To supplement or not to supplement – that is the question. Dietary supplements are a huge industry, but do vitamin and mineral tablets actually do us any good?
Most doctors and nutritionists agree that the ideal is to get your vitamin and minerals from the food you eat, but in the modern world that is easier said than done.
The processed foods that are so convenient for many people in today’s fast-paced lifestyle have lost many nutrients, often to be replaced with harmful fats and sugars.
Healthy eating is not always as easy as we would hope; brands are constantly doing their best to surround us with processed options that few of us have the ability or willpower to resist 100% of the time.
Even for those of us who do our best to eat a healthy diet with lots of fruit and vegetables, reports of mineral-depleted soils are definitely concerning, as this means that the nutrient density in our diet may be taken out of our control.
If we’re not lucky enough to be able to buy our food fresh from a local farmer’s market, our food could have less vitamins and minerals than it should since fruit and vegetables lose nutrients during storage.
Vitamin supplements can help to reduce the risk of deficiencies, and may cause subtle changes in the quality of your skin, hair, stamina and overall energy levels.
Not all vitamin supplements are created equal, however.
There are several different types on the market; many use cheaper synthetic chemicals, while more expensive options contain extracts from whole plant (or animal) sources.
Best Natural Multivitamins in the UK
Here are some of the best natural, organic and whole food multivitamins available in the UK right now.
Best Natural Multivitamin for Women – NATURELO Whole Food Multivitamin for Women
The Naturelo Whole Food Multivitamin for Women is a great multivitamin for women.
The women’s formula is almost identical to their multivitamin for men, described below.
The ingredients appear to be the same, with the one difference that the women’s version comes in two varieties: one iron-free and one with additional iron.
Women often suffer from iron deficiency (anaemia), due to the monthly loss of blood during menstruation, which is likely the reason Naturelo decided to offer an iron-enhanced women’s supplement.
Like the men’s multivitamin, this one is free from gluten, soy, animal products, yeast, caffeine, corn and peanuts.
There are no GMOs, additives or fillers. According to the company, many of their ingredients are organic, although again there is no independent certification provided. It is suitable for vegans and the capsules are made of plant cellulose.
Established in 2013, Naturelo is a relatively new company; their products are formulated in Canada and manufactured in the U.S.A.
Best Natural Multivitamin for Men – NATURELO Whole Food Multivitamin for Men
Naturelo are known for providing high-quality supplements made from whole food ingredients.
Their Multivitamin for Men is a great example of a formula that takes the best of nature and squeezes it into a nutrient-dense capsule.
This is a relatively complex formula that contains dozens of ingredients, but a few key ones include acerola cherries for vitamin C, beetroot, blackcurrant, and digestive enzymes.
All in all, the capsules should contain vitamins A, B, C, D, E and K from natural sources, not synthetic ones.
Like all of Naturelo’s products, this one is not exactly cheap.
The company aims to sell a superior quality product, without the use of synthetic chemicals and cheap fillers that we find in many nutritional products these days.
This means that inferior ingredients are swapped out for high-quality ones, which are often more expensive.
For example, calcium found in supplements is often made from crushed limestone, which studies suggest actually contribute to heart disease; instead Naturelo source a plant-based calcium from ocean algae.
Whether such substitutes are worth the price is your decision; many nutritionists and chemists do claim that a vitamin is just a vitamin, regardless of the source the compound originally comes from.
Best General Natural Multivitamin – Pure Essentials Advanced Multivitamin and Minerals
The Pure Essentials Advanced Multivitamin and Minerals supplement is designed to provide a near-complete nutritional profile, while staying affordable. It’s a good all-round multivitamin for men and women.
This supplement comes in tablet form, containing 22 pharmaceutical-grade vitamins and minerals.
We often hear that the only result of taking a multivitamin supplement is “expensive urine,” meaning that the body cannot process large doses of vitamins taken all at once, so that many of the nutrients are excreted before they can be used by the body.
The Pure Essential range has addressed this issue by designing each pill as a half-dose that is intended to be taken once in the morning and once in the evening.
These slow-release pills allow vitamins to trickle slowly into the bloodstream, rather than overwhelming the body with a sudden flood of compounds.
Each pill contains 50% of your recommended dietary intake of each nutrient, allowing you to choose your own degree of supplementation, whether that is once or twice per day.
This tablet is not sourced from whole foods, and includes a range of synthetically produced vitamins and minerals.
