Important: I’ve updated my priors about these products. This article is now the most complete summary of how whole food vitamins work.
The multivitamin has come under attack the last 5 years. A variety of longitudinal studies have creeped up casting serious doubts on their effectiveness, with several suggesting that they might actually deteriorate your health instead of improve it.
For example, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association studied a cohort of 84,000 male physicians over 6 years to study the effect vitamin supplementation had in preventing various types of cardiovascular disease. As it turned out, the vitamins didn’t do anything. Nada.
Multivitamins are good for preventing conditions that arise from severe deficiency, but their helpfulness seems to taper off pretty quickly when the body is in a high calorie, insulin-rich physiological state that most people with a western diet find themselves in. This isn’t meant to demonize them, but to help people understand that taking one doesn’t help the body exert the metabolic control needed to prevent diseases of convenience.
The Problems With Multivitamins
I’ve written before about the problems with traditional multivitamins.
- Low Absorption. Many of the nutrients in a multivitamin are not in a form that’s biologically available to your body.
- Synthetic isolates might not be good for you. It’s possible that many of the benefits of different nutrients are observed when digested with a complex of nutrients found in food that work together to exert certain regulatory controls over the cell. Without this complimentary nutrient complex isolated nutrients cease to have any nutritional value.
Neither of the latter two points is absolutely true, but the kernels of wisdom contained within extend far enough that it ought to cause many people to re-think their assumptions about the traditional vitamin.
Whole Food Alternatives
For this reason whole-food multivitamins are becoming more popular as an alternative to traditional brands like Centrum.
What is a whole food multivitamin?
- It’s a vitamin! Ie, it’s not a powder, a juice, or something you add to your food. As such its effect on your body will likely share some of the same drawbacks as other vitamins.
- It’s made from food broths. Traditional vitamins are often made from various synthetic materials. A whole food vitamin is typically made from boiling different foods in water and then extracting the nutrients out of the broth and putting in the pill.
To show you their production makes them different, here’s a picture of the Pure Synergy whole food vitamin compared to a traditional synthetic brand:
As you can see the synergy vitamin has a deep green color from the foods used to make them.
Whole food vitamins will frequently dissolve when put in water because they’re not manufactured with the array of plastics and adhesives that go into regular vitamins. If you have questions identifying whole food vitamins vs. synthetic ones, please read my guide on the topic.
These types of vitamins have become more popular in the last five years, but there’s still very little reliable information on their efficacy.
Pros and Cons
As best I can tell, here are the biggest benefits and drawbacks of these types of vitamins.
- Likely to be absorbed better by the body.
- Can be taken on an empty stomach. Lots of people can’t take vitamins on an empty stomach because it upsets their digestion. These problems are typically not as severe with whole food vitamins.
- Less weird additives used to make the pill. Lots of traditional vitamins have a variety of strange additives used to package them. For example here’s the label of a vitamin I saw at a neighborhood drug store:
Lots of weird stuff.
- There is no valid research demonstrating their superiority. None! This doesn’t mean they’re not better per se, but I can not find a single paper that compares the validity of a whole food vitamin to a synthetic one. So at this point their benefits are based purely on theory.
- More expensive. A whole food vitamin will typically run you about $30 or so for a month’s supply which is a good bit more expensive than other brands.
- Less dense. To get a full serving you’ll often have to take 3 to 6 pills,which can be a little inconvenient at times.
So the benefits of these supplements are still a bit speculative. I don’t take a multivitamin currently but when I did in the past I did choose a whole foods vitamin for the reasons I wrote about above.
So with that being said, here are the four best brands I’ve found, both through research and my own personal experience.
The Synergy Company Organic Multi-vitamin
The Synergy company has been around for a long time and generally has a very good reputation. Pure Synergy is a highly respected greens powder, and their multi-vitamins contain 20 different food based nutrients. A 30 day supply costs $24.95
New Chapter Only One Multivitamin
Like the Synergy Company, new chapter has been around for a long time, and they’ve always had a specialty exclusively with different types of multi-vitamins. I’m a tad skeptical about the their more targeted products, but their basic multipurpose multivitamin is high quality. It has 24 different nutrients and probiotics as well. A 30 day supply costs $25.45.
Mega Food One Daily Multivitamin
Megafood has been in the whole food vitamin business for a long time. They source the food for their vitamins locally and culture them in a probiotic broth to extract nutrients. Their vitamins contain 25 different nutrients plus digestive enzymes. They also have the benefit of only requiring one tablet per serving. A 90 day supply costs $32.33.
Nature’s Plus Whole Food Vitamins
Nature’s Plus is a fairly popular store bought brand that distinguishes itself by including a slightly wider variety of nutrients than other brands and by having a reputation for being unusually easy to digest. The vitamins contain 25 different nutrients, including essential fatty acids and digestive enzymes. A 2 month supply costs $40.85.
Which One Is Best?
With the limitations of multivitamins in mind, I think I’d go with Mega Food over the other competitors. I say this because it has the most experience making this type of product and they pay the most attention to the handling of the ingredients used in their vitamins. The food for their vitamins is locally sourced, organic, and is not heat treated.
A Handy Comparison Table
Here’s a useful table comparing these four different brands in more detail. I hope this is helpful!
[table id=2 /]
Research and References
Muntwyler, Jorg, et. al. “Vitamin Supplement Use in a Low-Risk Population of US Male Physicians and Subsequent Cardiovascular Mortality”
Phillips, Christopher, et. al. “Multivitamin Supplements, Ageing, and Loss of Vision: Seeing Through the Shadows”
Gaziano, JM, et. al. “Multivitamins in the prevention of cancer in men: the Physicians’ Health Study II randomized controlled trial.”
Sesso, HD, et. al. “Multivitamins in the Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease in MenThe Physicians’ Health Study II Randomized Controlled Trial”