Multivitamins | What's Really In Them?

Americans are stimulated out of their damn minds. According to a 2013 Gallup poll 50% of Americans take some type of vitamin supplementation. If you ask most of them what each individual vitamin and mineral does they wouldn't be able to tell you, they just know they need to have it. I know perfectly healthy individuals who eat a well balanced diet that still take a multi-vitamin "as insurance". Why not though? If you have the money you might as well spend it on your own health. Does a multivitamin really help as well as people think they do? Today we're going to take a look at some of the reasons why a multi-vitamin isn't everything its cracked up to be.

Synthetic vs. Natural Source

Your vitamin may claim to have the listed ingredients, but are they in their entire part? Synthetic vitamins have a much longer shelf life and are cheaper to manufacture. If your supplement doesn't state "100% natural" or "100% animal/plant based" there is a good chance it includes synthetics. Even only having 10% of the vitamin coming from a natural source allows a company to label its product "natural". Some synthetic vitamins are well accepted by the body while others are not. Vitamin E in it's natural form is absorbed twice as well as it's synthetic form. More research needs to be done on the bioavailability of synthetic nutrients.

When looking at the ingredient list check to see how they're labeled. Whole vitamins and minerals should be listed as just their name like "Vitamin C" rather than Ascorbic acid. If it is listed as anything else it is likely synthetic.

As an example, take a look at this supplement below:


You'll notice that every vitamin has a name in parentheses next to it. This means that each one is likely a synthetically made version of the vitamin. Now chemically speaking, synthetic is the exact same same as a natural vitamin. Some vitamins and minerals vary in absorption when compared to their synthetic counterpart. There have been no long term studies on longevity when comparing synthetic vitamins with their natural ones. So it is still unclear whether synthetic vitamins are absorbed as well as their natural form. Another point is when you take a natural vitamin the body will break it down and decide where to use it. Vitamins do multiple things in the body and some synthetic counter parts are only a single piece of the whole vitamin. Take vitamin A for example: Vitamin A is responsible for healthy cell growth (Retinoic acid), Vision (Retinal), and tissue membrane health (Retinol). Some synthetic multivitamins only use one form of vitamin A and the body can't use it for the other functions. So when possible avoid a vitamins synthetic counterpart.

Here is a list of vitamins with their synthetic listed name:

  • Vitamin A: Acetate and Palmitate
  • Vitamin B1 (Thiamine): Thiamine Mononitrate, Thiamine Hydrochloride
  • Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin): Riboflavin
  • Pantothenic Acid: Calcium D-Pantothenate
  • Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine): Pyridoxine Hydrochloride
  • PABA (Para-aminobenzoic Acid): Aminobenzoic Acid
  • Folic Acid: Pteroylglutamic Acid
  • Choline: Choline Chloride, Choline Bitartrate
  • Biotin: d-Biotin
  • Vitamin C (Ascorbic Acid): Ascorbic Acid
  • Vitamin D: Irradiated Ergosteral, Calciferol
  • Vitamin E: dl-alpha tocopherol, dl-alpha tocopherol acetate or succinate


Daily Value Needs:

In most of these supplements you will see astronomically high amounts of certain vitamins and minerals. Most of the time going above 100% of our Daily Value. Take a look the same supplement above and look at the percent daily value amounts. You'll see they're all well above the daily amounts. When it comes to Fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K) this is not the case and I'll explain why. B vitamins get flushed out daily while fat soluble vitamins are stored in adipose tissue. Seeing as you get a lot of these nutrients from your diet as it is, concentrations this high are not necessary.

  1. Avoid having Fat Soluble vitamins in your supplement.

Are You Deficient?

You eat food right? Well there is a good chance you get most of your nutrients from the food you already eat. You'll be surprised to hear that all these nutrients are not that hard to find in every day food...

For example do you consume any of these foods on a weekly basis?

  • Dairy
  • Fish
  • Vegetable oil
  • Nuts
  • Some kind of green vegetable?
  • Go outside for 10 minutes a day?

