You can buy multivitamin and mineral pills for different genders and ages, and many have added herbs and other bonus ingredients to boot. But is this product segmentation really necessary?
And there's also the overriding question: do you really need to take multivitamins in the first place?
In this article:
While it’s tempting – and not uncommon – to take multivitamins as a nutritional insurance policy, it’s far more beneficial to your health to improve your diet.
If you do decide to take a multivitamin, consider one geared to your age or gender, avoid megadoses and ignore special claims and add-ons.
We want manufacturers to list vitamin and mineral values according to the percentage of an appropriate RDI in each dose to help consumers compare apples with apples.
For more information about vitamins, minerals and other supplements, see Therapies or Medicines.
The "worried well"
A young woman consults a dietitian, concerned her diet is inadequate. She takes a number of different multivitamin products each day because she feels they help. On closer inspection, the dietitian discovers three contain B vitamin complexes and that combined they provide 17 times the recommended dietary intake (RDI) of vitamin C.
The dietitian determines she has a perfectly adequate diet – she doesn’t need to take pills as well. She’s a typical example of the "worried well", and this group – indeed Australians in general – are enthusiastic consumers of multivitamins.
Multivitamins are big business; chemist shelves groan under the weight of all the different products. Even within brands the choice is bewildering – according to their websites, Blackmores and Nature’s Own produce eight different multivitamin products, Nature’s Way produces 11 and Swisse a startling 16.
Gender, age and stage
Targeting pills to different genders and ages is the most obvious example of multivitamin market segmentation, with products variously aimed at men, women, teenagers, those aged 50+, kids, male and female teenagers, and male and females aged over 65.
People of different genders and ages do require more or less of certain nutrients according to their varying body sizes, metabolism rates, activity levels and food intake levels. Adult women, for example, require more iron than men up to the age of 50, and as you get older your vitamin D needs tend to increase.
“The government’s RDIs for each vitamin and mineral are set out by gender and age, and manufacturers are mirroring these RDIs in their formulations. This is a good thing,” says Associate Professor Tim Crowe of Deakin University’s School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences.
But in some cases, the fragmentation is more about marketing than genuine need. There are numerous small differences in nutrient levels between Swisse Women’s Ultivite 50+ and 65+ formulas, but in reality the RDIs for most nutrients are the same for women at both ages, for example. And both the boys and girls Bioglan Kids Gummies Multivitamins products are identical – it just depends on whether you want packaging featuring Disney Princesses or characters from the movie, Cars.
Dr Trent Watson, accredited practising dietitian (APD) and spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia, says that while market fragmentation is understandable from a commercial viewpoint, “from a healthcare perspective it’s dubious”.
Another way manufacturers stand out from the crowd is by “value-adding” trace doses of herbs, food extracts and other substances or claim specific benefits. But sometimes an added extra isn’t quite what it seems. Despite what you might infer from its name, Blooms IntelliVit multivitamins won’t enhance your intelligence. In fact, the product doesn’t claim to – the name actually refers to its “bilayer technology”, which allows for “two release phases for optimal absorption in the body”.
Even when there’s clinical evidence to support bonus ingredients having a beneficial effect on your health, often they're in such minute doses that they’re unlikely to have a significant effect (see Multivitamin shortfalls). In clinical trials, a dose of glucosamine hydrochloride – a substance thought by some to help relieve the pain of osteoarthritis – is typically 1500mg, for example. Nature’s Way Super Nutrients Super Multi 50+ contains just 30mg – not surprising when you consider that in addition to its 23 vitamins and minerals, this product packs six “power herbs”, six “power nutrients”, six “super fruits” and five “super greens” into each tablet.