Learn about labels

Learn about labels – reading labels of vitamin supplements

Carol Garrett

Learn About Labels

Everything you need to know about a supplement is listed on the bottle. Understanding what you read on the label is the key to a smart selection

What’s the best brand of vitamin E? If I buy plain vitamin C do the bioflavonoids come in the same bottle? The label of my magnesium product says “magnesium oxide.” What does the oxide have to do with it? What are milligrams and micrograms and why are some vitamins and minerals supplied in milligrams and others in micrograms? What are “international units”?

These are typical questions that come to us and are asked frequently at health food stores. Here are some answers, with the reminder that we cannot cover all the products available, only general categories.

The first thing to understand is the Recommended Dietary Allowance. The RDA is a government standard set by an official group of specialists at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington. The daily levels of vitamins and minerals are based upon the nutrients required by “healthy young people” to sustain life. They point out that if you are neither healthy nor young, your requirements will be different and that sustaining life is not the same as optimal good health. Anyone with a chronic disease condition will need far more than the RDA of some vitamins as will the elderly, pregnant and lactating women, and anyone under stress, say these experts.

The label on your vitamin bottle will tell you everything you need to know if you understand how to read it. Most vitamins are measured in milligrams except a few like folic acid, biotin and B-12 which are measured in micrograms because that is how the RDA is calculated. Milligrams are one-thousandth of a gram; micrograms are one-millionth of a gram. The fat-soluble vitamins (A,D,E and K) sometimes are measured in international units, a measurement that varies from vitamin to vitamin. In other words, 50 I.U. of vitamin A is not the same weight as 50 I.U. of vitamin D. Minerals typically are measured in milligrams while trace minerals usually are measured in micrograms since they are required only in trace amounts.

What’s the best brand to buy? Keep in mind that vitamins and natural chemical substances like air and water. To the chemist, water is H2O and vitamin C is C6H8O6, or ascorbic acid. Any brand of supplement labelled vitamin C will contain exactly the same substance as any other brand. The difference is that some brands will include bioflavonoids along with vitamin C. Scientists have determined that vitamin C works most effectively in the presence of these compounds, which may have some attributes of their own. Vitamin C also may be accompanied by rose hips or acerola compounds which are available separately as well.

Nobody can produce a vitamin E product that varies from the chemical formula for vitamin E and still call it vitamin E. Therefore the vitamin E in one bottle is exactly the same as the vitamin E in the next bottle. The difference between one product and the next is that often the manufacturer will develop a product that contains other nutrients in combinations that can accelerate absorption or increase effectiveness. For example, vitamin E (also called alphatocopherol) is just one of the many tocopherols that appear together in foods. Some manufacturers may include all the members of this group in their product. If so, it will be noted on the label.

Minerals, too, may have confusing labels — magnesium oxide, calcium lactate or chelated iron. Because minerals come from rocks and soil, many food supplement manufacturers treat them with certain compounds to make them more easily absorbed and assimilated. In fact, some time ago, researchers tested iron sulfate (the form of iron physicians usually prescribe) against a chelated iron supplement called ferric fructose. After two weeks they found that the percentage of iron absorbed from the chelated iron supplement was three times greater than that absorbed from the iron sulfate.

To add to the confusion, scientists often give more than one name to a single nutrient. For example, vitamin A is officially called retinol. The official name for vitamin B1 is thiamine but the British call it aneurin. Vitamin B6 is referred to as pyridoxine or pyridoxal.

Once you understand product labels, you will be able to make intelligent decisions about purchasing the right vitamin-mineral supplements for your needs.

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