Vitamins image generously shared by Shannon Kringen CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

(See part 1 here)

Multivitamin technologies fall into four basic categories. I have my favorite! And I’ll tell you what it is — eventually. In the meantime, as I go through the four options, bear in mind two things. First, not everyone uses these terms the same way I do. You need to get past the marketing lingo to get to the actual truth…

And secondly, don’t be fooled by word “food.” People use the word “food” a lot when they talk about vitamins. It means a lot of different things, as we’ll see.

1: USP Vitamins & Minerals are pure chemical nutrients.

(USP stands for “United States Phamacopeia,” a basic standard of identity). Bear in mind, “chemical” is not necessarily a dirty word… The majority, if not the vast majority, of vitamins out there are USP.

So, let’s say you want vitamin C. How you get it is, you harvest corn or cassava (neither of which contain any appreciable amount of vitamin C), then extract the starch, send it to a lab, perform a simple chemical reaction, and it becomes pure ascorbic acid, a.k.a. vitamin C. Chemically
identical to the vitamin C in oranges.

The advantages of USP are: it’s cheap, efficient, and in a certain sense limitless. Also, hypoallergenic. It’s also consistent. None of that pesky natural variability… When you’re dealing with something chemically pure, one pill should be exactly the same as another.

The disadvantages: for some people, “chemical” and “lab” still have negative connotations. More importantly, a pure vitamin untethered from the support nutrients found alongside it in nature is often less effective, more prone to overdose or other issues; less likely to promote balance, and
more likely to induce imbalance.

For example, pure ascorbic acid spikes blood levels faster than an equivalent amount of vitamin C in food – and the levels drop faster as well. A high intake of USP is more likely to cause loose stools than the same amount from food. Those support nutrients, usually compounds called
bioflavonoids, reinforce the activity of the vitamin C. Without them, it simply doesn’t work as well. Other vitamins (notably vitamin E), may actually be counterproductive in higher doses, in pure form.

To be clear, the USP vitamins in pills are chemically identical to the naturally occurring vitamins in foods. It’s all the other compounds alongside it that make the difference.

I’m not putting down USP. It has its place. I use USP on occasion. It’s just important to understand what it is.

2: Food-Based Vitamins & Minerals are USP vitamins and minerals in a base of food.

For example, pure USP ascorbic acid in a pill with orange juice concentrate. Or pure alpha-tocopherol vitamin E in pill with concentrated sesame oil or red palm oil.

The advantages are, your USP vitamin now has some synergistic compounds alongside it, to help it work, and to mitigate potential imbalances. And it’s still reasonably inexpensive and efficient.

Obviously, there can be varying levels of food alongside the USP nutrients. It’s worth looking at milligrams. Bear in mind, every 100 mg is 1/280th of an ounce. Those 100 mg go further, of course, if they are from a nutrient-dense food to begin with. And if they’re concentrated.

3: “Food-Grown” Nutrients refers to the broad category of “food” vitamins made by companies…

…like New Chapter (which pioneered the concept) and Garden of Life’s “Raw” line. They don’t start with food. Instead, they start with pure USP nutrients. Then they dump the nutrients into a giant vat full of live yeast. This yeast floats around in the nutrient broth, divides and multiplies, and absorb the nutrients. Then you kill the yeast, and put it in a pill. And then you call it “food.”

It sounds a little Frankenstein, but it’s actually clever and elegant, as far as I’m concerned. Advantages are, first of all, food-grown nutrients are easier on the stomach. If you have a digestive problem with vitamins, food-grown is likely your solution. Beyond that, you really do get the benefits of food. Sort of. Up to a point. See below.

There are two drawbacks. The first is cost. Pill for pill, food-grown multis are towards the higher end of the price range. When you take into account the lower doses per pill, food-grown ends up substantially much more expensive than USP.

Proponents argue we more than make up for that with greater bioavailability and utility… I’m I’m not so sure. Company reps will occasionally wave around ostensibly scientific research papers
demonstrating that food-grown nutrients are demonstrably, quantifiably better than their USP counterparts. But every time I’ve seen this “proof,” it hasn’t held up to scrutiny. Usually, it’s demonstrating superior antioxidant activity. Fair enough. That’s something. But I’ve never seen it demonstrate superior metabolic activity. Which is the whole reason we take vitamins! It’s what makes a vitamin a vitamin. Saying your vitamin C is “15 times stronger” because it’s 15 times more potent as an antioxidant is sort of like saying your car is “3 times better” because its stereo plays 3 times

None of this is meant to imply food-grown nutrients aren’t great – I believe they are! – just maybe not quite as great as people make them out to be. And they may not always be worth the cost.

4. and then there is… actual food!

Very few companies try to make vitamins from actual food. It’s hard! Your nutrient levels are going to be all over the place, crop to crop. As soon as you label for let’s say 100 mg of vitamin C, you need to make that claim. It’s hard to do.

Most companies that have tried to do this have failed. Some simply use food concentrates, and don’t make quantifiable claims for nutrient levels. Others use food concentrates, and make claims, but reserve the right to “top off” with USP nutrients.

…and my favorite is:

personally, it’s #2. It’s simply the most efficient way to get the nutrients you
want. USP is fine, if that’s what you can get. Food-grown and actual food feel more like boutique products. At least that’s my take on it. I’ve worked with very smart, very thoughtful and well-educated people who will disagree!

So… what to get? First of all, ask us! We can usually match a product to a person, if you tell us what you’re looking for.

  • Want a simple, basic multi (that still gives you a decent amount of nutrients) at a very good price? Look at the Debra’ Brand Basic Multi. Or for a heftier 2-a-day, try Life Extension 2-a-day.
  • Do you want easy-to-swallow (capsule) one-a-day? Look at Emerald Labs.
  • Do you want fully built-out, food-based with tons of protective nutrients? Look at Source Naturals Life Force, or Life Force Green with extra salad nutrients, or Life Force Healthy Aging with extra protective nutrients. I take the Healthy Aging, when it’s available.
  • Want Food-Grown but reasonably affordable? Consider True Grace.
  • Want Food-Grown, plus meaningful levels of Ginseng and energy herbs? Consider Pure Essence Labs.
  • Want actual food (or, mostly…)? Consider Garden of Life MyKind.
  • Want a chewable multi for your kids? The Debra’s brand is probably the best compromise between taste, nutrition, and price.