All of us dream about magic bullets - the one single thing that is going to be the key to health. Perhaps the best embodiment of this idea is the all-in-one multivitamin and mineral supplement. These promise to offer up all the essential micronutrients we need in one single pill.
The problem is, getting all of the 25 or so nutrients you need every day of your life is a tall order. It's also expensive. Consequently, multivitamins can be hideously expensive, or so diluted with such small amounts of each nutrient that they are no better for you than swallowing cottonwool (and probably even less palatable). So, the big question in deciding which one-a-day vitamin to take is whether it has enough of everything you need at an affordable price.
The other question is whether all those nutrients crammed into a single supplement stay potent over a reasonable length of time.
PROOF! sent a cross-section of multivitamin preparations, purchased as usual from the Nutri Centre in London, to the Birmingham City Laboratories, one of the largest local government laboratories in Europe, which tests for standards and quality for both the government and private industry.
What we were mainly looking for was whether a given preparation could give you all the nutrients you need in a single tablet as well as whether the price of this dosage represented good value for money.
To arrive at comparable daily dosages, we compared what was contained in each of the products with what PROOF! panel members like Melvyn Werbach suggest are the optimum daily dosages for all vitamins (see box on p 3). A vitamin which had excellent levels of vitamin A would be marked down if the levels of another nutrient like vitamin E were too low.
We also examined the freshness of the product. Certain vitamins, such as vitamin C, lose potency quickly when exposed to air or heat, as they do when they sit for a long time on a healthshop shelf. Oil-soluble vitamins, such as vitamin E, are notorious for losing potency or spoiling, the longer they have been on the shelves. Any supplement - however high the quality - is no good to you if it has become degraded.
As it would have been impossible for us to test whether all the vitamins and minerals were present in the potencies stated on the labels, we had the Birmingham Laboratories test levels of vitamin C. They subcontracted out another test for vitamin E.
To examine value for money, we looked at:
? the price per serving, which we arrived at by using the manufacturer's stated daily dosage, the size of the container and the price of the bottle. The prices in this sample ranged from 11 p to 27 p a day;
* how much of a given nutrient you got for your money. In this road test, we compared how much vitamin E and vitamin C you got for your lb;
* the comprehensiveness of the product. Some products carry the bare minimum of nutrients whereas others also contain many good co-factors. For instance, bioflavonoids - such essential antioxidants work in tandem with vitamin C to fight infection, allergies and inflammation, plus offer many advantages on their own, such as maintaining good circulation and eyesight. Some products include bioflavonoids while others just opt for the more minimal ascorbic acid; yet others provide additional vitamin C or other nutrients in a buffered form, attached to another mineral such as calcium or magnesium, which acts as a low-acid buffer so that your system can more easily tolerate and digest a large dose.
We also took marks off for any additives or excipients which had questionable effects on your health.
The main surprise of our road test was the large disparity in value for money. There were huge differences between how much you got for your lb, with some providing 100 mg of vitamin E compared with others that contained almost five times that amount, and some offering more than 1000 mg of vitamin C compared with others that offered less than half that.
In terms of potency, virtually all of the sampled products but one contained the amounts of vitamin C stated on their labels (and often more); the problem one showed a small amount of degrading. Vitamin E fared almost as well, although one product contained slightly less vitamin E than stated.
In general, our sampling proved that there is no such thing as a magic bullet. Although many of the better supplements provided every important nutrient, most contained levels that are far too low to cover your daily needs. For instance, levels of magnesium usually hovered around 10-25 mg, representing only one-tenth to one-twentieth of the daily supplementation you should be aiming for.
At best, the broad-spectrum multivitamin/mineral supplements may serve as your basic supplement, but still require that you customise your regime by the addition of, say, extra vitamin C, magnesium, zinc and possibly vitamin E.
Adding on individual nutrients may also be necessary because certain vitamins shouldn't be taken with others. The most notable of these is zinc, which nutritional expert Dr Stephen Davies recommends should be taken on an empty stomach either last thing at bedtime or first thing in the morning.
The most interesting finding of all is that many of the so-called bargain brands actually work out to be the most expensive when you see how little of each nutrient you get for your money. Don't let the price tag on the bottle fool you. It's wise to take a calculator with you when you're shopping.
