How to Choose a Good Supplement – The Kitchen Rag

Purchasing a well balanced multivitamin can be quite a daunting process. I have stared at the supplement aisle completely frozen with indecision many times, often too embarrassed to ask for help. I wasn’t even sure what sort of criteria to look for … price, packaging, label, company, etc. Have you asked yourself on what basis you should buy a multivitamin?  Here are a few major tips I have learned through my micro nutrients class. Remember expensive supplements are not necessarily better!

When you see the word “natural” on a bottle it typically means that there are no questionable additives like food coloring, tar, corn starch, or sugar.

The term natural refers to the fact that the supplement does not contain other unnatural ingredients. Here, there is a difference. Supplements that are not labeled natural may also include coal tars, artificial coloring, preservatives, sugars, starch, and sometimes other additives.   The Real Vitamin and Mineral Book, Page 66

The term “natural” on a supplement bottle does not mean that all of vitamins are naturally derived from foods.  Companies will use the term “natural” both for vitamins derived in a lab, and ones derived from foods.

From a chemist’s standpoint, natural and synthetic nutrients are basically the same: their molecules contain exactly the same elements. However, the molecular structure of synthetic nutrients does differ from natural nutrients in that the elements are arranged in a slightly differing fashions. “Selecting High Quality Dietary Supplements” Wallace Jeanne, PhD

Our bodies seem to absorb the vitamins derived from foods a lot better. For example, vitamin E derived from food like wheat germ oil is three times more bio-available than vitamin E derived in a lab. It would be great if we could get our %100 of our vitamins and nutrients from food but unfortunately there are a few reasons why that is not likely to happen. A multivitamin will typically have a blend of both synthetic and natural, food derived, vitamins.

However the word natural on the label does not necessarily mean that all the vitamins in the bottle are simply extracted from a natural food source. In fact, most so-called natural vitamins actually contain a large amount of synthetic vitamins. The reason for this is primarily economic: if vitamin C supplements, for example, were derived solely from rose hips, the cost would be enormous. Lieberman, The Real Vitamin and Mineral Book, Page 66

In most cases the term “natural” is used to for supplements with no questionable additives, and rarely if ever for totally food-derived ingredients.

2. Additives

Read the list of additives on the back of the bottle of supplements labeled “natural”. Most companies will try to hide some of the major offenders by not listing them on their label.

The presence of these agents is not always identified on the product label. In fact, it the label does not say explicitly state that no binders, fillers or excipients have been used, you can be certain you are ingesting these agents along with your vitamins, minerals, herbs or other nutrients.  “Selecting High Quality Dietary Supplements”, Wallace Jeanne, PhD

If it doesn’t say soy, corn, yeast, sugar, dairy free, then assume any or all all of these ingredients are included. The same goes with some ingredients like colorants, silicon, shellac, or chalk. Wallace in “Selecting High Quality Dietary Supplements” says “a reputable company will clearly identify, on the product label or in its catalog, any excipients that have been used and those which the product is free of.” Page 2.

According to Wallace excipients are “inert substances added to the raw materials in order to achieve a desired consistency or form for the manufacturing process”.

In fact, small companies are now producing supplements with “bioactive” as opposed to “inert” excipients. The bioactive excipients are derived from various plant and animal food in order to facilitate the process of digestion and maximize the absorption of the supplements. (Wallace 2011) Look for the word “bioactive” on the label. A company will proudly announce that they are not using inert excipients.

3. Absorption

Time Release Formula


Recently, some companies have started manufacturing supplements with a “time release” formula. This basically means the supplements are being released gradually into your blood stream. This can be helpful when taking high doses of one vitamin or mineral by reducing some of the side effects (for example, nausea or severe redness and flushing). This formula is appropriate for people taking therapeutic doses. However, when we purchase a multivitamin with a well balanced blend of all vitamins it is not as important, especially if it costs more. If you need to, you can also split the dose into a few smaller doses throughout the day.

Time release products are designed to slowly release nutrients over 6 to 12 hour time period. They are made by encasing a nutrient in tiny micro-pellets and then combining these with a special base. The cost can be double the price of regular supplement. In fact, it may be more cost effective to choose a regular supplement and take lower intervals throughout the day. One consideration when selecting time-release a supplements is the possibility of burdening the liver, which may receive a continuing supply of the nutrient rather than only with meals. While time- release supplement may be a good choice for water soluble nutrients, they are likely contraindicated for fat soluble nutrients. “Selecting High Quality Dietary Supplements” , Wallace Jeanne, PhD

Mineral Chelation

Certain minerals are better absorbed when they are attached to an amino acid or another organic component through a process called chelation. Unfortunately many companies use cheap chelators that can be more destructive than helpful.

A quick way to determine quality when selecting a multiple vitamin mineral products is to look at the form of the minerals. Are inexpensive – and relatively unabsorbable – inorganic minerals utilized (chloride, hydroxide, oxides, phosphates, and sulfates)? Products containing more absorbable mineral chelates will cost more but are worth it for increased absorption.  “Selecting High Quality Dietary Supplements”  Wallace Jeanne, PhD

Chelation is just like the time release concept. It is beneficial when taking high doses of certain minerals. But if we take supplements with a wholesome meal the amino acids and lipids from the food will aid absorption in the same way that chelation and time release are supposed to, without spending the extra money or worrying about sub-par chelators.

4. Packaging and Preservation

It is imperative to purchase supplements that are carried in the appropriate packaging.

  • Look for dark or opaque bottles.
  • Make sure they are not stored in direct sunlight. (and under 80*F)
  • Keep the silica packet inside the open container to protect against moisture.
  • Check the expiration date.
  •  Descriptive labels.

Vitamins gradually lose their potency over time. Most products have a shelf life of 1-2 years. Do not purchase a product that does not list the expiration date on the bottle. This date is generally 18-24 months following the date of manufacture. Discard within six months following the expiration date. An exception is probiotics, which expire within 12 months or less, and should be discarded on the expiration date.

Does the product merely “calcium … 500 mg” or does it provide specific information on the form of calcium provided, say “calcium citrate” or calcium carbonate”? Does it offer the milligram weight of the total chelate or of the elemental amount of calcium alone. Shoddy manufacturers do not provide milligram amounts or are not descriptive about  the form of the nutrient. An incomplete label is a red flag! “Selecting High Quality Dietary Supplements”,  Wallace Jeanne, PhD


It is not easy to find a good, balanced multivitamin that is not covered in tar, shelac, silicone, or filled with chalk or corn starch and dyed with toxic food coloring. Instead of relying on someone else to confirm that a particular brand is safe, do your own research. Choose to be informed. Any reputable company will have a phone number you can reach them at on the label. Call them and ask them to describe their product. Look up their website and reviews other people posted about the product. Do the same research you would do when you chose to purchase a cow share with a local farmer. Although I recently bought a multivitamin that seemed to fit most the criteria I have listed here, I am open to something better. I recently began checking the supplement section once a week at the local health food store for new brands I have not heard before that seem like interesting choices. It does require some work, but it is my family’s health and I want to be able to offer the best possible option out there.

Here is a few supplements you might want to check out.


Lieberman S, and Brunning N. (2007) The Real Vitamin and Mineral Book (4th Ed.). New York, Penguin Groups
 “Selecting High Quality Dietary Supplements”  Wallace Jean PhD, Hawthorn University Handout 2012