While consumers should always beware of supplements plagued by contamination with harmful ingredients, stand-alone supplements of vitamin D—a substance believed to help protect against cancer, dementia, and heart disease, among other ailments—get high marks in third-party quality-assurance tests, according to a new report by a consumer-watchdog group.
Just as good, the vitamin can be dirt-cheap if you know what to look for. "The quality is generally high with vitamin D, and it's relatively an inexpensive ingredient," explains Tod Cooperman, MD, president of ConsumerLab.com, an independent company that evaluates health-and-nutrition products. "It's good news all the way around, not like some new, superexpensive vitamin. You shouldn't have to pay very much to get a vitamin D supplement."
THE DETAILS: A recent ConsumerLab.com survey, conducted annually to gauge what dietary supplements people are using, found that vitamin D use jumped 30 percent since last year. The D surge is undoubtedly a result of dozens of studies linking low vitamin D levels to health problems. Nearly half of the 6,000 people surveyed took vitamin D daily.
Dr. Cooperman's lab also tested 27 different brands of vitamin D supplements last year, randomly purchased from pharmacies, natural health stores, and vitamin stores. In addition, ConsumerLab.com tested supplements at manufacturers' requests, for certification purposes. Researchers checked that vitamin D, vitamin D plus calcium, and vitamin D plus vitamin K products weren't contaminated with harmful substances like lead; that they contained the amount of vitamin D they advertised; and that they broke down accordingly, allowing proper absorption. ConsumerLab.com charges to see the complete report, but Dr. Cooperman shared some of the results with Rodale.com.
WHAT IT MEANS: As scores of studies are finding health problems associated with vitamin D deficiency, more consumers are flooding store aisles to get their hands on the vitamin. That's because it's not readily available from food sources in meaningful amounts, other than in wild-caught salmon, mackerel, and some shiitake mushrooms. But the interest in vitamin D is leading some supplement makers to add vitamin D to all sorts of other herbal and supplemental concoctions, which opens the door for contamination.
Here's how to get your hands on the best vitamin D supplements without breaking the bank:
• First off, get enough. Most people in the United States aren't getting enough vitamin D, a substance our bodies naturally manufacture when sun hits our unprotected skin during warmer months. But because so many people are wearing sunscreen to protect against skin cancer, they're not getting the benefit, since the product blocks the beneficial process as it blocks the sun. And in northern latitudes, the angle of the sun isn't sufficient to spur such production, for much of the year anyway. Vitamin D expert Michael Holick, PhD, MD, professor of medicine, physiology, and biophysics at Boston University School of Medicine and author of the upcoming book The Vitamin D Solution: A 3-Step Strategy to Cure Our Most Common Health Problem (Hudson Street Press, April 2010), suggests that all children receive at least 400 International Units (IU) and up to 1,000 IU of vitamin D a day (the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 400 IU); for adults, Dr. Holick suggests 1,500 to 2,000 IU a day. That's well above the current official recommendations of 400 IU for adults, but most doctors agree that that amount is woefully low and doesn't bring patients' blood levels of vitamin D up to adequate levels. Before taking vitamin D supplements, ask your doctor for a routine blood test to see where you stand, and then supplement accordingly. And during the warmer months, consider letting the sun hit your unscreened arms and legs for 15 minutes or so, to spur some natural D production.
• ID the D. There's a lot of fuss over which form of vitamin D is better—D2 or D3. One camp says the latter is more effective, although Dr. Holick contends both will work to effectively raise the amount of vitamin D in your blood. The point is if your supplement label simply reads "vitamin D" without identifying whether it's D2 or D3, it's probably not a reputable source.
• Go solo. The demand for vitamin D has the supplements industry seeing dollar signs, so they're putting it in all sorts of products. But Dr. Cooperman contends it's best to get your D from a stand-alone supplement. "There are all types of formulas out there, and some of them justify a higher price. If you want vitamin D, just stick to vitamin D, and maybe vitamin D plus calcium," suggests Dr. Cooperman. "Don't go for formulas throwing in herbs and other ingredients. There are more contamination issues."
• Sneak it to your kids. Any parent knows it's tough to coax a kid into taking a pill. Dr. Cooperman says Carlson for Kids D Drops Liquid Vitamin passed ConsumerLab.com's quality-assurance tests, and notes that it's cheap formulation, too. Each drop contains of 400 IU of D3. A bottle contains 365 drops—one for every day of the year—for an annual cost of less than $20. The drops have no taste, so you can sneak it into your kids' food. For adults who don't want to deal with pills, Dr. Holick suggests Wellesse Vitamin D3 Liquid 1000 IU. The price breaks down to about $.45 an ounce.
• Find more quality D on the cheap. Most national brands are good, affordable sources, says Dr. Holick, including Costco's Kirkland brand and Nature Made, two brands that also passed third-party quality-assurance testing. For instance, Nature Made 1,000 IU Vitamin D costs about $6 per 100 tablets. Dr. Cooperman at ConsumerLab.com recommends Nature's Bounty Vitamin D 1,000 IU Softgels, the cost of which breaks down to about a nickel per dose, or GNC's 1,000 IU Vitamin D3 ($9.99 for 180 tablets).
More information is available at ConsumerLab.com.