Many people take multivitamins every day because they're trying to be healthy and do the right thing for their bodies. So it's more than a little disconcerting to find out that many of us have actually been slowly poisoning ourselves with lead all these years.
A recent study by ConsumerLab.com found that not only do many brands of multivitamins contain significantly more or less of certain ingredients than claimed, but an alarming percentage are also contaminated with lead — a result that is backed up by an FDA study conducted in 2008.
Those most at risk are fetuses and children under age 6, which is especially scary news for expectant mothers who have been popping prenatal vitamins for the sake of their babies' health. Last fall, the FDA found that almost all of the vitamins it tested contained trace amounts of lead. All brands tested contained what the agency deems "tolerable intake levels," but even small amounts can accumulate over time and result in IQ deficiencies, learning disabilities, behavioral problems, stunted or slowed growth, and impaired hearing.
California is currently the only state that regulates lead in health supplements and by its standards, 15 percent of the vitamins that were tested by the FDA exceed safe levels and should have warning labels.
Of the 300-plus children's vitamins and prenatal vitamins tested for lead, only four were found to be lead-free. Those include TwinLab Infant Care, Natrol Liquid Kid's Companion, NF Formulas Liquid Pediatric and After Baby Boost 2 (for lactating women). No multivitamins for adult women tested negative for lead, but the ones with the lowest concentrations include FemOne, Viactiv Multivitamin Milk Chocolate, Family Value Multivitamin/Multimineral for Woman, and MotherNature.com Women's Basic Multi. See the full list of vitamins tested in the FDA report.
Before you get worked up and throw out every bottle of vitamins in your medicine cabinet, however consider this: It's impossible to live entirely lead-free because lead is present in fruits, vegetables and dairy products thanks to concentrations in soil and water. That's probably the reason why so many supplements contain traces of it. Still, it makes sense to avoid lead exposure whenever possible.
David Schardt, a senior nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit advocacy group in Washington, says there are certain steps you can take to help choose a better multivitamin. He recommends choosing well-known mainstream brands, buying from trusted retailers and looking for a stamp on the bottle from USP, NSF or ConsumerLab.com. While these stamps don't guarantee that a product is safe and effective, they do indicate that the manufacturer submitted the product for testing.
But what about those of us who prefer natural supplements to those mass-produced by large corporations? Nutritionists say most of us can skip taking vitamins altogether, as long as we're eating a variety of healthy foods. Those most in need of supplementation include pregnant and breastfeeding women, women who are trying to conceive and people with cancer, diabetes and nutrient-depleting diseases of the gastrointestinal system.
The best way to ensure that your diet is bursting with easily absorbable, natural vitamins and minerals is to go by color. Try to incorporate as many different colored vegetables, fruits and grains into your meals as you can — blue/purple, green, yellow/orange and red. For example, yellow/orange fruits and veggies like carrots, pumpkin, sweet potatoes and mangoes contain lots of beta carotene and vitamin A, while blue/purple foods like blackberries, purple cabbage and eggplant are packed full of antioxidants and vitamin C.
To get a detailed list of foods that contain the nutrients you need, check out RealAge.com's guide to "Vitamin and Mineral Best Bets."