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Most vitamin D pills measure up, our tests find

But prices can vary a lot, so choose by cost and pill type

Consumer Reports magazine: May 2013

Our latest tests yield some good news for the many people who take a daily vitamin D pill, or one that combines calcium and vitamin D: All of the 32 products met or exceeded their claimed levels of the vitamin, disintegrated or dissolved properly where applicable, and were well below the safe upper limit set by the Institute of Medicine.

But we found levels of lead in nine of 12 supplements that combine vitamin D with calcium that would have triggered warnings for reproductive risk under California Proposition 65. However, a number of companies had reached a settlement with the California Attorney General's office that allows them latitude in how they count lead levels and in these cases the products do not have to have warnings. Still, Consumer Reports continues to believe that it is better to choose products with lower lead levels. (This information has changed from the originally published version. See below for a clarification.) Click here for a chart that shows average lead levels in supplements we tested.

We also found that costs can vary widely, as shown in the Ratings chart. So choose by price and preference of pill type, and consider whether you want a product that also contains calcium.

Finally, it's not clear that everyone who takes vitamin D needs the pills. People who get enough midday sun in warmer months probably don’t need extra amounts, since the body makes from exposure to sunlight. But you might need vitamin D if you have osteoporosis or a condition such as celiac disease that impairs the body’s ability to absorb fat-soluble vitamins, including D. For details, see our article "Do You Really Need More Vitamin D?"

For our tests, at least three samples of each product were analyzed for their level of vitamin D3 (the form of the vitamin most were claimed to contain) and, in the case of the combined products, their level of calcium. The supplements with calcium were also tested for the presence of arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury.

Average vitamin D3 levels ranged from 105 percent to 141 percent of the labeled amount in the adult and children’s vitamin D-only products (1,000 international units, or IU, and 400 IU, respectively). But even the higher levels were well below the Institute of Medicine’s maximum safe daily level of 4,000 IU.

Most adults up to age 70 need no more than about 600 IU of vitamin D a day; older people, 800 IU. Avoid exceeding 4,000 IU daily unless your doctor has prescribed a higher dose to treat a deficiency. Too much vitamin D can cause kidney damage. Other symptoms of toxic amounts of D include confusion, nausea, and weakness.

Did you know?

Few foods naturally contain vitamin D. Fatty fish and cod-liver oil have the highest levels. Smaller amounts are available in beef liver, cheese, and egg yolks. Most of the vitamin D consumed in the U.S. diet comes from fortified foods, such as milk.


Calcium-Vitamin D Supplements: Average Total Lead Levels in Samples Tested*

Product

(Listed in order of lowest to highest per maximum daily dose)

Pill type Label recommended maximum dose (pills/day) Total analyzed micrograms of lead per labeled maximum daily dose
Sundown Liquid-Filled Calcium softgel 2 0.22
Nature's Bounty Calcium 1200mg softgel 2 0.24
Oscal Chewable D3 chewable tablet 2 0.49
Caltrate 600 + D tablet 2 0.58
Citracal Petites Calcium Citrate + D3 tablet 2-4 0.77
Schiff Super Calcium softgel 2 0.77
Oscal Calcium Supplement Extra D3 caplet 2 0.82
Citracal Maximum tablet 2-4 0.93
CVS Calcium 600 + D tablet 1-2 1.14
Walgreens Calcium 600 + D tablet 2 1.56
Equate Calcium Citrate + D (Walmart) caplet 2-4 1.62
Kirkland Signature Calcium 600mg + D3 (Costco) tablet 2-3 1.74
*At least one sample from each of three batches (lots).
Clarification: April 11, 2013—A previous version of this article reported that nine supplements with Vitamin D and calcium exceeded California’s Proposition 65 limits on lead for reproductive risk in our tests. Proposition 65 does not prohibit the sale of such products but typically requires a label warning that the product contains a chemical known to cause birth defects or other reproductive harm. The nine products had no warning labels. We have since learned that a settlement with the state Attorney General permits those companies latitude in how they calculate lead levels that could otherwise trigger such warnings, and thus no labels are required. The accompanying chart has been updated as well.
   

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