What the Heck Are All Those Vitamins For? Part One | How to Read Labels | Difference Between Fat Soluble & Water Soluble
by Rachael O'Halloran
Published on November 12, 2014
Part One: The ABC's of Vitamins and Dietary Supplements
Before I get started with this multi-hub series about vitamins and dietary supplements, it is important to know how to interpret label directions, dosages, additives, storing conditions and expiration dates.
Now, don't skip away from this article yet, even if you know all about that part. There just might be something you don't know or simply forgot. Please hang in here with me. :)
Over the last few years, I've compiled the information in this series of articles, adding to update as new information became available. Each will be on their own title in the next few articles and I hope you will consider them a valuable resource and bookmark them for future use.
Choose food first, then teas or juices, then vitamins and dietary supplements
What is a dietary supplement?
A dietary supplement is any product containing one or more dietary ingredients including vitamins, minerals, herbs or other botanicals, amino acids, and other substances, is intended to be taken by mouth as a pill, capsule, tablet, or liquid; and is labeled on the front panel as being a dietary supplement.
Claims on vintage bottles
Reading and Understanding Labels
You don't have to be a doctor or medical provider to be able to read an over-the-counter medicine package, or vitamin, mineral and dietary supplement labels.
But sometimes these big companies sure make you feel like you do.
If you are concerned about your health and routinely take vitamin or food supplements, you probably already know how to not only read the labels, but know what each supplement is for.
However, for the average consumer, that information isn't always on the label because, in most countries, a company is not allowed to make a claim on a label unless they can point to the proven facts in mainstream medical literature.
Examples of Label Wording:
- "Calcium helps maintain strong healthy bones". or, "Calcium supports bone health." Either of these statements would be permitted on a label because they do not say the product will perform a function.
- "Calcium builds strong healthy bones." This would not be permitted because it is making a claim that has not been fully vetted by research. It could actually be legally challenged in court, especially if a consumer "solely" relied on Calcium for their bone health instead of food sources.
See what I mean about learning how to read the labels?
Reading between the lines on many bottles and packages won't get you far if you don't know the basics of dosages, ingredients, drug and food interactions.
By law, a label only has to list the dosage and ingredients. In an age where consumers are sue-happy with lawsuits about claims on product labeling, nowadays most product labels will make very few health claims.
Check labels for dosage
According to this April 2011 report from the Centers For Disease Control, in a study conducted from 2003 to 2006, more than one half of the population in the United States takes vitamins and dietary supplements.
Use of Calcium accounts for 61% of the population, mostly women age 60 and over.
34% of women aged 20–39 used a dietary supplement containing folic acid which is believed to help fight birth defects.
Source: Centers For Disease Control
Certain Medical Conditions
While some supplements can hurt you if you have certain medical conditions, some can become your only "medication" for other medical conditions. Sometimes this can help you to avoid taking an expensive prescription drug, which may come with some unpleasant side effects.
When I am told I need more of a vitamin or mineral, I always look for food source first, then I advance to consider herbal teas, then move on to supplementation, and finally if all else fails, I'll allow a prescription.
If I have to take 15 pills a day, I'd like it much better if more than half of those were supplements and not prescription medications.
Why We Take Supplements
Some people must take vitamin supplements because they have serious nutritional deficiencies. For example, these may come from the effects of chemotherapy treatments or from an inadequate or restrictive diet (examples: low calorie, gluten-free, puree, tube feeding, or fad diets).
Supplementation can also help in a person in their senior years when their diets seem to downsize where they don't get the vitamins they need from food.
Supplementation is also recommended in a young child's formative years especially when he turns his nose up at certain foods.
However, there are certain diseases where vitamin supplements can be dangerous and can actually cause a major health crisis.
Before you click "Submit" on your next internet mail order of vitamin purchases, or before you leave the vitamin store with your purchases in hand, it behooves you to know:
- what the side effects are,
- the storing rules,
- what foods the vitamin is found in,
- the dosage contained in each pill or capsule and
- the interactions with your existing medications and medical conditions
If you are a vegetarian, getting a medical checkup every six months to include blood and urine laboratory studies will help make sure you are getting enough Vitamin B-12, Zinc and Calcium in your diet.
More is not always better
You have probably read a lot of information on the web about nutrition - specifically about vitamin and mineral supplementation. One thing is for sure ... the rules are always changing regarding acceptable dosages, storage conditions, designer products (unique combinations with other supplements), and food and drug interactions.
New products come on the market or others get taken off the market. Warnings are issued to keep the public informed of the changes.
