A multivitamin may help provide missing nutrients
Millions of Americans take a daily multivitamin. Health experts agree that certain groups of people can clearly benefit from a multivitamin, especially women who are pregnant or may become pregnant. Others may not need a multivitamin, recent studies show, because most Americans get plenty of nutrients from their daily diet; however, most experts say there is no harm in taking a daily multivitamin and it might help with nutrient balance if, for example, you can't stand eating your veggies, or eat a restricted diet for weight-loss purposes.
There are hundreds of types of multivitamins and there is no standard formula for ingredients because multivitamins are generally targeted to specific nutritional needs, such as gender and age. Multivitamins may be formulated to include nutrients for specific situations such as pregnancy (folic acid) or improved bone health (calcium and D3). Some may have thermogenic ingredients for weight loss (such as caffeine or green tea extract).
For most healthy adults, taking a daily vitamin will not cause any problems. However, if you have any health concerns or pre-existing conditions, always check with your health care provider before taking any supplement. Many ingredients in multivitamins can interfere with medications you may already take. For example, vitamin K can interfere with blood thinners. Also check with your child's pediatrician before giving your child a multivitamin. We do not cover multivitamins for children because most experts say you should not give your child supplements without a specific recommendation from a health-care provider.
A daily multivitamin is a must for some women
If you are a woman of childbearing age, experts agree you should take a daily multivitamin with at least 400 mcg (micrograms) of folic acid. Folic acid supplements can help prevent neural tube defects, which typically occur very early in pregnancy, often before a woman even knows she's pregnant. This should be a habit whether you intend to become pregnant or not -- better safe than sorry, say experts. Pregnant women need even more folic acid – 600 to 800 mcg.
Are multivitamins safe?
Since 1994, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has regulated multivitamins under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA). This act restricts the ability of the FDA to regulate supplements or ensure the safety of their ingredients. It's limited to collecting information on adverse side effects and monitoring labeling claims, which means the most it can do is pull a product off store shelves after a problem becomes apparent. It's up to the manufacturer to ensure that its multivitamins and supplements are safe. Under DSHEA, multivitamins don't require FDA approval, and manufacturers aren't required to register their supplements with the FDA before putting them on the market.
In an ideal world, manufacturers would be diligent about the safety of their multivitamins and truth in labeling. However, as professional testing shows, consumers should be concerned about multivitamin quality. Among 42 products evaluated by ConsumerLab.com, 16 fail at least one test. Many don't meet the nutrient claims on the label, most commonly for vitamin A. Many other multivitamins provide more than the upper limit (UL) for some nutrients, especially niacin, which can cause flushing and tingling at high doses -- and more serious side effects in a small minority of the population.
It's not unusual for a multivitamin to exceed the UL for niacin and yet stay off of the "not approved" lists of most professional testing organizations. That's because niacin is often targeted to other purposes, such as weight loss or lowering cholesterol. However, too much niacin in a children's supplement will cause it to be "not approved."
Regardless of existing regulations, consumers should be skeptical about health claims listed on multivitamin labels. While the original provisions of DSHEA require that manufacturers make no claims about their products preventing or curing diseases, some do so anyway. Keep in mind, there are no studies to show that any supplement can prevent or cure any condition. The only reason for the average person to take a multivitamin is to ensure you have a full range of daily nutrients, especially if you don't eat a balanced diet.
How to choose the best multivitamin
Choosing a multivitamin can be as difficult as swallowing a horse pill, especially with the multitude of options available. The most important factor in finding the best multivitamin is choosing one that is verified to contain the amount of ingredients that the label claims and that has been tested to be free of contaminants.
Fortunately, several sources provide good coverage of multivitamins to help narrow your choices. ConsumerLab.com is the best reviewer of multivitamins; it tests dozens of products to ensure that they dissolve properly, contain the ingredients listed on the label, and aren't contaminated with lead and other toxins. Some manufacturers pay to have their multivitamins included in the testing through ConsumerLab.com's voluntary Quality Certification Program, but those products are clearly listed in the results table and that payment does not influence the results. ConsumerLab.com's reports are available to subscribers only. ConsumerReports.org evaluated multivitamins in September 2010 to ensure they meet nutrient claims and dissolve properly, and this is one report that is free to the public; ConsumerReports.org's testing data is generally reserved for subscribers only. Although it's an older report, the products included have not changed so it's still relevant.
User reviews are helpful for information on side effects like stomach upset and how easy a multivitamin is to swallow. We discounted claims from users that could not be substantiated, such as those saying that they felt an increase in energy, lost weight, or otherwise experienced specific effects from their multivitamin, as these are merely anecdotal. Instead, we focused our attention on accuracy in labeling to be sure that, when you do make a decision, you get what you're paying for.
Elsewhere in this Report:
Best Reviewed Multivitamins
Editors discuss the benefits of multivitamins, and how to find the best choices for you and your family. The multivitamins that draw top feedback from expert testing labs and from users are named.
Multivitamins for Men
Editors discuss the multivitamins targeted at men, finding several that pass independent tests for quality and get good reviews from users.
Multivitamins for Women
Premenopausal women are one of two groups that experts say should take a multivitamin every day. We found a few top recommendations that will provide the amount of folic acid experts say you need.
Prenatal vitamins are a must for pregnant women. We report on the top choices with the nutrients needed for you and your growing baby.
Multivitamins for Adults over 50
Adults over age 50 have an increased need for B vitamins, and many not need some other supplements, such as iron. These multivitamins are a great choice for a good nutrient balance for older adults.
Not sure what you need to know before shopping for a multivitamin? This guide will help take the mystery out of the sometimes bewildering maze of the multi.
The most important sources for multivitamins are organizations that test for purity, truth in labeling, and accurate ingredients. These are the sources we used to narrow down our selections of the best multivitamins.