Multivitamins

There’s a multivitamin out there for every age and gender, but do you really need one?
 
Learn more
 
 
 
 
 

01 .Introduction

CH0812_Multivitamins_LEAD

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.

Product segmentation

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”.

Extra ingredients

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.


 
 

Sign up to our free
e-Newsletter

Receive FREE email updates of our latest tests, consumer news and CHOICE marketing promotions.

 
Some multivitamins provide only a fraction of the full range of vitamins and minerals needed, and at levels that may be well below the recommended doses – so they may provide very little benefit.

Over-consumption of certain vitamins or minerals can be dangerous. But with a multivitamin, ingredients are generally present at a lower dose than in individual supplements so it’s harder for them to be over-consumed and cause damage.

“There’s only so much of each nutrient you can pack into a multivitamin pill – in that way they’re self-limiting – and often it’s not even close to the RDI,” says Crowe. “Taken as directed there’s little chance of harm as a dose is unlikely to contain levels of nutrients above the recommended upper level of intake.”

The downside of this is that some multivitamins provide only a fraction of the full range of vitamins and minerals needed, and at levels that may be well below the recommended doses – so they may provide very little benefit. The cost of some popular multivitamins that we priced ranged from 20-70c per day. When taken daily over weeks, months and years, this can really add up.

Confusing labels

To complicate matters, it’s very difficult for a lay-person to know what they’re getting in a multivitamin and compare products.

  • Names Vitamins are listed under their vitamin name on some bottles (e.g. vitamin B3) and their chemical name (e.g. niacin) on others. Different brands produce the same basic supplement from different compounds, any of which may appear on the bottle. For instance, calcium can be derived from calcium phosphate, calcium pantothenate, calcium ascorbate, calcium carbonate or calcium orotate (amongst others). 
  • Quantities With quantities, some companies list the weight of the ingredient (which could be a compound), while others state the vitamin or mineral equivalent of that ingredient. And manufacturers of products sold in Australia don’t need to list how much of each ingredient relates to an RDI.

Too much of a good thing

According to Dr Trent Watson, “the law of toxicology suggests that anything in the right doses can be toxic. There’s an increasing body of evidence that suggests large doses of vitamin A increases the risk of lung cancer, for example.”

There are situations when multivitamins might not always be safe. There’s some evidence that high levels of iron supplements prescribed to pregnant and lactating women may decrease zinc absorption. “A leading cause of poisoning in children is iron poisoning,” says Tim Crowe. 

“While the quantity in one multivitamin tablet is perfectly safe, if a kid thinks they’re lollies and eats the whole packet then there’s the potential for harm.”

If you're taking vitamin or mineral supplements or natural or herbal remedies along with prescribed medicine, it's important to be aware of possible interactive effects.

fresh_lead

“There’s good evidence to suggest that if a vitamin or mineral supplement replaces a deficiency it will be beneficial,” says Watson. But aside from a few specific situations or groups of people, most people who have a balanced diet have no need for supplementation. 

“In the western world, even those not following such great diets are usually getting adequate nutrition, and it’s not necessary to take multivitamins for general health.”

Crowe agrees: “Most people don’t need multivitamins – particularly the ‘worried well’ of the population who eat reasonably well most of the time – and their money is better off spent on good food”.

Taking multivitamins as a nutritional insurance policy may impact more than just your wallet.  According to nutritionist Rosemary Stanton, “it may contribute to neglecting healthy food choices”, and this has consequences for long-term health.

Real food has several big advantages over supplements.

  • Unlike multivitamins, whole foods contain substances such as fibre and polyphenols, which can help protect against conditions such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease. 
  • Whole foods also contain a host of other substances – many of which we may not even know about – that help vitamins and minerals be absorbed by the body and do their job inside cells. 
  • And whole foods often contain vitamins and minerals in different forms, all of which range in their ability to be absorbed by the body (known as their bioavailability). Vitamin E occurs in nature in eight different forms, for example, but supplements usually contain just one.

Multivitamins for kids?

In the case of children, it’s particularly important for parents to provide a healthy selection of foods rather than give a multivitamin to cover up for possible nutritional shortfalls. Stanton stresses that it’s not OK for kids to eat junk just because they’re getting multivitamins. “A recent study of Australian preschoolers found that 31% were overweight or obese, and their diets lacked fibre and had too much saturated fat – problems that a multivitamin won’t fix.”

“Don’t offer something that will distract from consumption of real food,” says Watson. “Children become consumers of everything you serve them eventually, so it’s worth persisting with good food.” 

Vitamins and minerals: how much and which foods?

A few specific situations or groups of people aside, most people can fulfil their vitamin and mineral requirements by eating a healthy, balanced diet.

  • To check the recommended dietary intake of all macronutrients (protein, fat, carbohydrate, fibre) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) for your gender and age, use the NHMRC's Nutrient Calculator.
  • For a comprehensive list of vitamins and minerals, their function in the human body and the best dietary sources, go to the Department of Health & Ageing's Vitamins & Minerals webpage.

Supplements: who needs them?

Specific vitamin and mineral supplements may be beneficial for the following groups of people, but bear in mind that individual requirements vary and it’s best to get advice from a health professional before self-prescribing.

  • Pregnant women and those trying to conceive (one month prior to conception and three months after): Folate
  • People with limited exposure to sunlight such as institutionalised or bedbound elderly, dark-skinned people and veiled women: Vitamin D
  • People on a strict vegan diet and the frail aged who may be eating poorly and/or absorbing less from their food: Vitamin B12
  • People on restrictive diets (including those with eating disorders, food allergies or intolerances and those on low-kilojoule weight-loss diets): supplement depends on the nature of the diet
Your say - Choice voice

Make a Comment

Members – Sign in on the top right to contribute to comments