While you're at it, it's also a good idea to take a magnifying glass for reading the label. Half of our samples had such tiny print that they were impossible to read without some means of magnification.
Formula V Vm-75
Price: lb7.69 for 30 tablets
American vitamin giant Solgar has weighed in with a heavyweight one-a-day with lots of added extras at a highly competitive price.
Formula V VM-75 costs just 26 p a day for reasonably high levels of nutrients. Each horse-sized yellow tablet provides 124 mg of vitamin E and 250 mg of vitamin C - among the highest in our sampling - and the laboratory found that tested levels slightly exceeded the stated dose.
All told, you get 484 mg of vitamin E for each lb it cost you, which represents nearly twice the vitamin E of any other product sampled. And with 975 mg of vitamin C per lb, it is the fourth highest amount of vitamin C for the money in our sample.
As always with Solgar, there have added a number of extras like hesperidin, rutin and citrus bioflavonoid complex, and it's refreshing to see a company that is not afraid to add high levels of vitamin D (400 IU), and vitamin A (10,497 IU, they promise) from retinols and beta-carotenes, to their product. They have also added hydrochloric acid (HCl) - the stuff of which stomach acid is made - to aid digestion and assimilation, and more arcane minerals like copper.
But lest you think this is all you need to take, levels of many of the important minerals, such as magnesium and zinc, are low.
Formula V VM-75 is suitable for vegetarians, and makes use of a powdered vegetable cellulose for binding. As with all tablets, it also contains magnesium stearate, another binding agent.
We prefer capsules to tablets because they contain no extras, but as a one-stop shop, this vitamin was our clear favourite.
Multivitamin Mineral Complex
Price: lb8.05 for 30 capsules
Birmingham-based BioCare has produced an outstanding all-in-one product, with good levels of the main nutrients needed every day in an easy-to-swallow capsule at a competitive price. Their Multivitamin Mineral Complex works out at 27 p a day and contains 282 mg of vitamin C - the highest of our sampling - delivered in the form of magnesium ascorbate, which is far easier on the stomach than the standard sodium ascorbate. It also has good levels of the B vitamins - about half the recommended (see box on p 3). BioCare also delivers a high level of zinc citrate (25 mg).
The product contains a number of the more arcane minerals - molybdenum, iodide, chromium - also in buffered form. Although the levels of vitamin E are low at only 154 mg per lb, you get a lot of vitamin C - 1051 mg - for your money.
The other great benefit with BioCare is that you don't take in any excipients. With a capsule, you consume cellulose and water. Although we'd have liked to have seen a few more frills in the form of boron or bioflavonoids included, as a one-stop multivitamin, this is undoubtedly a very good buy.
Price: lb6.80 for 30 capsules
New-kid-on-the-block Viridian has come up with a product that slightly undercuts the price of its major competitors. At 23 p a day, High Five would appear to be the better deal compared with BioCare and Solgar. However, this is a false economy because Viridian has taken a middle-of-the-road approach to the levels of nutrients in its product. This means that each capsule contains only 50 mg of vitamin E and 100 mg of vitamin C - making it a tie for the second lowest vitamin C content in our sample.
So, Viridian isn't that cheap when you consider that you only get 221 mg of vitamin E and 441 mg of vitamin C for every lb you spend. The product provides the least amount of vitamin C per lb of any of the brands we tested.
Furthermore, there are low levels of zinc (5 mg) and magnesium ascorbate (107 mg). It was also one of the two products in which the vitamin E content per capsule - at 44 mg - proved to be slightly lower than the declared 50 mg.
It's a shame because there are all sorts of thoughtful touches to this product - vegetarian cellulose capsule, bioflavonoids and rutin, iodine from kelp, even the possibility of recycling your bottle (return it to the shop you bought it from and they will give you 25 p back).
Viridian also has a lovely ethos, guaranteeing that 50 per cent of all net profits will be donated to environmental and children's charities.
There's nothing bad in these capsules - all you get is pure vitamin. What they need to do is give you more.
Improved Once a Day
Price: lb4.15 for 30 tablets
At first glance, this appears to be excellent value for money - no doubt the thinking of Quest behind the new and improved element of this product. At lb4.15 for a one-month supply, Once a Day costs merely 14 p per day, among the cheaper products of all the vitamins we tested. The preparation offers a reasonable amount of vitamin C at 150 mg per capsule, but only 10 mg of vitamin E, the lowest level in our sampling.