I've used vitamins and supplements all my life for myself and my family. I can't tell you how many prescription pills that doctors have pushed which, after some time using vitamins and supplements, it turned out we didn't need the prescriptions at all.
By investigating how to supplement with foods, and vitamins or minerals, the same or similar result can be achieved.
It may take a tad longer, but it beats the complications that can come with prescription medications, i.e. taking additional medication to act as a booster to the first prescription, taking more medication to combat the original medication's side effects, or possibly being exposed to side effects that can cause another medical problem other than the one you were originally being treated for.
Over-dosing and Under-dosing
If you can get your nutrition from food sources, do it.
But if you take supplements in addition, just watch the dosage you are taking. Use vitamins and supplements responsibly by being informed about over-dosing or under-dosing.
Often when someone doesn't see any great effects in their well-being from taking a vitamin or supplement on a daily basis, they will think they are under-dosing. In turn, they keep upping the dosages without regard to toxicity.
Know the food sources associated with each vitamin and supplement. That way you don't eat too much of a particular food while taking the supplement, which could cause a crisis or make the supplement ineffective.
The chief reason why people to start upping the dose is they are hoping to feel better.
Know the side effects of vitamins and supplements, especially if you take prescription medication
Fat Soluble and Water Soluble Vitamin Chart
Fat Soluble Vitamins
Water Soluble Vitamins (dissolves in fluids)
All the B Vitamins
Thiamine = B-1
Riboflavin = B-2
Niacin = B-3
Pantothenic Acid = B-5
Pyridoxine = B-6
Biotin = B-7
Do you have a crappy diet?
Experts say that you should always try to eat a balanced diet.
But they don't live in your world, with your busy schedule and your health care needs.
Just in case your diet might not be optimal to include all the food groups, or if your diet is high in pre-made (processed or prepared) foods, you might want to include some vitamins and dietary supplements as part of your daily regimen.
Think of it as a cheap insurance policy as compared to the high cost of health care for ailments that arise from a crappy diet.
Calculating Dosages, Buying Needs & Costs
Many labels on the front of vitamin bottles state the product's total dosage is a certain milligram. If the bottle has 100 pills, the consumer - you - may assume there are 100 doses of that product in the bottle.
But in actuality, you have to read the label to see how much ingredient is inside each pill or capsule because you can't make a purchase decision by the information on the front of the label.
For example: the front label of my Rapid Release Formula Glucosamine Chondroitin says there are 120 capsules in the bottle. The listed dosage is: Glucosamine HCI 4500mg and Chondroitin is 5000 mg.
At 120 capsules, the average consumer assumes this would be a supply for four months (30 days ÷ 120 caps = 4 months).
Turn the bottle over to the back label and it gives you a wealth of information, which may include shellfish allergy information, expiration date, whether it is gluten-free and has any other preservatives, additives or starches.
Serving size: 3 capsules for the stated dosage
Servings per bottle: 40.
Taken preferably with a meal.
Expiration date is two years from now.
Contains gelatin, rice flour, silica, vegetable magnesium stearate
Contains shellfish ingredients (crab, shrimp, lobster, or crayfish) - good to know if one has a shellfish allergy
From that list, you can see that each capsule only contains one third of the dose, and you will have to take 3 capsules to get the total dosage stated on front label.
Where you thought you were getting 120 doses, you are really only getting 40 doses. In my world, that is 40 days.
You would have been grossly under-purchasing if you placed a mail order expecting four months of dosages.
Fun Fact: Coke's medicinal claims
Note the expiration date on all bottles
Many supplements are good for up to a year or sometimes two years after expiration - only if stored in ideal conditions. However, others spoil more quickly due to the nature of their composition - pill, capsule, gelcap or liquid.
If you only get to the store occasionally, or if you make a large online purchase only a few times a year, this is important information to know for your bulk buying decisions, for planning safe conditions for storing the order (not everything is ok at room temperature) and expiration dates, especially if your large order will not be consumed before that date.
If you are adding a new order to existing supplies at home, make sure you rotate your old products to the front and move your newly arrived order to the back, so you use the oldest bottles first.
Again, check expiration dates, and move those products with the soonest expiration date to the front.
Cheap doesn't mean it's bad; but expensive doesn't mean it's the top of the line either
Health Products at The Dollar Store
Do you think that vitamins and supplements sold in The Dollar Store would be considered inferior?
Guess again. Sometimes The Dollar Store sells a darn good product and you hit a good deal. They buy odd lots and leftovers from auctions and bulk distributors.
