Shopping for a multivitamin has crossed the line from being confusing to becoming mind-bending. On a recent visit to a CVS store in the New York City area, our reporter counted no fewer than 50 adult multivitamin/multimineral supplements (multivitamins, for short). One A Day is available in 15 formulations for everyone from teenage boys to women watching their "metabolism”; its competitor Centrum comes in nine versions.
If you think you can avoid the confusion by heading straight for the "silver" products marketed to seniors, think again: About a third of the CVS offerings targeted people in the 50-plus range, with formulations for men, women, and menopausal women, as well as the standard unisex formulas. And here's a news flash: You may not even need them.
With all the choices, it's no wonder half of multivitamin users in a new, nationally representative Consumer Reports telephone survey expressed some doubt that they were taking the right product for their needs. Our survey, which included 2,002 adults and took place in April 2010, uncovered some other concerns, too: Fifty-six percent of respondents who took a multivitamin worried that it contained harmful ingredients, for example, and 47 percent expressed concern that their multivitamin didn't contain the levels of nutrients listed on the bottle.
Our tests of 21 multivitamins at two outside labs—including leading brands, five for seniors, and six for children—will allay some of those fears. All but one of the products we tested met their label claims for key essential vitamins and minerals, and none contained worrisome levels of contaminants such as arsenic or heavy metals. Most of the pills we tested also passed the U.S. Pharmacopeia's dissolution test, which involves immersing them in a simulated stomach-acid solution to determine whether they'll dissolve properly in your body. (The USP is an independent standards-setting authority for the drug and dietary supplement industries.)
What's more, we found that store brands did just as well in our tests as national brands, at a lower price. The biggest winner: Costco's Kirkland Signature, whose regular, "mature," and children's multis cost a nickel or less a day.
But many people taking the pills don't need to. Despite their popularity—Americans spent almost $4.7 billion on multivitamins in 2008, up from $3.7 billion in 2003—there's virtually no evidence that they improve the average person's health.