Igennus, the UK-based company that created the Pure Essentials line, is unusually transparent about the chemical vitamin forms used in their supplements and they do a good job of informing the customer about what they are buying.
A few questionable ingredients are also included however, including the bulking agent magnesium stearate.
This supplement is suitable for vegetarians, adults and children, although due to its vitamin A content, shouldn’t be used by pregnant or breastfeeding women.
Vitamin A is generally beneficial to health, but is not excreted in the urine and can build up to toxic levels that pose a risk of birth defects in foetuses. It is also suitable for Kosher and Halal diets, and is free from dairy, gluten, lactose, salt, soy, yeast and GMOs.
What Are Natural or Whole Food Vitamins?
Whole food supplements are made from real food which has been concentrated and dehydrated.
The process for making natural or whole food vitamin supplements is quite different to that of synthetic vitamin supplements, which are made artificially.
If your vitamin supplement packaging lists the food sources or says it’s 100% plant or animal based, this means it’s a natural or whole food supplement.
Natural vitamins are often organic, meaning that they come from organically grown plants.
The vast majority of supplements on the market are synthetic.
This is because they’re much cheaper to produce, and therefore much more affordable.
Are Natural Multivitamins Worth It?
The body isn’t very good at absorbing vitamins in isolation—you need a complex mix of minerals and enzymes to get the full benefits from consuming vitamins.
When you eat natural food, you get these minerals and enzymes as well as the vitamins, which helps with absorption. However, these additional compounds are missing when you consume synthetic supplements.
Natural and whole food supplements may be absorbed better by the body, though unfortunately there hasn’t been enough research comparing their efficacy against that of synthetic supplements to know for sure.
Scientific knowledge of nutrition is far from complete, and synthetic vitamin pills are likely to be missing many of the micronutrients and synergistic properties that we get from whole food, but don’t yet fully understand.
Are Synthetic Vitamin Supplements Harmful?
The evidence on vitamin supplements in general is mixed, with some studies showing they improve overall health and others suggesting they can even be harmful.
When buying a synthetic supplement, it’s always important to check the ingredients list, as many cheaper options also contain fillers, artificial flavours and potentially dangerous ingredients.
Tablets are especially likely to contain extra binders in order to keep a pill shape, so capsules can be a better option, although vegans and vegetarians should check that the capsule itself is not made from gelatine.
Some potentially harmful ingredients to look for in supplements include:
- Magnesium silicate/talc: A common ingredients with many industrial and cosmetic applications, talc is used as an anti-caking agent.
It can cause respiratory problems when breathed in, but the jury is still out on whether ingestion has any harmful effects.
It has been suggested that consuming talc in food can cause cancer, however this is unproven.
- Titanium dioxide: Another substance known to create respiratory problems when inhaled, titanium dioxide is often found in cosmetics and sunscreens as well as paints, due to its white pigment.
The effect of ingesting it is not fully understood, however some animal studies have pointed to a link between the substance and damage in the intestines and kidneys.
- Magnesium stearate: This ingredient is used in the majority of supplements and doesn’t add any nutritional benefit to the product itself, but rather helps in the manufacturing process by preventing the other ingredients from sticking to the machinery.
It is a highly controversial ingredient right now that most experts claim is safe, while others aren’t so convinced.
Regardless, it does not provide any nutritional value and may be contaminated by pesticides and GMOs.
- Hydrogenated oils: Once considered a healthier alternative to saturated fats, in fact hydrogenated oils contain trans fats, which are extremely harmful to our health, and are a major contributor to heart disease.
Moreover, hydrogenated fats often come from cheap soybean oil or corn oil, which are virtually guaranteed to be genetically modified, unless otherwise labelled.
- Lactose: Vegans and anyone with a lactose intolerance should be extra careful when choosing a supplement as even dairy-free products can contain lactose in an isolated form.
Unlike medical pharmaceuticals, supplements are not a heavily regulated product, so many of the ingredients used have undergone little testing.
It’s always best to make an informed choice about what you’re putting into your body, especially with something like multivitamins that you take for the specific purpose of improving your health.
Should You Take a Multivitamin?
Multivitamins are quite a controversial topic. Some people say they are a waste of money or even harmful, whereas others swear by them as an insurance policy against nutrient deficiencies.
A highly publicised editorial published in Annals of Internal Medicine in 2013 concluded that “no clear evidence of a beneficial effect of supplements on all-cause mortality, cardiovascular disease, or cancer”.
