02/01/2011 12:28 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Multivitamins: What to Look for When Choosing One

Our choices for vitamins can be found readily in such places as the local drugstore, doctors' offices, the internet, and premier health food outlets; a sea of choices that the average person can get lost in, just wondering and deciding what's best. Some consumers just don't give it a thought, and dive right in. But are there any differences, especially between the low cost supplement choices and the expensive?

One large difference in some supplements is the fact that the pricey ones are derived from whole food sources, while cheaper pills can be from lab created chemicals. Those manufactured from whole foods will definitely let you know right up front on the label because they are proud to be of high quality, and the list of ingredients will indicate the names of foods they are derived from. The unsuspecting consumer who does not know how to do his homework, does not realize that the multivitamin they are purchasing may be an inferior product.

NOTE: Any clear benefit from multivitamins remains uncertain. They should be taken as supplements, not substitutes for healthful eating.

If you do choose to take a supplement, here are the major things to look for and avoid. These can easily be discovered by looking at the typical labeling of ingredients on the bottle:

1. Oxide. If you find the word "oxide" anywhere within the ingredients, avoid this product. The oxide form of any nutritional supplement is the cheapest source of that mineral, usually as magnesium, zinc and/or copper. Most inexpensive supplements will include oxides to save on expense, unfortunate for we consumers; it's not doing our body good. There are several other forms of minerals used, such as citrate and glycinate, that are much better utilized in the body.

Oxide salts break apart in metabolism and the oxide requires an antioxidant to neutralize it. Why spend the body's precious antioxidants neutralizing a low quality mineral supplement? Dr. Mark Hyman, Chairman of the Institute for Functional Medicine, reports they are poorly absorbed. Inorganic minerals such as oxides tested were found to consume more than four times the amount of oxygen than in the natural or organic forms.

2. Cyanocobalamin (B12). Another cheaper form of a vitamin, and most commonly used, is cyanocobalamin used for vitamin B12. It is synthetically produced, and does not normally occur in plants or animal tissues. The prefix "cyan" refers to its relationship to the cyanide molecule. Its small amount is of course not much to worry about, however the body still sees it as a threat and takes measures to eliminate it. The detoxification removal process used for this expends useful antioxidants that could be working elsewhere. Also, there is the process of converting cyanocobalamin to methylcobalamin that the body undertakes, thus using up more energy and enzymes. Methylcobalamin form of B12 is better absorbed. Cyanocobalamin is less expensive.

3. Vitamin E ingredient of dl-alpha tocopherol. Two common forms of vitamin E in supplements are "d-alpha tocopherol" and "dl-alpha tocopherol". The "d" form of the chemical structure is what is found in foods and is what the body knows how to absorb. The "dl" indicates it is synthetically manufactured, a petroleum by-product not easily utilized by our bodies. And again, less expensive. According to his website, Dr. Andrew Weil advocates avoiding the synthetic dl-alpha supplements and opting for the whole food Vitamin E. The chemical-based ingredients are more difficult to absorb, create more work by the body to synthesize, and benefit the body much less than the natural forms.

4. B Vitamins, Less than 10 mg. The B Complex vitamins are an important part of the synergy of the multi-vitamin, and each B vitamin is important to the synergy of the B Complex grouping. It's a red flag if the B vitamins are at such low levels that they are insignificant and unhelpful to the human system in creating a strong basis for protection.

It's true that the bare minimum amounts, the minimum daily requirements (MDR) established by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, will keep you from getting certain diseases that were prevalent in the past centuries when there were no multivitamins available, such as beriberi caused by B1 deficiency, and birth defects caused by folic acid deficiency; however, now more than ever in a time of processed foods and deficient soils used for growing grains, fruits and vegetables, and the acceleration of arterial disease, the needs for a higher dose of the B complex vitamins are warranted. Refined grains of today have been stripped of the bran and germ that possess a high value of the B vitamins.

A supplement that contains less than 10 mg. each of some of the B vitamins (30 mcg. accordingly of others, and especially 400 mcg. of folic acid), is insufficient for the optimum health of the consumers in times of diets lacking in whole grains and other nutrient-filled foods. Some supplements do not even include all of the B Complex vitamins, which are thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), pyridoxine (B6), biotin, folic acid, and cobalamins (B12).

Among the many functions to which B vitamins are essential, they are meant to clear the homocysteine levels in the body, and high homocysteine has been indicated as a precurser for heart disease. It's thought that the lack of B vitamins in our diet today may be one reason why there is so much heart disease in our country.

These are simple things to look for in buying a beneficial multivitamin. At the sight of one of these red flags, put it back on the shelf. Simply speaking, why put these synthetic nutrients and deficient quantities in our fine-tuned systems? The price may be less, but the benefit is lacking, if not jeopardized.

Once again, you get what you pay for.