The biggest drawback with this product is the same problem as with all cheap vitamins: there's less put into it. Just about every last nutrient you'd like to take is contained here, but less of it than with other brands. There's half as much of most of the B vitamins as in other brands, so if you take three of these a day, you end up paying what you'd have paid for the more expensive products anyway. The notable exception is folic acid, which is present in abundance (100 mcg).
Like Solgar's vitamin, Quest has added digestive enzymes (papain) and HCl for ease of digestion. There's also a smidgen of some other substances like lysine and cysteine as well as bioflavonoids and vanadium.
Quest displays a special notice on the front that the product contains no hydrogenated fat, although we're not aware that any other vitamins do. As with all tablets, it uses a glazing agent - in this case, hydroxypropylmethylcellulose.
In the end, there's probably no getting around it - you get what you pay for.
Price: lb6.72 for 31 tablets
Blackmores also has aimed for the low end of the market with this well-priced product and, at 22 p a day, it is the fourth cheapest product we tested. Nevertheless, Blackmores have not stinted on certain nutrients. Naturetime contains 250 mg of vitamin C and, at 1153 mg of vitamin C per lb, represents the best value for money for vitamin
C of all the products sampled.
However, this generosity does not extend to vitamin E. At only 33 mg - or 162 mg per lb - it is squarely in the middle of all our samples in terms of value for money for vitamin E.
Nevertheless, Naturetime is surprisingly potent in the B vitamins and selenium, with levels comparable to those of the more ex-pensive vitamin makers. What lets the side down are the levels of some of the more important minerals, such as magnesium (with only 6 mg), zinc (5.6 mg), vitamin D (5 mcg) and beta-carotene (3 mg) although, like most of the brands tested, nutrient levels exceeded those declared on the label.
This is the only supplement that claims to be a time-released product, with 25 per cent released from the 'vegetable gum matrix' in the first hour, followed by the remainder over the next seven hours. In truth, time-release capsules are known to be hit-and-miss. Dr John Briffa, the nutritionist, told PROOF! that such formulas are often less well digested than ordinary vitamins by those with less than optimum digestion.
Price: lb4.85 for 30 capsules
This is BioCare's cheaper one-a-day offerings at 16 p a day. On the face of it, this is a good-value product. It contains a good amount of vitamin C (868 mg), but only 128 mg of vitamin E per lb. However, with most of the nutrients in this supplement, VitaGuard contains about half the levels of BioCare's more expensive product, making it - in fact - more expensive than its big sister.
Although the levels of B vitamins are reasonable, the amounts of many of the other important nutrients fall away sharply.
There's no question that this is a quality product - as a capsule of vitamins, cellulose and nothing else - which covers basic requirements. But other than as a vitamin for preteens and teenagers, this level of vitamin supplementation isn't going to offer you much besides some assurance that you won't have a deficiency of the basics.
A to Z
Price: lb6.50 for 60 tablets
Lamberts, the quality manufacturer of such preparations as Health Insurance Plus, developed by Dr Stephen Davies, has gone for a no-frills product at the bottom of the vitamin market and, to its credit, it calls a spade a spade on the label.
This product, they inform the consumer, contains many vitamins and minerals at 100 per cent the recommended daily allowance (RDA), and is aimed at those who want a 'low priced product to take on a long-term basis'. The RDA, for the uninitiated, is the minimum amount needed per day to prevent a deficiency disorder, such as scurvy, and not the amount necessary for good health. So, A to Z contains only 60 mg of vitamin C, 10 mg of vitamin E and about one-twentieth the B vitamins of the others.
Nevertheless, Lamberts has made sure to include all the main nutrients, including copper, vitamin K and vanadium. Despite low levels of many vitamins, Lamberts has surprisingly good levels of magnesium (100 mg) and zinc (15mg).
Once again, the cheap price tag is deceptive. Although, at 11 p a day, this was the cheapest we sampled, it turned out to be the most expensive per lb, since it offers the least amount of vitamin E (112 mg) and the second least vitamin C (554 mg). To compete with other products, you'd have to take five of these a day, which would certainly make this the most expensive option of the lot.