However, there are some problems with this editorial’s methodology, which are outlined in the video below:
Another highly publicised review and meta-analysis published in 2018 looked in particular at cardiovascular problems including coronary heart disease and stroke, and concluded that “supplementation does not improve cardiovascular outcomes in the general population”.
Most studies on the health effects of multivitamin supplements only look at particular health outcomes rather than overall health, so it’s hard to know if the net effect of taking a multivitamin is positive.
We’re not aware of any evidence to suggest that taking a multivitamin is harmful, though getting too much of any one vitamin or mineral can be dangerous.
Many vitamins and minerals can be easily obtained from food, but the following are frequently recommended by health professionals:
- Vitamin D – Many of us in the UK don’t get enough of this vital vitamin.
- Zinc – Can help you get over a cold (source).
- Folic acid – Good for pregnant women and those trying to get pregnant as it helps prevent birth defects (source).
Unsurprisingly given the UK’s northern latitude, frequent cloudy and wet weather and the fact that most of us spend a lot of time indoors, low levels of vitamin D are quite common in the UK.
At the time of writing, the NHS advises everyone to consider taking a vitamin D supplement during the winter.
The NHS advise vitamin D supplementation throughout the year for:
- Breastfed babies up to 1 year of age (not formula-fed babies as infant formula is fortified with vitamin D)
- Children aged 1-4 years old
Other groups who may want to consider taking a vitamin D supplement year-round include:
- People who are housebound, in a care home or get very little sunlight
- Those who cover their skin when going outside
- Those with dark skin
One good natural vitamin D supplement is NATURELO’s Vitamin D From Organic Lichen.
Most Common Micronutrient Deficiencies in the UK
A few different surveys and studies have looked at the most common vitamin and mineral deficiencies are in the UK.
One study published in 2018 in Frontiers in Nutrition found that the highest rates of potential deficiency in UK adults aged 20-59 were for the following micronutrients:
- Selenium (25.8% of men, 50.3% of women)
- Potassium (10.0% of men, 24.3% of women)
- Magnesium (14.2% of men, and 11.5% of women)
- Iron (25.3% of women)
Rate of potential deficiencies were highest in the 20-29 age group. Some newspapers suggested this could be due to “faddy diets”, but it could also be because people in this age range who are at university or are living on their own for the first time are likely to have worse eating habits.
People in the 40-49 age range were most likely to have a selenium deficiency (41% of participants in this age group were potentially deficient in selenium).
Selenium isn’t a very well-known micronutrient compared to things like vitamin C. However, it’s an ‘essential’ nutrient, which means that your body can’t make it itself, so you have to get it you’re your diet or supplements.
Good dietary sources of selenium include brazil nuts, halibut, yellowfin tuna, oysters, sunflower seeds, shiitake mushrooms, chicken, eggs and sardines.
Lots of the most common sources of selenium are animal products, so if you’re a vegan you’ll want to stock up on brazil nuts and sunflower seeds.
Another source of data on nutrient deficiencies in the UK is the National Diet and Nutrition Survey published by the government in 2011.
This survey found that:
- Women and older girls were at particular risk of iron-deficiency anaemia and low iron stores. Iron deficiency is more common in women due to blood loss during menstruation.
- Low vitamin D was found in many adults and older children.
- Lots of older children and adults had low vitamin B2 (riboflavin) levels.
- Vitamin C, B6, B12, thiamin, retinol and vitamin E levels were generally high enough.
The Declining Nutritional Value of Our Food
Although we have better access to food than ever before, in some ways we’re malnourished compared to our ancestors due to the declining nutritional value of our food.
Our food is declining in nutritional value as farming practices become more industrialised and a higher percentage of the food we consume is processed.
Our diets are also less varied than those of our distant ancestors (pre-agriculture), who would have consumed a much wider variety of fruits, vegetables and roots throughout the year, as well as nutrient-rich animal foods such as organ meats.
Is Our Soil Depleted of Minerals?
Several studies show a reduction in the mineral content of common fruits and vegetables over time, suggesting that the soil in which our food is grown is less mineral rich than it once was.
One study published in 2004 looked at the change in nutrient content in 43 garden crops grown in the USA between 1950 and 1999. It found statistically reliable declines in the content of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin and ascorbic acid. The biggest reduction was in riboflavin.
The good news is that this study didn’t find statistically reliable declines in any of the other nutrients measured.
One reason for the decline in nutrient content is that intensive farming practices don’t allow the soil to recover.
Another factor is that fruit and vegetables are bred for size and speed of growth rather than nutritional content.
