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What to Look For Before Buying Vitamins, Warn Experts

Buy this, not that.
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

With thousands of vitamins and supplements on the market, choosing something that actually works (and won't harm you) can be a minefield. "In the case of vitamins and supplements, I believe that you get what you pay for (or what you don't pay for)," says Stacey Robinson, MD. "My patients are always telling me that they got this great 2-for-1 deal on multivitamins at the big-box discount store. Buying cheap vitamins for the most part is a colossal waste of money. Inexpensive vitamins contain the cheapest forms of each vitamin and a plethora of additives, preservatives, and sweeteners. It is ironic that most people who take vitamins do so because they want to be healthier. And yet, these vitamins are the equivalent of mass-produced, unhealthy processed foods, filled with synthetic ingredients and preservatives." Here are five things to consider before buying vitamins, according to experts. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


What Are the Extra Ingredients?

Young Hispanic woman choosing between antibiotics or alternative medicine.

Be aware of potentially harmful additives in your vitamins. "If you are conscientious about your health, you probably read food labels and avoid eating foods that contain additives, preservatives, trans-fats, and sweeteners," says Dr. Robinson. "Do your vitamins really need FD&C Yellow No. 6 Aluminum Lake (food coloring), hydrogenated palm oil (trans-fats), modified food starch (may contain MSG), talc (anti-caking agent), sucrose and maltodextrin (sugars)?"


Are They Third-Party Tested?

woman holding white pills

Vitamins and supplements that have been third-party-tested (such as by NSF or the US Pharmacopeia (USP) Dietary Supplement Verification Program) are likely to be far better quality than those that haven't been tested. Here are the three components of the NSF dietary supplements certification program:

  • "Label claim review to certify that what's on the label is in the bottle"
  • "Toxicology review to certify product formulation (we don't test for efficacy)"
  • "Contaminant review to ensure the product contains no undeclared ingredients or unacceptable levels of contaminants"


FDA Warning Against 'Red Flag' Words

Woman is holding a mobile phone and a bottle of pills

The FDA has issued warnings over buying any supplements with variations of the names "Artri" or "Ortiga" on the label, as they might contain harmful drugs. "FDA has received adverse event reports, including of liver toxicity and death, associated with the use of Artri King products, since the agency issued its first warning about an Artri Ajo King product on January 5, 2022," the agency says in a consumer warning.


Is the Price Too Good To Be True?

Be wary of cheap vitamins, experts warn. "So is it worth spending more to get the higher quality? In my opinion, yes. There is no comparison," says Dr. Robinson. "What is the cost difference?  Centrum multivitamins run on average 10 cents per tablet. A pharmaceutical grade such as Xymogen Active Nutrients runs about 16 cents per capsule. Is it worth the 6 cent/day difference? In my opinion… absolutely. Pharmaceutical grade supplements can only be purchased through a licensed health care provider.


Be Realistic About Health Outcomes


Even the best-quality vitamins cannot replace a healthy lifestyle, doctors say. "The evidence shows that a healthy diet and exercise are the best way to ward off disease; a vitamin cannot replace those benefits," says Eric Rimm, associate professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. "Certain subgroups, including women of child-bearing age attempting to get pregnant, may need specific supplements, like folic acid and omega-3."

Ferozan Mast
Ferozan Mast is a science, health and wellness writer with a passion for making science and research-backed information accessible to a general audience. Read more about Ferozan