If you're like millions of Americans who take a multivitamin every day "just to be sure," you may have new reasons to doubt what's inside that pill or capsule.
A report just released by ConsumerLab.com revealed that more than half of the multivitamins tested did not contain what the label claimed: Either the nutrient levels fell short or exceeded what was safe.
Of the 21 brands of multivitamins the researchers randomly selected off store shelves and tested, only 10 met the stated claims on the label or satisfied other quality standards.
Most "shocking" was the amount of lead found in one multivitamin, said Dr. Tod Cooperman, president of ConsumerLab.com, a White Plains, N.Y., company that independently evaluates dietary supplements.
The Vitamin Shoppe Multivitamins Especially for Women was found to contain 15.3 micrograms of lead per serving. Cooperman said this is more than 10 times the amount of lead permitted without a warning label in California -- the only state to regulate lead in supplements.
Too Much of a Good Thing
Excess lead may be particularly damaging to pregnant women and young children.
Cooperman believes the contamination may be attributed to the herbs used in the supplement, but "we've not heard from Vitamin Shoppe," he said.
The second most "disturbing" finding, said Cooperman, was the amount of vitamin A found in a multivitamin for children.
Hero Nutritionals Yummi Bears contained 216 percent of the labeled amount of vitamin A, delivering amounts that exceeded what's been defined as an "upper tolerable level" for children. Too much vitamin A can weaken bones and cause liver damage.
Each serving provided 5,400 international units of vitamin A in the retinol form, which is substantially more than the upper tolerable level of 2,000 IUs for children ages 1 to 3, and 3,000 IUs for children ages 4 to 8.
Judy Blatman, vice president of communications for the Council for Responsible Nutrition, a trade association that represents the dietary supplements industry, had not seen the full report but she questioned the findings.
"With more than 150 million Americans using multivitamins and other supplements, if we had a real safety concern we would know about it," she said.
The ConsumerLab.com report also found that three brands of multivitamins did not sufficiently break apart, which means they could potentially pass through your system without being fully absorbed. Those products included Nature's Plus Especially Yours Women's Multvitamin, AARP Maturity Formula and Now Adam Superior Men's Multivitamin.
David Grotto, a registered dietitian and spokesman for the American Dietetic Association, believes the problems identified in the ConsumerLab.com report underscore the need for government oversight rather than voluntary adherence to industry-set standards.
Unlike pharmaceutical products, dietary supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.
Grotto believes an independent lab doing random testing is a good thing to help keep companies accountable. Sometimes with supplements, it's a "roll of the dice," he said.
That means you may not be getting what you're paying for. But the bigger concern, according to Grotto, is "getting what you're not paying for," such as contamination from heavy metals.
Nutrition researcher Jeffrey Blumberg, who directs the Antioxidants Research Laboratory at Tufts University, hopes the new report will encourage people to take a closer look at what they're buying instead of not buying vitamins at all.
He believes "taking a multivitamin is an important and prudent thing to do to promote health."
Supplements, Not Substitutes
While a daily multivitamin is not a substitute for a good diet, it can help fill in nutrient gaps.
Despite our widening waistlines, the typical American diet remains chronically low in several essential nutrients, such as calcium, potassium, magnesium and vitamins A, C and E.
Multivitamins are especially important for women of childbearing age, who need the extra folic acid, and older adults, who often lack vitamin B-12 and vitamin D.
Fortunately, several of the most popular multivitamins on the market received an "approved" rating from ConsumerLab.com. These supplements include One a Day Women's, Centrum Silver, Member's Mark Complete Multi (distributed by Sam's Club), Kirkland Signature Daily Multi (distributed by Costco), Flintstone's Complete Children's Multivitamin and Puritan's Pride Children's Multivitamin.
Here are some tips to follow when buying multivitamins:
Choose well-known brands from respected companies.
Buy from trusted retailers instead of unknown sellers on the Internet.
Ask your pharmacist for advice.
Look for the ConsumerLab.com seal of approval on labels (although not all companies choose to pay for this license); you can also check its Web site for reviews of dietary supplements.
Talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian about your nutritional needs.
Buy only the quantity you can use before the expiration date; discard all expired supplements.
Do not double up. If you're taking a multivitamin, don't overdo it with a lot of single nutrient pills (with the exception of minerals, which are often at low levels in multivitamins).
Aim for 100 percent of the daily value for vitamins and minerals, not megadoses.
When shopping for a supplement, add more fruits and vegetables to your grocery cart. These plant foods are packed with disease-fighting phytonutrients that can't be captured in a pill.
Janet Helm is a registered dietitian and freelance nutrition writer in Chicago.