Sometimes you will see a brand name and sometimes it will be a name you don't recognize. You have to read the labels to see how much ingredients are in each capsule or tablet, and how many are in the bottle.
Just because The Dollar Store sells a vitamin/supplement product for a dollar doesn't mean it isn't any good.
People go to The Dollar Store for bargains and sometimes there is a real bargain to be found in the vitamin and supplement section.
Buying the most expensive product doesn't mean it is the best product
In order to develop your preferences, it is best to order from a few suppliers to see which company's product suits you.
About 10 years ago, a friend suggested I put an order in at Puritan's Pride, a mail order vitamin and supplement company. Up until then, I was making due with Sam's Club, BJ's Warehouse, and The Vitamin Shoppe. I placed one order with Puritan's Pride and I was won over. Their quality is good, customer service for returns is excellent and their prices are beyond compare, especially when they run sales promotions of buy 2, get 3 free.
Buying in bulk sizes at the warehouse companies is cost effective, but one has to really read the labels to make sure what you are buying is comparable to what you are accustomed to getting.
In a pinch, I used to buy at Walmart, Walgreen's, CVS and others and I found all of them to be more expensive for less quantity product in the bottles and some with expiration dates that were sooner rather than later. Unless my supplies are totally depleted, I stick to the mail order house and Sam's Club.
It is all up to your preferences, but just know buying a cheap product isn't always a bargain and buying an expensive product doesn't always mean you are getting the best product.
Mail order or retail stores?
Do you buy your vitamins and supplements by mail order or at retail stores?
The Heavy Toll of Diet-Related Chronic Diseases
Fat Soluble Vitamins - Vitamins A, D, E, and K.
- The foods containing fat soluble vitamins will not lose their potency if they are cooked.
- You don't need to keep replenishing fat soluble vitamins because once you take them, they are stored in your liver and fat tissues of the body until they are tapped for use.
- Only very small amounts of fat soluble vitamins are needed each day. But this does not hold true for those who are using these vitamins to combat side effects of invasive medical treatments, or involved in risky behavior where these vitamins would be leeched from the body.
- All vitamins and supplements use a different unit of measure. International Units (IU) is not the same as micrograms (mcg) or milligrams (mg).
- Some people can develop a deficiency in a certain vitamin (Vitamin D, for example). If this pertains to you, you should be treated by medical professionals who will keep track of your levels with blood tests. Often they will treat patients with mega-doses to bring their blood test results in line with what is considered normal range.
In conclusion, fat soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K are only needed in small amounts because they stay in the body for longer periods of time. In other words, you don't "piss them out." Since they are stored, that means they are a bigger risk for toxicity than the water soluble vitamins.
The US Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services must review, update, and publish new guidelines every 5 years. The guidelines in my articles are derived from the latest publication in 2010. The next US government review is scheduled for 2015.
Water Soluble Vitamins
- Water soluble vitamins (B-complex vitamins and vitamin C) are not stored in the liver or fat tissues and must be replaced each day. Ideally this should be with foods. If foods are not readily available, dietary supplements should be considered.
- You can destroy the vitamins in foods by preparation processes, cooking, and storage techniques.
- Water soluble vitamins have co-enzymes which help your body get energy from food.
- All of the B vitamins are necessary for good vision, nervous system, forming red blood cells and for healthy skin.
- Examples of foods high in B complex vitamins: meat, poultry, fresh vegetables, milk, eggs, fish, fruits, vegetables, bread, cereals.
- Examples of foods high in Vitamin C: many fruits and vegetables, especially citrus.
- B-12 is not present in plant foods so vegetarians needs to add this supplement.
- Folic Acid should be added as a supplement during pregnancy to avoid birth defects.
- Alcoholics and smokers should add more Vitamin C to their diets, either through foods or supplements. Anyone exposed to second hand smoke should also supplement with Vitamin C.
- Water soluble vitamins help the body TODAY and whatever the body doesn't need comes out with urine.
Water soluble means they dissolve in water.
Converter - micrograms to milligrams - if your label is in micrograms and all others are milligrams, here is a handy converter to know how much product you need to buy.
Sample Menu for 2000 calories per day - This 7-day menu gives an example of how you can get all of the recommendations from food groups into one weekly menu. This menu provides the recommended amounts of key nutrients and foods from each food group, featuring a large number of different foods to inspire ideas for adding variety to food choices.
Please Do Not Copy
© Rachael O'Halloran, November 2014
© 2014 Rachael O'Halloran