|A wad of cotton and several dozen stinky, big-enough-for-a-horse pills. These are the contents of most vitamin-and-mineral jars, and they're almost always identical. But the labels-and the prices-can be as different as Ch‚teau Lafite and Night Train. For instance, the Master Nutritional System from haute supplement-maker Rainbow Light, which boasts that its nutrients are lovingly grown in a liquid medium, will set you back $40 a month, versus two bucks a month for Kmart's. You're worth every penny, of course, but ever wonder whether the cheap stuff is just as good?
According to Jeanne Goldberg, director of Tufts University's nutrition center, it is. "There's no justification to pay more for a so-called natural vitamin," she says. "Vitamins are chemical compounds, so getting it from rose hips is no better than getting it from a lab." The synthetic-versus-natural debate-a skirmish in a multimillion-dollar battle to perk up aging boomers-promises to rage, but in the meantime, a few label-reading points will help you separate marketing from medicine.
Look for 100 percent of the U.S. Daily Values in supplements you take. Despite the implied claims of megadosages, twice as much isn't twice as healthy, and 30 times as much is useless.
The letters "USP" (U.S. Pharmacopeia) indicate the brand has voluntarily met rigid standards for potency, quality, and purity. Given the nonprofit advocacy group's more than 175 years of experience, "USP" is worth seeking. In a recent study at Tufts, some supposedly top-shelf calcium supplements without the seal didn't so much as dissolve.
Forget highly touted time-release coatings said to keep certain nutrients-such as water-soluble vitamins B and C-from going to waste by being absorbed all at once. Just take your vitamins and minerals with meals, and you won't have to fuss with various coatings. A National Institutes of Health study, for example, suggests that tissues can't use more than 200 milligrams of vitamin C a day, rendering a time-released pill overkill.
For minerals in particular, provenance matters. Calcium supplements from oyster shells, for example, may also give you a dose of lead. Look for calcium citrate or purified calcium carbonate instead.
Taking one multivitamin a day may be sensible, but some high-potency brands suggest up to nine pills a day — questionable advice, at best.