Myth Busting Episode 4 – Are all vitamins the same in the store?
LAST UPDATED: February 28, 2022
Adam Pivko, Co-founder at Autumn DNA: Hey everybody, I’m here again for myth buster series number four with the incredible Dr. Nicole DeYonge from our scientific advisory board to talk about and bust the myth, if all vitamins and supplements at the store are the same.
So I’ve been through the store aisles, I’ve been down the store aisles. I’ve been shopping online for supplementation for many, many years, and it’s really, really hard to tell the difference between what’s good and what’s bad. If they’re all the same if they’re equal. So I wanted to bring on an expert who could give, you know, really tangible, awesome feedback on whether or not this is true.
So Dr. Nicole, maybe before we get started, do you want to do a quick intro about yourself?
Dr. Nicole DeYonge, ND: Sure, yeah, absolutely.
So I am Dr. Nicole DeYonge, I’m a licensed naturopathic doctor, I’ve been studying and working in the medical field for almost 10 years. I’m licensed for several years now, and I have a private practice where I help patients one on one. But I’m also highly involved with teaching in both academic and clinical settings, and I like to stay up to date with evidence-based medicine and encourage both my students and my patients to really look into the evidence behind the decisions they’re making. And I support them through that process.
Are all vitamins in the store the same?
Adam: So Dr. Nicole, the million-dollar question is, are all vitamins in the store the same?
Nicole: the short answer to that is no. The answer in full can be quite complex, from dosing to quality of ingredients to you know, investments that different companies make into their marketing and research. It is quite variable, even with looking at a specific ingredient, you might find that some products are quite comparable. But for the most part, they’re very different. So no, they’re not all the same. And I’m really passionate about teaching my patients about the products they’re consuming, and how to read those labels to get a better understanding of what they’re actually putting in their body.
Does the price reflect the quality of the vitamin?
Adam: A lot of people shop for vitamins, you know, in grocery stores or convenience stores based on price, because they’re more cost-effective. Perhaps they’re buying in bulk, or, you know, maybe they’re just not looking at the ingredients. I guess the question is, does price indicate whether or not it’s higher quality or lower quality vitamin or supplement?
Nicole: So this is a tricky question, it often depends on the nutrient or formulation that you’re looking at. Some nutrients do cost more to have, you know, ethical or cleaner sourcing, higher quality, just better ingredients or dosing to begin with. And some of them are kind of the same across the board but have variable price points on the shelves, question formulations may have different prices. But at the end of the day, the effectiveness is more related to choosing the right vitamins for you. So if you’re choosing simply based off of cost, and choosing the lower-cost products, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re choosing the right nutrient for you.
Why are some more expensive than others?
Adam: So Dr. Nicole, why are some vitamins or supplements more expensive, like dramatically more expensive than other ones?
so there are a variety of reasons; sourcing, dose, quality of ingredients, marketing, and research, all play factors. Some of those are, you know, more valuable to an individual based on their personal beliefs or ideologies. But I would say dosing is kind of the most important across the board for a consumer to understand and makes a big difference in cost. So when you’re comparing the cost of products, you want to make sure that you’re comparing the active ingredients and their dosages. And not necessarily just the number of capsules, or capsules per dollar. For example, one capsule of a higher-end product might be equivalent to actually two or three of a lower quality product. So instead of taking one capsule of a higher quality product that maybe cost a little bit more, you wouldn’t have taken two to three capsules of a lower quality product that cost less to reach the same dose. And so effectively, the price comparison might be equivalent, and you already may actually be spending more for the active dose with that lower-cost product.
Are grocery store vitamins good quality?
Adam: Okay, so in terms of buying lower cost, vitamins, and supplements you can find those in grocery stores or convenience stores, or like what percent of grocery store convenience stores, in your professional opinion are, are actually good quality.
