We get tons of questions around here about vitamins otherwise known as nutritional supplements. How do you know if they’re right for you? Which ones should you take? We’ve listed our 20 most frequently asked questions about nutritional supplements and our answers.

The main difficulty in sorting through all the manufacturers’ claims, counterclaims, your friend’s endorsements of a particular vitamin and so on, is that none of us really has the time to go through all the information ourselves. All we really want is a supplement that will help us lead a healthier lifestyle. Obviously, nobody needs them all, we probably need fewer than five. A simple solution is to identify and settle on what you want to get out of supplements. Do you want “dietary insurance” to protect yourself against possible nutritional omissions and deficiencies? Are you looking to reduce your risk for disease in general or a specific disease? All of the above? Once you have a concrete reason for supplementing, you’ll have a basis for selection and something to measure claims against.

1. I eat a healthful diet. Do I really need to spend money on this stuff?
There’s no replacement for eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, lean and/or white meats, and whole grains. Check our vitamin and minerals guide as well as our encyclopedia of nutrients you get with every bite of fresh produce before going about choosing a supplement
. If you’re getting the nutrition you need in your balanced diet, there’s no need to spend your money on any supplements. We caution those choosing supplements, however, that taking them doesn’t mean you can now eat junk food regularly, and make up for it by swallowing a capsule or chewing a multivitamin.

2. What is an antioxidant?
This is the rallying cry of die-hard supplement takers. Antioxidants include vitamins C and E, enzyme Co-Q10, and alpha-lipoic acid. They are considered anti-disease and anti-aging nutrients. They protect cells against damaging molecules called free radicals which are found in inhaled smoke, paint and car fumes and are produced naturally by your own body. The question is whether you need to supplement with antioxidants or if you’re getting enough from fruits and vegetables.

3.Do vegetarians have special needs?
Vegetarians tend to take in more antioxidants than the average person, but many vegetarians are missing out on lots of other nutrients which are needed to absorb and use all those antioxidants. These missing nutrients include vitamins A and D, B12 and zinc. Vegans have to work a little harder than others to get these nutrients into their diet. Vegans also tend to have lower levels of carnitine, an important component of protein, than lacto-ovo vegetarians and meat eaters. Low carnitine levels can leave us more susceptible to colds, and some studies show, even cancer.

4.What else should we look for in a supplement?
Unfortunately, the word “natural” means next to nothing in terms of supplement value and quality. Look for very exacting labels specifying what is in each tablet, gel capsule or per volume of liquid.

5.Please tell me gel caps aren’t really gelatin
Gel caps, or gelatin capsules, are indeed made from animal byproducts. If you find this repulsive, no problem. Most vitamins/supplements are available in chewable tablet and liquid and powdered forms these days.

6.What else is in a supplement besides the vitamins I want?
All capsules and tablets contain something called “excipients”. They are inert substances that ensure manufacturing consistency and promote complete absorption of the supplements. Tablets tend to have more excipients than capsules. Most reputable companies identify on their labels on in their catalogs whether the excipients are from animal or non-animal sources, how much of it is present and whether there is a known allergy to it. For example, lactose and cellulose are two of these inert substances.

7.Will fat-soluble vitamins make me fat?
No, absolutely not! Vitamins come in two types. Some like the B vitamins and C, are water-soluble, meaning they dissolve in water easily and both easily absorbed and lost. They have to be replenished on a daily basis. Vitamins A, D, E and K are fat-soluble, meaning they need a little oil or fat for absorption. This doesn’t mean eating an extra dollop of butter with every meal, just your meal’s regular, minimum fat content is all that’s needed. You can draw on your body’s stores of these fat-soluble nutrients for weeks before deficiency symptoms appear.

8.Eat it, drink it, swallow it or what?
It depends on personal preference and your budget. Capsules dissolve and release their ingredients quickly, but generally cost more. Lesss-expensive tablets are designed to disintegrate after 45 minutes in the body, but they don’t always. For example, if you have poor stomach acid, it may take up to 3 hours for a tablet to dissolve. Liquid vitamins tend to be high in sugar to mask the taste, but that makes them more palatable for smaller children. Powdered supplements are all the rage in smoothies and bubble tea these days, and they are reasonably priced for the most part. Their taste is masked by the other ingredients in smoothies and such, but inherent problems with measuring (should you use a level or heaping teaspoon?) leaves a lot to be desired. Recommendation: capsules or tablets.

9. Should I take them on an empty stomach to make them dissolve faster?
Most multipurpose supplements are best taken with whole foods, ideally breakfast, because they can help your body use protein and burn carbohydrates for energy. But a piece of fruit or bread is as beneficial to supplement intake as a full meal. It’s important to take a fat-soluble vitamin with some slightly oily or fatty food–and no, we don’t mean fried chicken, burgers or pizza with extra cheese (I know, I know, shucks!). Try peanut butter, nuts, tofu or plant-oil based salad dressings to enhance absorption. Vitamin C can be taken any time, and individual amino acid supplements (eg. carnitine or tyrosine) are best taken on an empty stomach before breakfast.

10.Can I take this B-complex from 2002?
Most products have a shelf-life of at least a couple of years. After the (conservative) expiration date, ingredients slowly lose their potency. A good rule of thumb: toss them six months after the expiration date regardless of how much is left in the bottle. An exception is “probiotics” such as lactobacillus acidophilus, which should be kept in the fridge and used within a year of purchase. In general, supplements should be kept out of direct sunlight and heat sources (room temperature shouldn’t exceed 80 degrees for long periods of time).

11.What’s the deal with the cotton? It sticks to the pills when I try to take one out.
Many bottles contain cotton or plastic, which keep tables from breaking during shipping. All those heavy-handed, sweaty, hormonal dockside boys, you know. Once you open the bottle, you can throw the insert out-as long as you put the lid back on! Some moisture-sensitive supplements such as carnitine and fish liver oil contain little packets of silica gel which absorb excess humidity. Keep these little packets in the bottle. They’re designed not to break open. Just remember they’re not edible!

12.If it’s “non-essential” why do I need it?
The RDAs (Recommended Dietary Allowances) are renamed RDIs these days (Reference Daily Intakes) by the National Academy of Sciences though you’ll still see some magazines and bottles using RDA values. The National Academy of Sciences doesn’t address nonessentials such as flavonoids (such as anthocyanidins) which are found in fruits and vegetables. Even though their absence don’t result in any obvious deficiency symptoms, they work together with other essential nutrients for long-term health and prevention of cancer and heart disease. Do you need to go out and buy these? Sure–but we recommend them in the form of fresh fruits and vegetables eaten daily.

13.(A + C)/E = ?
It’s no myth that the beneficial effect of one vitamin often depends on the presence of others, so it’s probably best to take a combination, such as though found in fresh fruit and veggies, in a multivitamin or antioxidant formula. Lester Packer of UCBerkeley showed that antioxidants “recycle” each other and enable one another to last longer in the body. Similarly, the 10 B-vitamins work together to create beneficial effects.

14.Extra calcium – true or just hype?
Females need lots of calcium (1000 mg daily, 1200 mg daily when pregnant), and so do guys (1200 mg daily) to maintain strong bones, give the body the ability to repair itself and make your noggin’ work properly. Calcium isn’t the only nutrient needed for building healthy bones. Vitamin D helps your body use calcium more efficiently, magnesium is also essential, vitamins B12 and K also help prevent bone disease and degeneration. Taking a ton of calcium or B12 doesn’t mean you can binge on those highly salted snacks, however. The body has a balance to maintain; if it has to get rid of too much salt, it takes other nutrients along with it.