The government knows it, and the supplement industry knows it. But those who use vitamins every day probably don’t know that the label on every multivitamin and most other vitamin and mineral supplements – such as vitamin D, calcium, and B complexes -- is wrong and misleading.
Last July, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) updated decades-old Daily Values (DVs) which are meant to tell you how much of the daily requirement of specific nutrients is provided by a food or supplement. Some of these changes were minor and some were major. Daily Values were raised for eight nutrients and lowered for twelve. A summary of these changes was published at the time by ConsumerLab.com (of which I am President).
Updating the DVs was a good idea. The problem is that they are not yet on labels. Large supplement companies were given two years -- until July 2018 -- to change their labels to reflect these new DVs, and smaller firms were given three years. That’s a long time to wait to get correct information. And things just got worse: Two days ago, the FDA quietly added a note to its website indicating that the implementation is being delayed in a “... desire to give industry more time and decrease costs, balanced with the importance of minimizing the transition period during which consumers will see both the old and the new versions of the label in the marketplace.” Now we don’t know when labels will be corrected.
The delay is actually driven largely by requests by the food industry, which asked to extend the deadline as 2021 because the new supplement labeling is part of broader revisions to food labels which include the disclosure of amounts of added sugar in products. Before his appointment, the new FDA Commissioner, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, indicated his willingness to extend the deadline.
It may be a very long time before you’re able to rely on the label to tell you if you’re taking too much or too little of a vitamin or mineral, so it’s time to make sure you understand your requirements and what’s really being promised by products (let alone whether they actually contain these amounts – an issue ConsumerLab has been tackling through independent testing since 1999). To help you, be aware that you can quickly check the new DVs, as well as the RDAs, at www.ConsumerLab.com/RDAs. In addition, ConsumerLab.com has calculated the correct new Daily Values for many popular Multivitamins and B Vitamins in its reports on those supplements, pointing out those which exceed upper tolerable intake levels.
You should also pay particular attention to the amounts of vitamin D and folate in supplements, as current labels are way out-of-whack in providing proper guidance.
Too little vitamin D:
Previously, the DV for vitamin D was set at 400 International Units (IU) for everyone. The new DV (which you won’t see on labels) is twice that: 800 IU. Bear in mind that the DVs are a one-size-fits-all system based on the highest Recommended Daily Allowances (or “RDAs,” which are set by the independent Institute of Medicine) across a population. For example, the RDA for vitamin D is 400 IU during infancy, 600 IU to age 70, and 800 IU over age 70. So if your vitamin claims to provide 100% of the DV for vitamin D, for anyone other than infants it actually provides only 50% to 67% of the daily requirement. (Keep in mind that many people who are not deficient in vitamin D already take too much, such as 5,000 IU daily, and this may reverse the benefits of vitamin D, as noted in my HuffPost post “Don’t Fall for Vitamin D”.
Too much folate:
One of the major changes and improvements in the Daily Values relates to folate: a B vitamin found in green leafy vegetables, such as spinach. Folate plays a critical role in cell division, and adequate intake can reduce the risk of heart disease and of developing certain cancers. However, most supplements provide folate in the form of the synthetic compound folic acid – and getting too much folic acid can have negative effects.
While the old DVs counted folic acid as equivalent to folate, the new DVs recognize that folic acid is absorbed better than folate and actually counts 70% more. As a result, a supplement which provides 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid and currently shows this as “100% DV” would, more accurately under the new DVs, show this same amount of folic acid as “680 mcg” of dietary folate equivalents and “170%” of the DV. This becomes particularly important with supplements that contain higher amounts of folic acid, many of which (including most prenatal supplements) provide 800 mcg of folic acid. There is no good reason for such a high amount and, according to the new DVs, this is actually 1,360 mcg of folate – 360 mcg above the upper tolerable limit of 1,000 mcg per day. On top of this, manufacturers often add extra folic acid to be sure you’re getting the full amount listed on the label until the expiration date. With the current labels, what you think is helping you may be hurting you.
Once companies are required to apply the new DVs in their labels, they will likely reduce the amounts of folic acid in supplements. That will be good for the consumer, as most of us already get close to the daily requirement of folate from our diets) without causing harm. (Note: Pregnant women and those of child-bearing age should still look to get 400 mcg of folic acid from a supplement each day, in addition to getting folate from their diets, as this may reduce the risk of birth defects).
Supplements have commonly been considered “buyer beware” products. The new DVs represent an opportunity to reduce this caution. By dragging its feet on getting the new DVs on labels, the FDA is endangering the consumer and further tarnishing the reputation of the supplement industry. That’s not good for anyone.