What is a quality multivitamin supplement?

~ by Karen Lily, BSc Computing and Information Systems (March 2018 – updated June 2019 and February 2020)

Quality in multi-vitamins is an important, diverse and complex subject. I will do my best to explain this issue simply to help people find the best multivitamin brands. So how do we know if we are buying a quality vitamin?

First we need to define what a quality supplement is. Quality is:

  1. Safety
    1. label accuracy
    2. lack of contaminants, e.g. lead, cadmium, pesticides, GMOs
    3. does not exceed upper intake levels
  2. Optimum levels of nutrients for the individual
  3. Correct variety of nutrients for the individual
  4. Ability of nutrients to disintegrate and to be absorbed
  5. Safety of non-active ingredients
  6. Assurance that the nutrients have remained stable during storage, packing and shipping processes

All of the above, except for numbers 2 and 3, can, or are, being monitored by governments to some degree and by private laboratories for some brands. Some people already have a good idea of the optimum level and variety of nutrients they need for their age and health conditions. Otherwise these can be determined by a health professional.

If you have a good idea of the nutrients you want, Vitamin Inspector is a great tool to help you to work out which bottle suits you best.

 

How is supplement quality monitored?

Governments

They carry out:

  • safety recalls
  • random inspections of plant and procedures
  • some product testing
  • risk assessment

Private laboratories

Supplements can receive certifications from private labs. These can include verification of:

  • label accuracy
  • absence of contaminants
  • uniformity between bottles and between batches
  • safety and suitability of levels and variety of nutrients for average people
  • inspection of plant and procedures

In both America and Australia multi-vitamin supplements are regulated for safety by government bodies. These are the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the US, and the Therapeutic Goods Association (TGA) in Australia.

Both the FDA and the TGA set guidelines for Current Good Manufacturing Processes (cGMP) which are formulated to assure end to end quality in manufacturing, testing, record keeping and for dealing with complaints. They have legal authority to deal with manufacturers that violate standards or provide unsafe products.

 

Summary of government regulation

Summary of government regulation of complementary medicine (including multi-vitamins) – USA and Australia

(Tip: scroll horizontally to view full table.)

ProcedureFDA (USA)TGA (Australia)
Conducts inspections of supplement manufacturing plantNot routinely but according to risk assessmentNot routinely but according to risk assessment
Approves new supplements before they go to marketNoYes. The TGA does a risk assessment on complementary medicines. It keeps a register of those that it allows to be supplied in Australia. This indicates that the TGA thinks they pose a low risk of adverse effects when used in accordance with directions.
Conducts inspections of supplement manufacturing plantNot routinely but according to risk assessmentNot routinely but according to risk assessment
Tests productsNot routinely but according to risk assessment, e.g. after complaints and randomlyNot routinely but according to risk assessment, e.g. after complaints and randomly
Requires approval of new dietary ingredientsYesYes
Provides a database of recalled productsYesYes
RecallsCurrent FDA recalls
FDA recalls archive
TGA recalls

Independent private laboratories

Private laboratories that conduct testing on vitamin supplements or manufacturers

As explained above, while the supplement industry is regulated:

  • multi-vitamins are not tested by the government routinely
  • plants and procedures are not routinely inspected for compliance with current Good Manufacturing Processes (cGMP).

This makes it difficult for the consumer to ascertain the quality of multi-vitamins and has given rise to private organisations and laboratories that test multi-vitamins and inspect production facilities. Some are work in conjunction with governments, sharing knowledge and expertise. The following organisations conduct testing on multi-vitamins or auditing of manufacturing processes and facilities for cGMP.

(Tip: scroll horizontally to see full table or view in landscape.)

OrganisationProduct mark(s)Test typeTesting frequency
ConsumerLabConsumer Lab LogoProduct testingEvery 2 or 3 years they select a number of supplements in a category for comparison and testing.
Also, on application by manufacturer with payment of a fee.
LabdoorProduct testingThey test multi-vitamins that are popular in the USA and rank them according to a wide variety of factors.
Also, on application by manufacturer with payment of a fee.
National Sanitation Foundation (NSF)NSF markProduct testing and cGMP certificationOn application by manufacturer with payment of a fee, then randomly and after complaints.
NPA – Natural Products AssociationNPA TrueLabel markProduct testingOn application by manufacturer with payment of a fee, then randomly and after complaints.
As aboveNPA GMP Certified markcGMP certification1As above
Oregon Tilth (OTCO) Organic certificationOregon Tilth certification markIndependent organic certificationOn application and then annually
Underwriters Laboratories (UL)Underwriters Laboratories (UL) logocGMP certification1On application by manufacturer with payment of a fee, and then yearly.
USDA Organic certificationUSDA Organic certification markIndependent organic certificationOn application and then annually
USP – United States PharmacopeiaUSP Verified markProduct testingOn application by manufacturer with payment of a fee, and then yearly.
As aboveUSP AuditedcGMP certification1As above

Which brands are quality certified?

Footnotes

  1. cGMP certification stands for Current Good Manufacturing Process certification. Often abbreviated to GMP.

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