What is the best form to take vitamins in?

Walk in your local health food store, or grocery store vitamin aisle and you’ll see thousands of different products each with their claim that they are the best. Since most consumers don’t really know how to analyze the product, we’re left to reading the label, reading the pamphlet, watching the add, or listening to a presentation.  So every company needs some way to get a competitive edge in a very crowded space.

If we look at just basic vitamins and minerals there are four common forms:

  • Tablets
  • Liquid
  • Capsules
  • Whole foods
Looking at the list above, the first three are similar in that they are typically a blend of individual vitamin and minerals purchased in bulk and blended together, then delivered in three diferent physical forms. The last one, whole foods is a completely different product, with its own whole set of claims, so lets explore that one first. 

Whole Food Supplements

There are different twists to this category, but the basic premiss is that they take whole foods, strip out the fiber, dehydrate them, then blend different fruits, vegetables, and herbs together to get a blend which contains an array of vitamins, minerals, and other compounds which were present in the plants. The claim these companies make is that your body only recognizes nutrients from living things and that it doesn’t recognize a vitamin or mineral if it is synthesized in the lab.  That is a compelling argument since we have gained our nutrients from plants for millions of years.  
There are problems with this approach though. I was in discussions with one prominent supplier in this space – I was trying to get the exact vitamin and mineral content of their flagship product.  The label said it contained all the nutrients you need for a optimal health. A great claim, but no legal definition of what that is.  After many calls and emails back and forth they eventually said that they can’t put a Supplement Fact Panel (FDA legal disclosure format) on their product because the content of the product varies based on the season, where the plants were grown, the condition of the soil, etc. Just too many variables to control. For example the soil in many areas of the world, like New Zealand and parts of the US, is almost devoid of selenium, a very important trace element. So if plants are used from these areas, you won’t have selenium in them, but go to another area and you will. Take oranges, an orange grown on your backyard tree, or a tree 100 years ago, has 8 times the amount of calcium of todays commercially grown oranges, even organically grown.  The orange groves have been depleted of calcium. Oranges are grown for size, weight, color, and sweetness.  So if calcium doesn’t add to those characteristic, then they wont add calcium to the fertilizer. 
So with the “Greens” versions of whole foods you can’t be assured of what you are getting. In one clinical study a greens product contained far less of some key vitamins and minerals compared to tableted products. This was tested by measuring the blood levels of the nutrients, so what got absorbed and was available in the blood.
Some whole foods products say they extract the nutrients from the plants. For some nutrients this is how all forms of products obtain the nutrient, but for other nutrients it is difficult to extract it from a plant and/or there are harsh chemicals used in the extraction process that can’t be purified out of the product.
Marketing Claim – The common marketing theme with this category, like I said above, is that your body only recognizes what comes form living plants.  These companies have very compelling stories, some even have whole books with the founders theories on how this is superior.  They say that your body won’t recognize what is synthesized in the lab, it will just ignore it, or it won’t be used by the cells. 
If you review the legitimate published research, this just doesn’t hold true. In fact all the studies which have found that benefits of all the different vitamins and minerals have been done using standardized formulations of ingredients like what is in tableted products. Ask yourself this, if you’re body doesn’t recognize manufactured nutrients or molecules, then why did that shot of novocain work when you had your tooth filled? Why does your birth control pill work? Why does aspirin relieve pains? Why did codine ease the pain from surgery? Why does that little blue pill work? I think you get the point. All the drugs which have noticeable impacts on our body do work.  Don’t believe me. Just ask the dentist to not use Novocain next time you have a filling or root canal.   Unfortunately for most vitamins and minerals the changes you notice are gradual and they make slow improvements over time, not 30 minutes after you take it.
So looking at the research and legitimate scientific studies there isn’t any proof to support their claims that whole food or greens supplements are any better and the danger is that you don’t know what you’re getting, aside from great marketing.

Organic vs Inorganic minerals

One caveat when you talk about “Natural” vs synthetic is minerals.  Minerals, as found in plants, have the mineral bound to an organic compound. The plant brings in the salt or oxide form from the soil and binds it to an organic compound. It is this organic form which is highly absorbable whereas the inorganic minerals, as found in the soil, are poorly absorbed. That is why you can’t get your minerals by simply eating dirt.

Sadly almost all of the popular, lower cost, supplements use the cheap inorganic forms. All they have to disclose on the supplement fact is how many mg of the mineral are in a product, not how much is absorbable.