If you answered yes to these then you already get plenty of fat soluble vitamins. All of these foods contain A, D, E, and K. Since these vitamins are stored in the body you are definitely covered. So this eliminates the need for supplementing your fat soluble vitamins. Let's ask some questions regarding your B vitamins.

Do you consume any of these foods on a daily basis?

  • Fortified cereals
  • whole gains
  • starchy vegetables
  • Beef
  • Poultry
  • Fish
  • Some kind of green vegetable?
  • Maybe some fruit?

If you eat more than one of these food groups above a day then you're getting plenty of B vitamins and your risk of a deficiency is INCREDIBLY low. Most foods come jam packed with tons of B vitamins, just look at your food labels. As an example take a look at Frosted Flakes (my personal favorite cereal) food label.


You'll see it almost resembles your multi-vitamin label. Only difference is these percent daily values aren't outrageous. Now I don't condone eating sugary cereals for your nutrients, but I'm just proving a point that vitamins are everywhere in food and you're already likely getting enough.

  • If your diet already includes a variety of sources you're likely getting enough vitamins.

Does Taking a Multivitamin Help You Long Term?

Most of the time I ask people why they take multivitamins its the same answer. They always say its insurance. So the logic is by replacing any missing nutrients they're going to live longer and better lives. Sounds good in theory right? Does it hold up in the literature though? Let's take a look.

  1. A 2013 study that followed 160,000 Women over 8 years. Half of the participants took a multivitamin and half did not. It was concluded that taking a multivitamin had little to no influence on risk of cancers, cardiovascular disease, and total cause mortality.
  2. One study looked at male cognitive retention with supplementation of a multivitamin. From 1998 - 2011 6,000 male physicians took a multivitamin daily or a placebo every single day. They found no difference in the multivitamin group vs placebo. 
  3. Another study looked at multivitamin/mineral supplementation in relation to overall mortality and incidence of chronic disease. They concluded no overall benefit of taking a supplement. They found that there is even an increased risk of some cancers with supplementation.

Based on the studies I found it does not appear so. Your cognitive ability will not increase and your risk of all cause mortality will not decrease. So do you think it would help in the short run?

Competition for Absorption

When taken all together some minerals and vitamins will compete for absorption. This will reduce the actual amount you take in and will end up passing it out. As a rule of thumb here are some vitamins and minerals that don't go well together:

  1. Magnesium and Calcium are both usually taken in high doses compared to other minerals (several hundred milligrams compared to a few milligrams). These minerals should be taken at different times of the day if taken.
  2. High doses of Zinc have been shown to cause copper deficiencies.
  3. Fat soluble vitamins (A,D,E,K) when taken together can compete for absorption with each other. They are also absorbed much better when taken with a meal that contains fat.

Special Populations to Consider

There are some groups that may struggle with getting certain vitamins and minerals in. In these cases supplementation of a single nutrient may be something to consider. Here are some examples:

  1. Bariatric surgery patients: Overal absorption rate is severely decreased.
  2. Vegetarians: Fat soluble vitamins more prevalent in animal products.
  3. Vegans: Vitamin B12 only found in animal products.
  4. Pregnant women: Folic acide is essential for prenatal development.
  5. People who work inside for long hours: Because you need vitamin D.
  6. Athletes on a calories restricted diet: B vitamin requirements will be high and calories requirements will be low.
  7. People who have been on antibiotics long term: Intestine will be damaged.

Closing Statement

People are too quick to look for shortcuts in life. People survived just fine before multivitamins existed and they will continue to survive. Before considering buying a multivitamin/mineral supplement consider these points:

  1. Is it synthetic or natural?
  2. Are the daily value needs reasonable?
  3. Are you even deficient in anything?
  4. Are there ingredients that can compete for absorption in it?
  5. Are you a special population that can benefit?

My overal opinion is that you do not need a multivitamin/mineral supplement. Even as insurance I don't believe you need one. In some cases you may be doing more harm than good to yourself. I ask you to check the list of foods I placed above and try to eat these foods on a weekly basis. For more information on this topic I will leave you will this all inclusive analysis of current research on multivitamins you can find here