Multivitamins are like an insurance policy. You take them because they give you a baseline of nutrients to serve as a backup to your (mostly) healthy diet. However, not all multis are created equal, and there are some that are definitely better for you than others. So how do you know which type or brand to choose? Here are five important things to consider before buying your next bottle.
1. Avoid formulas that contain both calcium and iron
Some nutrients, such as calcium and iron, are best taken separately. Calcium can interfere with iron’s absorption, which isn’t ideal if you’re taking iron for specific health reasons (such as for iron-deficiency anemia or heavy menstrual periods). Choose a multi that contains just one of the minerals, then take an additional supplement containing the other at another time.
2. Look for activated forms of nutrients
Some of the best multivitamins on the market contain nutrients that have already been converted into their active forms. For instance, vitamin B6, an important nutrient for hormonal balance and many other functions in your body, can be taken as pyridoxine, the inactive form, or pyridoxine 5-phosphate, the active form (also abbreviated as P-5-P on a label). When you take the active form of a nutrient, you’re bypassing a step that your body would need to take care of for the nutrient to do its job. Another activated nutrient is riboflavin-5-phosphate instead of vitamin B2 or riboflavin. The activated forms of nutrients are also often better absorbed.
3. Avoid synthetic folic acid
Some people have a genetic mutation that prevents their bodies from easily converting folic acid to its active form called 5-methyltetrahydrofolate (5-MTHF). Since you may not know if you have this gene defect, it’s best to always choose natural folate rather than folic acid. Natural folate is found in leafy greens like spinach and romaine lettuce, lentils, broccoli, asparagus, mushrooms, citrus fruits, legumes and avocado. In your multivitamin, you want the activated form of the nutrient. It’s usually listed as folate, or 5-MTHF, or folacin.
4. Choose multis with a vitamin E complex
Check the label to be sure you’re getting vitamin E as mixed tocopherols. This means that you’re taking a vitamin E complex, not just one type of vitamin E. Vitamin E includes alpha, beta delta, and gamma. A mixed tocopherol product will contain all of these types. Most over-the-counter multivitamins contain only alpha-tocopherol, which is just one type of vitamin E. There are numerous research studies that show that the other forms of vitamin E are important for health.
5. Beware of additives and fillers
Make sure your multi doesn’t contain added synthetic colors, fillers and ingredients that you don’t recognize or understand. Vitamin makers often add these compounds to extend a product’s shelf life, to make it seem more appealing (for example, visually) or to make it less expensive to manufacture. It’s always best to buy clean, natural products, especially multis that are made from whole food sources.