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Vitamins 101: how to buy them.

Okay. You're in the Vitamin Valhalla boutique at your local mall, trying to figure out which vitamin C to buy.

Is it going to be the "Natural C with Bioflavonoids" in a starch-free, yeast-free, sugar-free, and preservative-free base for $7.99? Or the "Genenc C" for $2.99?

Buying vitamins is like playing roulette. The selection is huge, and the chances of walking away a winner are low.

Can you improve those odds? Yes...but only if you understand a little about how the supplement industry works.


Whether you buy your vitamins at Kmart, at a health food store, or through the mall, you're really getting the same ingredients.

Contrary to what supplement makers would have you think, they all buy most of their raw vitamins and minerals-dirt cheap--from the same small group of multinational firms. What you end up with depends on how they mix and match.

With a few exceptions, companies are free to put any amount of any nutrient into their pills and capsules.

(California limits vitamin A--which can be toxic in large doses--to 10,000 IU unless the label contains a warning; the FDA limits iodine and a few minerals, and restricts folic acid for the general public to 400 micrograms, because taking large amounts could conceal a vitamin B-12 deficiency.)

Sometimes, what goes into a supplement is a matter of economics. For example, the most expensive vitamin is biotin, so many supplements contain only a fraction of its U.S. Recommended Dally Allowance (USRDA). Most of the other B-vitamins are cheap, which explains why it's not uncommon to see a supplement with 5,000 percent of the USRDA for B-1 or B-2.

Sometimes, commercial considerations prevail. "If one of our competitors puts something into their product, we'll probably put it into ours, too," said a spokesperson for one major pharmaceutical firm.

Some companies can't even explain why they do what they do.

Shaklee, the leader in buy-from-your-neighbor supplements, boasts that its products are "based on clear scientific evidence rather than the fad of the moment." So why do its Vita-Lea pills contain more than the USRDA for some B-vitamins and not others?

The company couldn't say, other than that's how its founder, a chiropractor, formulated the product decades ago.

The reason companies are free to make almost any concoction is simple: supplements are regulated as foods and not drugs. A pharmaceutical firm has to prove that a drug is safe and effective. A food or supplement manufacturer doesn't have to prove anything before marketing its product.

"It's incredible how little we know about nutrient supplements," says Ralph Shangraw, a professor of pharmaceutics at the University of Maryland and a leader of recent attempts to set new manufacturing standards for supplements.

Here's a guide to help you figure out what's what...and what's not.

1. Ignore claims about "natural" ingredients. A vitamin is a vitamin, no matter where it comes from. Chemically, there is no difference between the vitamin B-1 (thiamin) made by plants and the B-1 made in a test tube.

Some "natural" vitamins are extracted from plants. "Natural" beta-carotene is harvested from algae and "natural" vitamin E is made from vegetable oil. But many other products labeled "natural" are merely synthetic vitamins that have been mixed with plant extracts or tiny amounts of "natural" vitamins.

"Natural" vitamin E is the only vitamin that our bodies seem to utilize better than the synthetic form, according to some researchers. To find it, ignore "natural" claims on the label. Look for "d-alpha-tocopherol" (not "dl-") as the only type of vitamin E listed.

As for "natural" beta-carotene: "There is no scientific evidence that it is more beneficial than synthetic beta-carotene," admits a spokesperson for Hoffmann-La Roche, which supplies both kinds.

2. Non-time-release supplements should disintegrate of dissolve in less than an hour. A vitamin or mineral can't do any good unless it dissolves in the digestive tract and is absorbed into the blood. Not every supplement does that.

One consumer spotted a vitamin pill sitting in his large intestine on an X-ray. It should have been absorbed in his small intestine long before it reached that point.

Some companies say that their "chelated" minerals, "bioflavonoids," or other ingredients make their products faster or better absorbed.

Sorry. There is no good evidence that any processing improves absorption enough to matter for most people, despite all the "research" that supplement ads are so fond of citing.

Take "Foodform" supplements, which are marketed by IntraCell Nutrition of New Jersey. According to the company's advertisements, "Over 60 studies at leading universities showed Foodform vitamins and minerals were up to 8 times more absorbed, up to 16 times more retained and utilized..."

We looked through an index covering the last 15-years'-worth of 3,000 of the most respected U.S. and foreign medical journals. Know how many of the 60 studies we could find that corroborated

Foodform's claims? That's right. Zilch.

So how can you tell if your body's going to get what you paid for?