The high quality supplements use the chelated forms of minerals. This process is much more expensive, but binds the mineral to an organic amino acid or other organic molecule which your body readily absorbs.  These supplements do have the minerals in forms as found in plants are are absorbed just as readily as if it were in an orange or spinach.

Liquids

Many liquid supplement manufacturers claim that because their product is in a liquid form it is more bioavailable. In fact, some even use phony statements regarding the Physician’s Desk Reference to support such claims. The statement they reference about liquid supplements being more bioavailable first appeared in the PDR under a listing for a specific nutritional supplement product. That statement has since been removed because it could not be substantiated.

Liquid supplement companies often contend that liquids are better because they don’t contain fillers (excipients used in tablets for disintegration, form, binding, coating, etc). This is perhaps the most illogical argument of all, since liquid supplements require many more “other” ingredients, including emulsifiers, solvents, preservatives, stabilizing agents, coloring, flavoring, and more. Generally speaking, the more vitamin and mineral ingredients there are in a liquid supplement, the more excipients that product will require.


Liquids also expose the ingredients to the air after the bottle is opened which can lead to oxidation and degradation of the product, unless strong preservatives are added.


The exception would be products for infants which are too young to chew a tablet.

Tablets

A well-made tablet provides a very effective delivery system and is the chosen form of most pharmaceutical medications. This is because tablets have been confirmed, through years of carefully controlled studies, as a reliable and efficient delivery system for medications. Why would vitamin and mineral supplements be any different? Does anyone doubt that an aspirin tablet is ineffective because it comes in a tablet?

Tableted products can also provide an increased amount of active ingredient (almost 3x as much as a capsule and much more than a liquid or spray). In general, the stability of tablets is also superior to liquids.

Reputable companies will insure their tablets are formulated to meet United States Pharmacopoeia standards, which require full disintegration within 30-45 min. They are also formulated to meet standards for dissolution. There are stories of some very popular products not dissolving at all. Google “Bed Pan Bullets” and see what you find.

The individual ingredients in a tablet may be synthesized or extracted and purified from plants or other living forms.  Tablets, compared to whole foods or greens, can provide specific amounts of each ingredient. So if a tablet says it contains 200 mg of some vitamin or mineral, it will (just insure it is manufactured to pharmaceutical standards)

Also, as discussed above, make sure the minerals are in a chelated form to insure the highest absorbability.

Capsules

Capsules can be a sub-category of the tablets, or greens  or whole foods can be in capsules as well.  From a production standpoint it is much easier and cheaper to set up a capsule filling operation vs a tablet press. They could contain the same ingredients as tablets,  just not as compact, so a capsule containing the same amount may have to be twice the size, or take twice as many.
One advantage of capsules are for those who can’t swallow tablets, you can open up the capsule and pour the contents out, or just get a pill crusher and crush the tablets.

Organic

Just a note on some products which say they are organic. Organic claims can only be made if the product is a dehydrated whole food, then organic certification would apply.  If the ingredients are extracted, isolated, purified and/or synthesized, then the Organic certification isn’t applicable and you shouldn’t see the USDA Organic logo. If they just say it is Organic then it is just marketing with no legal definition behind it. The same applies to cosmetics which claim to be organic – Organic certification isn’t applicable to skin care.

In a well manufactured product manufactured to pharmaceutical GMPs (good manufacturing practice) will insure that what is on the label is in the product and nothing else.  A high quality vitamin C ingredient will be only vitamin C.  It doesn’t matter what the source is, vitamin C is vitamin C.  Now if the manufacture uses low quality ingredients, then there could be other contaminants. These could be from the source (say oranges) or residue from the extraction process.

Conclusion

Tablets or capsules manufactured to pharmaceutical standards (GMPs) and using high quality (and expensive) chelated minerals and forms of vitamins as found in nature, will provide a very safe and highly effective delivery method.

Whole foods or Greens can provide the vitamins and minerals plus other phytonutrients found in plants, but the amounts of vitamins and minerals can’t be controlled or insured.

Vitamins/mineral supplements are not a substitute for a healthy diet. You should eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, herbs, etc. with occasional lean meats. The supplement I take, which is the #1 rated supplement in North America is formulated to complement a very healthy diet, not a replacement for it.

Please feel free to comment or contact me if you have any questions.