Nutritional Supplements: you get what you pay for

by | March 13, 2012 | nutrition, supplements

This is not a post about whether nutritional supplements are beneficial or worth taking (more on that another time…), but rather if you do take supplements, why it’s worth buying the best quality you can afford.
Nutritional supplements are big business at the moment.  Many people take health supplements regularly, often picking them up from a supermarket with weekly shopping.
The supplements you can buy on the high street are very different from the products that nutritional therapists recommend.  Most notably, they are much cheaper.
As an example, Boots general multivitamins are £5.75 for 180 and MultiEssentials (an excellent multivitamin I often recommend from Nutri) are £7.33 for 30 tablets.
So what are you getting for your extra money?
Quality nutritional supplements that nutritional therapists recommend are made of raw ingredients that are easily absorbed by the body.  For example, supplements containing magnesium are available fairly cheaply from high street shops.  The form of magnesium they contain is usually magnesium oxide.  Magnesium oxide is cheap and easy to produce but it is also poorly absorbed by the body.  Similarly, calcium carbonate (found in chalk) is the form of calcium found in many cheap supplements found in high street shops; it’s cheap to manufacture, but is not particularly well taken up by the body.  And both magnesium oxide and calcium carbonate can neutralise stomach acid, which means that food isn’t broken down well enough in the stomach. An unwelcome side effect.
When recommending a supplement which contains magnesium, I would usually suggest something containing magnesium citrate.  Citrate forms of minerals are well absorbed, and citrates can be used by the body for other processes.  Mother’s milk contains high levels of citrates, which allows the baby to absorb minerals in the milk more easily.  And citrates are very safe to consume.
Doctors will often recommend iron sulphate (also known as ferrous sulphate) to their patients with low iron levels, and iron sulphate is commonly found in high street iron supplements.  However, iron fumarate is three times better absorbed, but more expensive.
When purchasing supplements that contain minerals (zinc, magnesium, calcium, iron etc), seek out citrate, fumarate, gluconate, aspartate and methionine forms.
It’s not just absorption that is important; cheaper supplements can also contain impurities.  Fish oils in particular can contain toxins and low levels of mercury.  The fish oil supplements that nutrition practitioners tend to recommend are very pure and are rigorously checked for toxins.  This makes them more expensive.
It’s a false economy really.  I think it’s better to take a more expensive, better quality supplement for a shorter time, than take a cheap, low quality supplement that you have to take for longer because it’s absorbed at a lower level.  Or sometimes I suggest that the more expensive supplement is taken at a lower than normal dosage, because this will still work out better than taking a lower quality supplement at the usual intake.
Bear in mind that specialist nutritional supplement manufacturers do not have the marketing spend of the high street stores – when you buy a supplement from Holland & Barrett, a percentage of what you’ve paid goes to fund the latest TV advert, or to pay rent on a high street shop.  So when you buy a nutritional supplement from a specialist company (usually via online ordering), you can be sure that you are paying for the product, and not a large marketing budget.
It is just not possible to produce quality supplements at a very cheap price.  If you see the tempting ‘buy one, get one free’ deals on nutritional supplements, ask yourself what kind of quality this product is?
If you are confused about nutritional supplements, please do get in touch if you would like some advice.