News & Politics

Eat Your Vitamins!

Choose your vitamins wisely. The fillers and additives in most dietary supplements are bad for your health.
If you and your loved ones are taking a daily vitamin and mineral supplement, I, first, want to commend you for seizing the opportunity to play a part in your own good health. In this age of self-awareness I always find it surprising that so many still neglect (or refuse!) to take even the smallest initiative toward helping their health. So, when you go out of your way to perk up you and your kids' immune systems and fortify the trillions of microscopic cells in each of your bodies, I think it's important to get the biggest bang for your buck. It's like body armor, you don't want aluminum foil, you want galvanized steel with a forcefield!

Yet there is a yawning gap in quality among vitamin/mineral formulas. This fact struck me a while back when a friend asked me to take a look at a bottle of vitamins for her kids. She had gotten them as a result of a UNICEF fundraiser that handed out goodie bags and this bottle of multi-vitamins was one of the goodies. She knows I always advocate taking a high quality vitamin and mineral supplement and she wanted to know if this filled the bill. Well, this leading brand of kids' vitamins, which is sold in grocery and drug stores, is not only of low quality but, appallingly, has additives that are detrimental to health! To name this vitamin line is inviting trouble and the brand name really doesn't matter as the fillers and additives in most of the other vitamin lines I surveyed in drug and grocery stores were no better.

Let's look at the one my friend wanted me to examine. It is a multi-vitamin/mineral supplement that well intentioned but uninformed parents might give to their kids. There are fourteen different vitamins and minerals in the bottle. But there are thirty-five ingredients! The very first ingredient listed (which means it's the most abundant) is sugar! Mercy, don't the kids get enough of this without it being in a multi-vitamin? Lactose is also on the list. That's the sugar in milk, a dairy-based product. So if little Johnny is lactose intolerant, this would not be a good choice. In fact, if your kid is the slightest bit allergenic, there are numerous additives in this product and countless other products like it that could be a problem. Obviously, you'd never know if you didn't read the label.

Robert W. Boxer, MD sees this scenario regularly. Dr. Boxer is an allergist in Skokie, Illinois who practices integrative medicine. In thirty-eight years of practice, one of his most effective approaches is counseling sick patients -- kids and adults alike -- to clear their diet of potential allergens including additives. "Chemically sensitive people can respond to very small amounts so you can't just say to somebody, 'If you take just a little bit of this it's ok.'" Thus, for some, the small amounts found in low quality vitamins can trigger these reactions.

Dr. Boxer believes that the hyperactivity and attention deficit disorders we 're seeing in so many children today are often symptoms of allergies and sensitivities. Dyes in food are a particular culprit. In fact, Dr. Boxer says that he use to test kids for specific food dyes but ultimately decided it was a waste of time and money as they tested positive to so many of them. He now recommends that parents keep their kids' diets clear of all dyes, which brings us back to the vitamin supplement.

In my friend's kids' vitamin product there are three different "FD & C colors" (Food, Drug and Cosmetic Colors), which are additives ok-ed by our government that are not really ok. In addition to Dr. Boxer's warnings, Consumer 's Dictionary of Food Additives (by Ruth Winter, M.S.) and Food Additives Guide cite additional potential problems with the three dyes that are in this vitamin product (and many others). Red No. 40: the National Cancer Institute reports that a chemical in this causes cancer in animals (it's banned in Denmark, Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Austria and Norway). Blue No. 2 causes malignant tumors in rats (it's banned in Norway). Yellow No.6 (also banned in Norway) can trigger skin rashes, high blood pressure and allergic reactions including hyperactivity. This dye is also used in many medications.

Other worrying additives in the kids' vitamin formula I examined include stearic acid which causes tumors in experimental animals and partially hydrogenated coconut oil which is a chemically altered fat that should be avoided because of, among other things, its artery clogging properties. Yet another additive, aspartame, also known as Nutrasweet, is a controversial artificial sweetener with much anecdotal evidence linking it to symptoms from headaches to loss of motor control. Dr. Boxer nixes any use of it. "We' re very much against aspartame. It's a CNS (central nervous system) excitant. We've seen memory loss in adults; we've seen a lot of allergic reactions to it. We certainly would not recommend it in any preparation."

Indeed, according to Dr. Boxer, adults can be just as reactive as children to certain additives resulting in a multiplicity of symptoms from migraines to genitourinary tract complications. However, ironically, when it comes to low-quality vitamin supplements, kids get the brunt of the additives as manufacturers add colors and sweeteners to make their vitamins more appealing. Moreover, children's smaller body weights mean the impact can be greater if they are sensitive to that substance.

If you're going through the trouble of buying vitamins, it's worth paying more and getting a brand that is high quality (and that goes for products for both kids and adults). It's vital to always read the ingredient list and be armed with a handbook such as Consumer's Dictionary of Food Additives to interpret the complicated ingredient names. Understandably, it can be tough to find a vitamin that a child will take without protest. For just this reason, I have found that many health food stores will have samples of kids' vitamins to test. If that's not possible, I would have no reluctance about returning the product if the kids don't like it (enough returns may prompt a store to make samples available). For children, I suggest either a lightly flavored chewable or a liquid vitamin supplement to which you can add a small bit of juice. Dr. Boxer advises buying nutritional supplements that are labeled as "hypoallergenic" which are free of artificial coloring, flavoring and sugar.

I bring these points to your attention because many of us -- even though we may be vigilant about other things -- believe we can pretty much randomly pick-out any vitamin supplement to help cover our "nutritional bases." This is just not so. Inferior products can have hard-to-digest fillers and sub optimum nutrient forms. But, even more important, is that with the additives they carry, these products can be undermining your best efforts toward optimum health.
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