the liver, gallbladder, intestines, or pancreas that affects how your body absorbs or uses nutrients

Have had surgery on your digestive tract and are not able to digest and absorb nutrients properly

Still there are other medical professionals who view taking a multivitamin as a type of “insurance,” because even if you eat the recommended nine servings of fruits and vegetables every day and processed foods never touch your lips, our 21st-century lifestyle can still deprive you of key vitamins and minerals. A multivitamin can help you fill in the gaps and may offer added health benefits as well.

“With 18 percent of the American diet’s calories coming from sugar, and another 18 percent from white flour and added fats that have been nutritionally stripped, approximately half of our calories are what are called ‘empty calories’ that have been stripped of nutrients,” says Jacob Teitelbaum, MD, medical director of the Fibromyalgia and Fatigue Centers. “This means that to get enough nutrients out of the modern diet, most people would have to become obese.”

While it’s true that our ancestors from 500 years ago didn’t take a multivitamin, they also didn’t subsist on a diet where they got one-third of their total daily calories from white flour and sugar, like many Americans do today. And their fruits and vegetables were not stripped of vitamins and minerals because mass farming had depleted the soil of its vital nutrients. In addition, our ancestors’ environment was not permeated with more than 80,000 different toxic chemicals that can deplete and affect the body’s ability to produce antioxidants.

What kind of multivitamin should I take?

Medical professionals often debate which type of multivitamin has the best delivery system—although they do tend to agree on the pros and cons of various formulations.

Teitelbaum suggests that a basic multivitamin should provide the following key nutrients: at least 50 mg of each of the B vitamins, 200 mg of magnesium, 250 mcg of B12, 250 mg of vitamin C, 15 mg of zinc, 1,000 units of vitamin D, 30 units of vitamin E, 50 mcg of selenium, 200 mcg of iodine, and 100 mcg of chromium.

Powders and Liquids

Benefits: No one really likes to choke down a giant pill (in some cases two or three times) every day. This seemingly simple task can be annoying and uncomfortable for many people. This is why a taking a scoopful of powder or a shot of liquid only once a day seems more feasible for some. This form is also more quickly absorbed into the body, beginning to take effect as soon as it hits your tongue.

Liquids offer similar multi-dose benefits. This is especially important for bulky minerals like calcium and magnesium that can be difficult to fit into a tablet or capsule.

Drawbacks: Some people may strongly dislike the taste of powder or liquid multivitamins. Powders and liquids usually contain sugar or artificial sweeteners to mask the acrid taste of B vitamins, so look for products with natural sugar alcohols like xylitol or sorbitol instead. Some liquids also contain chemical preservatives to prolong shelf life and prevent bacteria from growing. These liquids can oxidize rapidly, causing the nutrients to lose potency quicker than a tablet or gelcap. They can also be more expensive than the tablet form: however, you don’t need to take them several times a day like the tablet form, so over time the costs can even out.

Tablets

Benefits: Tablets are the most stable formulation, meaning the nutrients are less prone to oxidation and thus can maintain potency for longer periods of time than liquid multivitamins. Because of this, they may be the most cost-effective to manufacture. They are also the most widely accessible delivery system and come in a wide range of sizes and shapes.

Drawbacks: Tablets may contain fewer nutrients than liquids or powders because binders (ingredients that give a tablet its shape) take up much of the available space. And that means you may have to take multiple pills to achieve the recommended daily dosage. Because tablets are compressed so tightly together it is harder for stomach acids to completely dissolve them, thereby preventing absorption of some nutrients. For those with severe allergies, check ingredients for lactose as it is sometimes used as a binder. Look instead for binders made from cellulose, a natural plant fiber.

Gel capsules

Benefits: The capsule’s outer layer of gelatin is easily digestible, making the vitamins’ essential ingredients more bioavailable. The gel also serves as a safe, natural binder.

Drawbacks: Like tablets, gel capsules contain fewer nutrients than liquids or powders, meaning you may have to take multiple pills to reach the recommended daily dosage. Also, some gelatins are not vegetarian.

Gummies

Benefits: These chewable, candy-like supplements are fun to take and easy to digest.

Drawbacks: While they can be great for finicky, pill-averse kids, there are few adult formulations. Also, they usually contain sugar or artificial sweeteners to make it more appealing. Look for gummies made with xylitol sweeteners or natural berry flavorings.

Back to the Basics

“It really does not matter if the multivitamin is taken with or without food, as long as it contains an adequate amount of nutrients to compensate for this. So keep it simple. Keep it by your sink and take it when you brush your teeth in the morning,” Teitelbaum says.

Most people today get fewer vitamins and minerals from food—coupled with other lifestyle factors like stress, lack of exercise, and/or sleep deprivation, this can take a tremendous toll on your body. For this reason, it wouldn’t hurt to take a basic multivitamin and mineral supplement to get at least the RDA of these essential building blocks.