3 Questions to Ask Before Buying Vitamins

By Dr. David Wang, B.Sc, ND

Browsing the supplement aisle can be daunting; shelves of colourful brands of the same types of vitamins compete, and confuse shoppers. How do you decide which to buy?

You probably take vitamins to ward off disease, and reduce risks of a deficiency; vitamin companies promote that most people need to supplement with nutrients to replace real ones that may be lacking in the diet.

Before buying vitamin pills and capsules, consider these three questions:

  1. Have you found that they work?

Some people haven’t. For the first 20 years of my practice as a naturopathic physician, some patients experienced headaches, nausea and vomiting after taking vitamin supplements I recommended. These are classic signs of liver toxicity because these vitamins are made synthetically by drug companies.  When I switched them over to food supplements, they no longer had these side effects; more importantly, they felt healthier, more vital, and symptoms improved because the body was responding better to the increased nutrient levels.

Research may confirm my findings: a 2012 medical review involving 297,000 people found little benefit from taking conventional vitamins A, C and E, selenium or beta-carotene. (1) A 2002 study of 83,639 physicians found vitamin E, vitamin C, and multivitamins were not associated with a significant decrease in cardiovascular or heart disease. (2) A 2002 review showed that vitamin C from vegetables lowered stomach and breast cancer risks, but synthetic vitamin C (ascorbic acid) did not. (3)

  1. Isn’t food better than synthetic supplements?

Nutrients made in food form by Mother Nature are bound to proteins, fats and carbohydrates because this is the way that the body recognizes and is able to absorb them, and how they provide a targeted delivery system. Nutrients don’t simply wander around inside the body; natural nutrient proteins have peptide signals that determine which cells attract and absorb them after being delivered directly to appropriate receptors in the cells. Synthetic molecules are not readily delivered without these signals. (4)(5)

You have probably heard about phytonutrients, the 5,000-plus nutrients in foods that protect against diseases. Supplements don’t include these or other “whole” nutrients found in food. For example, taking ascorbic acid for a vitamin C deficiency will have little effect (it doesn’t even prevent scurvy, like fruit-derived vitamin C famously does) because it lacks the cofactor/coenzyme nutrients required alongside this complex vitamin including tyrosinase, rutin, factor J, factor P, and bioflavonoids. (6) (7) Nutrients in plant foods were constructed over millions of years to be in quantities and critical combinations that all work together; we can’t take individual nutrients out of that elaborate package and expect similar benefits, or split the whole without destroying its biological parts. (8) (9)

  1. Are supplements natural? 

Synthetic vitamins are made from and processed using chemicals. For example, vitamin A/?-carotene supplements are made from methanol, vinyl, acetylene gas or coal tar. Synthetic niacin/B3 is made from coal tar derivatives and 3-cyanopyridine in a process involving formaldehyde and ammonia. (10) These are not beneficial, and can cause side effects. As a clinician, I was concerned about patients ingesting these unnatural substances, and that is why I now recommend only plant-food vitamins. Also important: supplements made of indigestible substances such as calcium from shells or rock are also not well absorbed. Kale, for example, is 40.9% more effective at raising serum ionic calcium levels than calcium carbonate or citrate supplements. (11)

Think about these three questions the next time you are in the supplement aisle. Take a look at the label on your favourite supplement brand. Does it include ONLY food ingredients? What are the “other” ingredients listed on the package? If it lists items other than a recognizable food, dig a little deeper and really question what you are putting in your body.

With all the scrutiny that is happening in the marketplace around the quality of our food supply, why aren’t we applying the same level of scrutiny when we are in the supplement aisle?

Dr. David Wang, ND is the founder and formulator of Pranin Organic products. He has been practicing Naturopathic Medicine in Vancouver, Canada for over 25 years, and is a past president of the BC Naturopathic Association, and the founder of the Boucher Institute of Naturopathic Medicine in New Westminster BC, where he continues to lecture.

Dr. David has dedicated his life to educating his patients and the public about the power of food as medicine. He regularly tours across Canada teaching people about his successful Naturopathic approach to stress management.


  1. Bjelakovic G, Nikolova D, et al., “Antioxidant supplements for prevention of mortality in healthy participants and patients with various diseases,” See comment in PubMed Commons belowCochrane Database Syst Rev., 2012 Mar 14;3:CD007176.
  2. Jorg Muntwyler, MD, MPH; Charles H. Hennekens, MD, DrPH et al., “Vitamin Supplement Use in a Low-Risk Population of US Male Physicians”; July 8, 2002, Vol 162, No. 13, Arch Intern Med. 2002;162(13):1472-1476.
  3. Fairfield KM, Fletcher RH. “Vitamins for Chronic Disease Prevention in Adults.” JAMA 2002; 287(23):3116-3126
  4. Feher M, Schmidt J. “Property Distributions: Differences between Drugs, Natural Products, and Molecules from Combinatorial Chemistry”. Journal of Chemical Information and Computer Science, 2002;43:218-227
  5. Strombio-de-Castillia C, Blobel G, Rout MP. “Proteins Connecting the Nuclear Pore Complex with the Nuclear Interior.” J Cell Biol, 1999;144(5):839-855
  6. The Globe and Mail, “3 reasons to reconsider vitamin pills,” Alex Hutchinson, updated publishing Feb14, 2013, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/health-and-fitness/fitness/3-reasons-to-reconsider-vitamin-pills/article4103389/
  7. Vinson JA, Bose P. “Comparative Bioavailability to Humans of Ascorbic Acid alone or in a Citrus Extract.” Am J Clin Nutr, 1988;48:601-604 & Vinson JA, Bose P. “Comparative Bioavailability of Synthetic and Natural Vitamin C in Guinea Pigs.” Nutr Reports Intl, 1983;27(4):1-5
  8. Quoted by Dr. Royal Lee, Vitamin News: Part of the Royal Lee Library Series. The International Foundation for Nutrition and Health, 2006, Volume 9, page 237 & Kuts-Cheraux AW. Naturae Medicina and Naturopathic Dispensatory. American Naturopathic Physicians and Surgeons Association, Des Moines, Iowa, 1953, p 365
  9. Lee R. Vitamin News. The International Foundation for Nutrition and Health, 1942
  10. Lee R. Good Food and Good Health: Some Fundamental Facts. Address to the New England Naturopathic Physicians, Waterbury, Connecticut, November 10, 1946
  11. Padyatty SJ, Katz A, Wang Y, et al. “Vitamin C as an Antioxidant: Evaluation of Its Role in Disease Prevention.” J Am Coll Nutr, 2003;22(1):18-35

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