Compounding the drawbacks are all the additives included in the tablet - maltodextrin (a sweetener) and microcrystalline cellulose - and in the tablet coating (hydroxypropylmethylcellulose, magnesium silicate, titanium dioxide and iron oxide).
Several panel members of WDDTY and PROOF! suggest the following as a general guideline of what a daily supplement should contain. Remember that these are only general guidelines. Your individual requirements could be different from these.
To determine what you should be taking, it is best to consult a qualified, experienced nutritionist before taking supplements. Also, these levels do not apply to pregnant women or children.
Bioflavonoids 100-1000 mg
Biotin 200-1000 mcg
Boron 3 mg
Calcium 500 mg
Choline 500-700 mg
Chromium 100 mcg
Copper 2-3 mg
Folic acid 400-800 mcg
Inositol 600 mg
Iodine 500 mcg
Iron 10 mg
Magnesium 200-400 mg
Manganese 5-25 mg
PABA (para-aminobenzoic acid) 500 mg
Potassium 300-600 mg
Selenium up to 200 mcg
Vitamin A 10,000-25,000 IU (10,000 IU as retinol)
Vitamin B1 (thiamine) 50 mg
Vitamin B2 (riboflavin) 50 mg
Vitamin B3 (as niacin) 50 mg
(as niacinamide) 100 mg
Vitamin B5 (pantothenate) 500 mg
Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine/pyridoxal) 50 mg
Vitamin B12 100 mcg
Vitamin C at least 50 mg, preferably 1-3 g per day
Vitamin D 400 IU
Vitamin E 100-600 IU
Zinc 15-30 mg
Price: lb14.99 for 60 capsules (one month's supply)
Distributor: Wyreside Products (01789 490 600)
What does it claim to do?
According to the publicity handout, this supplement - which contains nucleotides and ribonucleic acid (RNA) - helps support the immune and nervous systems, and liver function. Taking it regularly should increase vitality and energy, improve digestion and help the body resist the effects of stress.
Has it been tested?
Wyreside says the product has been the subject of 10 years of extensive research. This may well be true, but there are no published trials of Nucell. Most of what is known about dietary nucleotides is based on animal studies and is theoretical.
Human research has centred on the benefits of breastfeeding - breast milk is high in nucleotides. However, the nucleotides in breastmilk are of human origin and it is questionable whether those extracted from plants or other animals are truly the same. In a study of postoperative cancer patients - tubal feeds containing nucleotides improved immune function, and reduced complications and time in hospital (J Nutr, 1994; 124: 160-4S). Likewise, it was found that growth-retarded infants fed synthetic milk may also benefit from a formula that includes nucleotides (Nutrition, 1998; 14: 748-51). But there is nothing to suggest that supplementation helps the average person.
Molecular genetics has revealed much about the importance of nucleotides (the building blocks of nucleic acids), and the function of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and RNA as the body's cellular database and messengers involved in several biochemical activities, including maintaining immune function.
But there is little scientific proof that supplements of this nature are beneficial. There is also some debate over whether dietary nucleotides can survive the digestive process intact - something they would need to do to work the wonders claimed by nucleotide supplements. It is believed that only the simple components of these substances are absorbed for use during metabolism.
In spite of the backing of media doc Jan de Vries, this product appears to be not much more than a highly concentrated yeast-extract supplement with added amino acids and vitamins. It is also expensive, in view of the limited evidence that supplemental nucleotides and RNA are beneficial for anyone other than the severely malnourished. Nucell is available through the Internet (www.nucell.co.uk), by mail order (08452 705 070) or through Jan de Vries' healthcare clinics and stores.
As the body is constantly manufacturing nucleotides, a deficiency is unlikely. Food sources of RNA/DNA and other nucleotides include mushrooms, sardines, brewer's yeast, green vegetables, legumes and organ meats. Yeast is the main source of supplementary nucleotides (and is the source for Nucell) as are dried glands and brains.
Nucleotides may cause problems for gout sufferers because they eventually form uric acid. Nucell also recommends that those with autoimmune disorders not take this product since it may stimulate an immune response. Similarly, those who are allergic to live yeast should avoid this product.