One way is to buy supplements that meet new voluntary criteria being established by the U.S. Pharmacopoeia (USP), the scientific organization that sets standards for the composition of drags.

The first standard, effective this January, says that water-soluble vitamins (the Bs--including niacin, biotin, and folio and pantothenic acid--and C) should disintegrate in an environment that simulates the digestive tract within 30 minutes (if it's uncoated) or 45 minutes (if coated).

Time-release and chewable supplements aren't covered. Standards for fatsoluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K), as well as minerals and multivitamins, could be ready by 1994.

For now, look for a statement like the one Leiner Health Products uses on its "Your Life" brand and some of the "store" brands it makes for Safeway, Kmart, WalMart, and other retail chains: "This product is specially formulated to pass a rigid 45-minute laboratory dissolution test."

(A dissolution test, which measures how soon a supplement dissolves in liquid is tougher than a disintegration test, which measures how soon it breaks into tiny pieces.)

Leiner makes about half of all the "store" brand vitamins sold in the U.S. According to company president Gale Bensussen, about 70 percent of those brands meet the dissolution test. (Leiner has jumped the gun on the USP. Even its fat-solubles and multivitamins dissolve within 45 minutes.)

More than a half-dozen other companies also assured us that their vitamins disintegrate or dissolve in less than an hour, even though most don't put that information on their labels. That included pharmaceutical firms like Bristol-Myers Squibb, health-food-store lines like Schiff and Solgar, and Tupperware-party brands like Shaklee.

"We only have so much space on our labels, and consumers haven't been asking for that information," says Schiffvice president David Mastroianni.

If you like a brand that doesn't have a dissolution or disintegration statement on its labels, call the company and ask how quickly its products dissolve.

3. Look for expiration dates. It's no guarantee, though. Expiration dates on drugs must be based on stability tests. Dates on supplements mean whatever the manufacturer wants them to. Be leery of any supplement that's within six to nine months of expiring. It's probably been in the bottle for several years.

4. Don't worry about tiny amounts of starch or sugar. They help disperse nutrients within the gastrointestinal tract. Sweeteners (usually no more than a calorie's-worth) mask the unpleasant taste of minerals. And some liquid supplements need preservatives to retard the growth of bacteria and molds.

One "ingredient" that often fools vegetarians is the capsule itself. Both the dark, soft capsules that contain oil-based preparations (vitamin E, for example) and the two-part hard capsules that contain dry ingredients are made using gelatin, which is an animal product.

Solgar is the only large manufacturer that uses non-gelatin capsules. Look for "Vegicaps" on the label.

5. "Store" brands are often identical to national brands. Safeway Centrai-Vites contain exactly the same amounts of the same vitamins and minerals as Centrum, yet the "knock-off" sells for less than the name brand.

Why do consumers pay more for Centrum?

"Some people just feel more comfortable with a name brand," says Leiner president Gale Bensussen.

If you want to save money by purchasing a cheaper store brand, just make sure you stick to a large national retailer or a store with a reputation for quality.

"Companies like Wal-Mart and Kmart are almost unbearable in their demands for quality," says Bensussen.

Kmart supplement buyer Sallie Gunn says that her company's vitamins meet the latest USP standards, and that it double-checks with its own testing.

"There's really no good reason for consumers to pay extra," she says.

"Nutrition Action" Vitamins?

Always dreamed of selling your own brand of vitamins? We set out to see how easy it is to become a supplement maker.

We found more than a dozen companies all over the country ready to help set us up in business. They offer a slew of products, some already bottled and labeled, others waiting to be packaged with our own "Nutrition Action" label.

Want a synthetic mixture of the antioxidants beta-carotene (vitamin A), vitamin C, and vitamin E (the "ACE")? No problem. And what if some of our customers want "natural" vitamin E? "You don't have to say on the label that it's synthetic," confided one salesman. Did we need any special licenses to sell vitamins?

"Nah, it's just like selling bread or anything else," explained another salesperson. All we needed was cash, of course, and whatever local permits were necessary for selling retail products. Insurance? Not to worry. Most dealers offered to include us under their own policies.

And the wholesale cost? We could get 100 tablets of a Centrum imitation for $2.15. The retail price of Centrum is more than three times that much.

"Nutrition Action" vitamins? Hmmm.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Center for Science in the Public Interest
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:includes related article on selling supplements
Author:Schardt, David
Publication:Nutrition Action Healthletter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jan 1, 1993
Previous Article:A wok on the wild side.
Next Article:The ultra mega vita guide.

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