5 Red Flags In A Multivitamin You Shouldn't Ignore, From A Nutrition Scientist
Navigating the wide (and sometimes wild) world of supplements is difficult—that's an understatement—but choosing a multivitamin adds another layer (or shall we say multiple layers) of nuance. With an array of vitamins and minerals, there's so much scientific jargon and so many marketing claims to comb through—it can understandably make your head spin.
Allow us to let you in on a little tip: To find the best multivitamin/mineral supplement for your nutritional goals and lifestyle, it's first helpful to identify what you don't like. That way, you can weed out the players that don't make the cut. Then, you can select a high-quality formula that ticks all of your boxes.
Our in-house nutritionist and director of scientific affairs, Ashley Jordan Ferira, Ph.D., RDN, shared a few multivitamin red flags on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast; and below, she explains what you shouldn’t ignore:
Browse the supplements aisle, and chances are you'll see the term "pharmaceutical-grade" plastered on more than a few labels. But according to Ferira, this term is a little shady: In terms of what claims are legally allowed, foods are unique from dietary supplements, which are unique from over-the-counter (OTC) drugs, which are unique from prescription pharmaceutical drugs. Each category has its own lane, with a bucket of claims they can and cannot (or should and should not) use—so when pharmaceutical language makes its way to dietary supplements (a multi), Ferira raises a brow.
"That is blurring a line," she says. "And in the United States, the laws have quite clearly drawn lines. She continues, "I would say that's a red flag. Like in a relationship, [I would] just move on."
Actually, "complete" is more of a yellow flag than a glaring red one. Sure, some supplements are actually comprehensive—but because the term "complete" is not regulated, many brands will use it on their labels when, in fact, their formulas are quite subpar. "You could actually have a formula that's quite incomplete, or even devoid of essential vitamins and minerals, and they could say it's a complete multi," Ferira notes.
So when you see the word "complete" on a label, turn it over to see whether it measures up. "Do you see vitamins A, C, E, D, and K? Do you see all eight B vitamins? Do you see macrominerals in there at relevant amounts?" Ferira poses (a relevant amount of calcium in a multivitamin with 20-plus nutrients, for example, should be at least 50 milligrams). "Do you have potassium? Do you have the full array of microminerals? These are copper, molybdenum, manganese, iodine, on and on."
Point being: When a multivitamin prides itself on being "complete" or a "full array," make sure they actually live up to their claims. See here for more information on how to pick a quality multi.
Full disclosure: Ferira is not a hater of gummies. Gummies are fine—just not as multivitamins. "For a stand-alone calcium [supplement] or other nutrients, they [gummies] make a lot of sense, and it's a fun way to switch it up if you're taking all tablets or capsules all day," she explains. "But I can tell you, having been on the inside, there's not going to be a gummy multivitamin that is able currently to include all the vitamins and minerals."
If a brand figures out how to formulate an actual complete (there's that word again!) array of vitamins and minerals at relevant doses in gummy form, the serving size will be quite large—which means more sugar, calories, and other excipients you might not want in a daily supplement. "So if you can swallow one supplement and take the others [in gummy form], please swallow your multi," says Ferira.
This is not a typical red flag warning you to run, but according to Ferira, a high-quality multivitamin should include phytonutrients. "These are plant nutrients, and there are probably thousands more to be discovered," she says. "But if your multi doesn't include phytonutrients, I think it's a missed opportunity."
Because guess what? We have gaps in phytonutrients: "We don't eat enough plants in our country," Ferira adds, and these plant botanicals and bioactives can be pretty powerful in terms of antioxidant capacity and cellular resilience daily, and cellular longevity over time.*
For example, in our ultimate multivitamin+, we included lycopene from red tomato, lutein and zeaxanthin from marigold flowers, resveratrol from a Japanese knotweed extract, black pepper fruit extract to maximize resveratrol's bioavailability, and glutathione, commonly known as the "master antioxidant."* Says Ferira, "If there's an antioxidant totem pole, glutathione is sitting at the top."
Gender- or age-based marketing.
Gender- and age-based marketing is tricky: It can be helpful for some to navigate the wide world of supplements and make it easier for you to find a formula you love. But there are a couple of reasons these options don't make much sense, according to Ferira. First, the actual ingredients are sometimes the same: "The supplement facts panels are [often] identical," says Ferira. "It just has different label artwork."
If they are different, they are only slightly tweaked—and sometimes in a negative way. For example: "Before mbg's ultimate multivitamin+ existed, I would recommend my male clients almost always take a multivitamin designed for women because a lot of multivitamins designed for men sadly will cut out the iron or calcium completely or knock it way down," says Ferira.
In reality, both men and women from ages 19 to 50 have the same calcium needs every day (1,000 milligrams1), which is very difficult to hit, especially if you don't consume dairy daily. And we all have bones to care for, so "Why in the world would you cut out calcium from a men's multi?" Ferira wonders.
That's why she doesn't believe in men versus women when it comes to multivitamins—or any age-specific limits among adults, for that matter. "I think that is marketing," she says. "Sometimes it's really successful, and other times it's confusing to folks."
When selecting a multivitamin, it's important to keep these red flags in mind as you wade through marketing claims. Still, if you're having trouble finding a formula you love, check out our list of best multivitamins—we did the vetting for you.
Enjoy this episode! And don't forget to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, or Amazon Music!
Jason Wachob is the Founder and Co-CEO of mindbodygreen and the author of Wellth. He has been featured in the New York Times, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, and Vogue, and has a B.A. in history from Columbia University, where he played varsity basketball for four years.