Nicole: So, that’s an interesting question and very difficult to answer in terms of an actual percentage. So I’m not going to throw one out there, I would say there’s variability in cost and quality when it comes to any place that you shop. So, you know, if you go to a grocery store or a lower-end health food store, they might sell some high-quality products, they might sell the majority of not high-quality products. But that’s not to say that all the products on the shelves at high-end stores are actually good quality either you might find you know that marketing or other factors go into play when it comes to anywhere that you shop, not just grocery stores or health food stores. And at the end of the day, it’s hard to define quality, what that means to an individual. And so a better question is regardless of where you’re purchasing is the product right for you. Is it safe for you to take and is it going to support your health needs and goals at the end of the day? That’s a better question than just where you should purchase your supplements from.
Can you explain bioavailability?
Adam: Another term that I’ve been coming across a lot in my research on the internet is the term of bioavailability. And how lower quality supplements typically don’t take this into consideration versus higher quality ones perhaps do. So can you explain bioavailability? In layman’s terms?
Nicole: Absolutely. So breaking down the word is quite simply bio – biological meaning your bodily functions, complex biochemistry, and physiology. And availability is you know how available or accessible that nutrient or drug is to your biology, the simplest explanation is that your body needs to do a few things with anything you put in your mouth before it can actually be used effectively by the body. So when you take a supplement, or drug or food, and you put it into your mouth has to pass through your stomach and your intestines be filtered by the liver and your bloodstream, and then eventually it reaches the target organ or cell where it actually exerts some sort of health influence. And so, you know, there are obviously stepping stones along that pathway. But there’s actually a lot more nuance to it as well, in terms of what your body does with that compound through each of those steps. And so asking, or looking at whether something is solid or liquid to begin with? Is it active already? Or does it need to be activated? Is it ingested with other factors that might influence its absorption? Or how it’s used in the body? How is the nutrient modified by your stomach or by the intestines or your microbiome? Or once it actually gets into your bloodstream? You know, how is it transported both across the intestinal barrier and also through your bloodstream to get to where it’s needed? And how does that end-organ or target actually utilize the product at the end of the day? And so I know that’s more complex than you’re asking for. But essentially, it means how well does the compound get to its target to exert a health influence after ingesting it, that’s what bioavailability means.
What’s worse, taking a low-quality supplement or a supplement that you don’t actually need?
Adam: Okay, so bioavailability is super important. But what’s worse, taking a low-quality supplement or a supplement that you don’t actually need?
Nicole: In almost every situation, taking a supplement you don’t actually need is definitely worse and can actually be harmful. In some situations. At the end of the day, both can be a waste of effort, time, and money. But for sure, taking something you don’t need is more detrimental to your long-term health and goals. So there are a few ways to try and figure out what you do actually need to take. And it can all be combined in a way that makes sense for your health goals. So at the baseline, you might look at bloodwork, which can give you a good snapshot in time of specific levels of vitamins and minerals, and other nutrients. And then there’s genetic testing, which offers a bit of a different layer to those health needs. It can tell you what you’re being you’re prone to being deficient in or might potentially need to supplement with. And it can be helpful in identifying underlying causes and terms of why you might be deficient in something at the end of the day, it all has to be put in the context of your overall health and well-being and your health goals. But at the end of the day, taking something you don’t need is the ultimate waste.
Do you recommend specific brands or just tell your patients what vitamin they need, go find it?
Adam: So when working with your patients, do you ever recommend that they just go buy a certain vitamin from a grocery store? You know, or do you recommend specific brands? Like how deep do you go when it comes to where you recommend your patients buy their vitamins or supplements?
Nicole: Yes, that’s
a great question. You know, there are some decent products at grocery stores. And you can find different supplements, you know, at more and more places these days. And it’s not necessarily where someone purchases their supplement that’s concerning, but rather why and how they’re purchasing it. I don’t think patients should be or any individual should be forced to purchase a product at a practitioner’s office or somewhere specific, you know, if there’s something that’s good, that’s comparable, that’s at a grocery store or another store, then fantastic, why not the problem lies in where you’re getting the recommendation on what to purchase. And so if you’re relying on a grocery store employee, they’re likely not able to support you in finding the right product for you. And so consulting with your medical practitioner, or another practitioner who can advise you on, you know, which supplements are right for you, and support you through that process and tell you maybe suggestions on where to go or what specific brands to buy would be much more effective than just walking into a grocery store and consulting with an employee there or finding something on your own.
What are some signs of a good brand you can trust?
