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What's in Your Kid's Vitamins?

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Updated on Jun 19, 2013

If you've got a picky eater, you probably count on vitamin supplements to make up the nutrition difference. But what if those vitamins were doing more harm than good?

In 2008, the FDA began inspecting plants that manufacture kids' vitamins and health supplements. In the last four years, the FDA found violations in half of the plants inspected. Some violations were minor, but at least one in four were serious enough to call for a warning letter. One plant, for example, manufactured protein powder in a factory plagued by rats. Other companies had no master recipe, resulting in inconsistent formulas. In one case, 200 people were poisoned by a liquid multivitamin that contained 40,800 micrograms of selenium, rather than the 200 micrograms indicated on the label.

In spite of these problems, Dr. Gary Kracoff, a pharmacist and naturopathic physician still recommends vitamin supplements. "The problem is that our food chain has been altered so people aren't getting all the nutrients they need from food, even with a healthy diet." He says there are many companies that manufacture high-quality supplements. The trick, he advises, is to "know what you're buying." Read on for advice on picking healthy vitamins and supplements.

  • Read labels. Always scour the ingredient list. "There's a lot of junk on the market, so it's best to take a buyer beware approach," says Kracoff. If you find a lot of ingredients that you don't recognize, the product is chemical-based and full of additives and fillers. Avoid vitamins that contain dyes, sugar or artificial flavors, as well. These ingredients are usually added to mask the off-taste of chemicals, says Kracoff—and in some cases, can cause serious harm.
  • Look for a food-based supplement. The most healthful vitamins are those that come from raw plants and foods, since they contain nutrients in a form that is easily recognized and used by the body. They're also usually free of corn syrup, dyes and harmful additives. Additionally, look for chelated minerals, which are easier for the body to absorb. Another good sign is the words "Meets USP specifications," which means the vitamin breaks down easily in your little one's body.
  • Ask questions. Look online or call the company directly to ask questions about vitamins and supplements targeted at children. What are the conditions in the factory? What is the bioavailability of the vitamin? How digestible are they? How long has the company been in business? While calling the company directly may not guarantee that you'll get a straight answer, a quick Internet search is also a good way to get a sense of the manufacturer's track record.
  • Ask your doctor. If you're unsure about where to go for supplement information, start with your doc. Dr. Greg Stern, D.C., DACCP says your doctor may be a good source of information—if he's knowledgeable about the supplement industry. Not all doctors have an interest in this topic, but it never hurts to ask. Stern says he routinely recommends vitamins to his patients, and he's done the investigative work for every product he recommends.
  • Look for products that undergo independent lab testing. You'll probably pay a bit more for a vitamin that's gone through testing for potency and accuracy, but this is hands-down your best guarantee of a high-quality, safe vitamin supplement. Although independent labs don't inspect manufacturing plants, they give an assurance that the supplement has what the bottle says it has—nothing more, nothing less. Another good sign is a company that conducts independent research and studies on its products, which is more thorough than lab testing. Make sure the company uses an unbiased third-party research company.
  • Pay a little more. Like most things in life, you get what you pay for when it comes to vitamins. Cheap, commercial vitamins contain chemically derived nutrients and binders and additives. In some cases, the potential side effects caused by food dyes and additives cancel out any benefit from the vitamin, says Kracoff.

For most kids, vitamins are part of a daily routine to stay healthy. To get the most out of these health-boosters, store them in a cool, dark place and use them by the expiration date. Give vitamins with a meal, but don't offer them with tea or soda, which can cut their absorbability.

You've got enough to worry about without wondering about the safety of your child's nutritional supplements. Ask questions and do your research to find a company you can trust; you'll sleep easy knowing your child's vitamins are honestly helping him grow up to be as healthy as possible.

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