Fruits and vegetables are sold by weight rather than how nutritional they are, so there’s no incentive for farmers to focus on keeping them nutrient rich.
Does Food Lose Nutritional Value Over Time?
Yes, fruit and vegetables start to lose nutrients as soon as they are picked.
However, some storage and preservation methods can minimise this. Frozen and canned foods are processed as soon as they are harvested, which locks in most of the nutrients.
A surprising fact is that canned vegetables can actually have a higher nutrient content than their fresh counterparts. This is because ‘fresh’ food in the supermarket usually isn’t that fresh—it’s normally been exposed to the air for at least 24 hours, whereas canned veg is sealed right after being picked.
Storing fruit and veg in the fridge will slow down the rate of nutrient loss. Freezing is an even better way to lock in the nutrients than storing food in the fridge, despite the common fear that freezing will destroy nutrients.
Organ Meats and Gelatine – The Missing Elements of the Modern Diet?
Organ meats and gelatine are two things that traditional diets were rich in but which are generally absent in the modern diet.
Obviously if you’re a vegetarian or vegan organ meats and gelatine are off limits, but if you’re a meat eater they could be good for your health.
While these days we turn our noses up at organ meats such as liver and kidney, these parts of the animal are actually much more nutrient rich than more popular fleshy parts of the animal.
Liver is regarded by many as the most nutrient-dense food on earth, containing massive amounts of vitamin B12, vitamin A, riboflavin (B2), folate (B9) and iron.
Katie Wells at Wellness Mama describes organ meats as “nature’s multivitamins”.
While the taste can take some getting used to, adding liver to your diet could be a great way to boost your vitamin and nutrient intake.
Gelatine (also spelt gelatin) is produced by boiling animal bones, cartilage and skin. Meat stews and soups used to be staples in most diets, so our ancestors would have consumed plenty of gelatine.
You might not expect the gelatine used to make jelly and sweets to be healthy, but it is.
Gelatine is almost 100% protein and has very similar health benefits to collagen. It’s good for healthy skin, bone and joint health and gut health—read Healthline’s overview of the benefits here.
Gelatine is very easy to add to your diet. Just buy it in sachet form from the baking section of your local supermarket and add it to sauces or sprinkle it on food.
How to Get More Vitamins in Your Diet
The best way to get vitamins is through your diet. If you know you’re lacking in a particular vitamin, take a look at the list of great natural sources of vitamins.
Vitamin A – Sweet potatoes are one of the best sources of vitamin A. Other foods high in this vitamin include carrots, spinach, fish, eggs, milk, kale and beef liver.
Vitamin B6 – One of the best sources is chickpeas. Other good sources include meat, poultry and fish.
Vitamin B12 – Clams are the best source of vitamin B12. Tuna, salmon, trout and beef liver are other good sources. One good vegan source of B12 is Marmite.
Vitamin C – Sweet red peppers are one of the best sources of vitamin C. Kiwi fruit, orange juice, broccoli, tomatoes and spinach are also good sources.
Vitamin D – Getting plenty of sunlight (without burning yourself) is a good natural way to up your vitamin D levels. Oily fish such as sardines and mackerel are the best dietary sources.
Vitamin E – Sunflower seeds and almonds are good ways to add this antioxidant to your diet.
Folate – Look for dark leafy vegetables such as spinach to increase your folate levels. Beef liver is another good source of this B vitamin.
Vitamin K – Kale, spinach and turnip are all good sources of vitamin K.
Niacin – Peanuts and peanut butter are good sources of niacin, as are beef and chicken liver.
Riboflavin – Riboflavin is added to fortified breakfast cereals such as bran flakes. Beef liver is a more natural source.
Thiamine (B1) – Pine nuts, dried yeast and soybeans are all good sources of thiamine.
There are thousands of supplements out there, so choose one that fits in the best with your own lifestyle and health goals. Just remember, a multivitamin is intended to be a supplement to your diet, not a replacement.
Here’s a summary of our favourite natural multivitamins on the market in the UK:
- Women’s multivitamin: NATURELO Whole Food Multivitamin for Women
- Men’s multivitamin: NATURELO Whole Food Multivitamin for Men
- General multivitamin: Pure Essentials Advanced Multivitamin and Minerals
A vitamin and mineral rich diet is still the best way to make sure the body is getting what it needs, but a multivitamin supplement can be a helpful boost if you don’t think you are achieving dietary perfection – and how many of us manage that, really?