Adam: Nicole, when shopping around or you know going and buying your own vitamins and supplements. What are some signs of a good brand you can trust?
Nicole: Yeah, absolutely. So good brands will, at the heart of everything be very transparent in their labeling, their purpose, the research that they do, and the education that they provide to consumers and practitioners. So that’s often what I’m looking for. First and foremost, of course, third-party testing is a baseline standard that you come to expect with high-quality products and good brands. And so what that means is basically making sure that what’s actually is in the product is labeled on the product packaging is the product clean, so free of heavy metals and allergens. Because sometimes those can be hiding in there. And they may not need to, or, you know, want to put them on the label, but they should. And that’s important. And then looking at active ingredients, bioavailable ingredients. And dosing is definitely important as well, like we’ve mentioned before. So ultimately, I’m looking for brands that include good dosing, bioavailable active ingredients, limit the unnecessary additives, and are transparent through all of those things.
What are red flags when shopping for vitamins?
Adam: Okay, so all those things are super important for a good brand. But what should the average or majority of people truly watch out for? What are red flags?
Nicole: Yeah, absolutely. Sometimes it’s really hard to pinpoint the red flags and products if you don’t really know what you’re looking for. And so if a product has confusing labeling, if you are looking at it, and you’re like, I’m not really sure how to interpret everything that’s in this product, that’s the number one red flag. So you should be able to read and be very clear on what’s in a product. Number two is looking at specific ingredients that might be problematic for you as an individual. So that could be heavy metals, that could be allergens, things you’re specifically not tolerating, or things that just generally aren’t good to have, that are just fillers that don’t necessarily provide value to the product. And then there are things that can actually be harmful in products like metals. So titanium oxide is one that you want to watch out for. But there are definitely others that could be problematic in the long term.
How would you caution someone using Dr. Google for recommendations on what to take?
Adam: You know, there’s so much information on the internet, people are using Dr. Google all the time, people are getting recommendations from perhaps medical practitioners, but also just friends or family or whomever. What would you say to like, caution people before buying a certain vitamin or supplement?
Nicole: Yeah, that’s
a great question and one I’m really passionate about. I think, first and foremost, it’s important to really understand, you know, when you choose to take a supplement, what is in that product, regardless of who it’s recommended by whether it’s healthcare practitioner, family, or friend, like you mentioned, what is in that specific product that you’re about to take, really reading the label, not just the front label, but the back label as well in terms of active ingredients and additional ingredients? And understanding why you’re taking it? What are you expecting to achieve with this supplement, and really taking an engaging in that process and understanding why you’re taking something and taking the initiative to further your understanding about that ingredient or that product. And that’s really taking charge of your health, right, whether it’s a pharmaceutical drug, or supplements, or even just the food you’re eating on a day to day basis, understanding what you’re putting into your body is so so important for your long term health outcomes.
What would you tell someone who doesn’t read nutritional fact food labels?
Adam: I read a statistic recently, where there’s a vast majority of people don’t read agreements that they’re using services for online, whether it be even, some big common brands that you see everywhere. But I think that there’s an even larger trend of people not reading the nutritional or supplement facts on what they’re putting in their body, which is obviously more concerning than your privacy is your health. What would you say to somebody who neglects or self identifies as not reading labels?
Nicole: Yeah, absolutely. I’m going to encourage that person to take more initiative to actually read what’s not only on the front label of a product but what’s on the back label, what are the medicinal ingredients in that product? But also, what are the non medicinal ingredients? And what do they mean? And how might they affect you in the long term, because you’re taking these supplements every day. And so they’re important. And ultimately, a lot of bad ingredients can be hidden by good marketing. The majority of people have no idea what’s in what they’re taking, whether it’s recommended by their doctor or not. And so I really just want to emphasize the idea of informed consent. And so if somebody recommends that you should take something, understanding why you’re taking it, and what’s actually in a specific product that’s recommended is important, before even starting to take it and really engaging and taking initiative and understanding what they’re putting in their body is so so important from a supplement perspective.
Adam: Thank you so much, Nicole, for your time. I really appreciate it. I think that was super insightful. I’m looking forward to more versions of these Mythbusters when I research more questions with you, so thank you.