If you’re thinking of giving your child a nutritional supplement, you’re not alone: 42 percent of kids between the ages of 2 and 8 take supplements, according to research from the National Institutes of Health. But you also may have heard reports about contaminants and other possible dangers in supplements, so you may be wondering how to choose the best—and safest—products for your family.
Before you head to the vitamin aisle, talk to your pediatrician or a pediatric dietitian to figure out what’s best for your child. “I work with kids from infancy through young adulthood, and I find that parents give supplements that don’t necessarily target the needs of their children,” says Connie Evers, M.S., R.D.N., L.D., a pediatric dietitian in the Portland, Oregon, area. Start by looking at your kids’ diet to see if they’re eating the right mix of nutritious foods. If you do decide to give a supplement, follow these steps to choose the best product:
Check the ingredient list
You’re already an expert on reading food labels—you can also become an expert on reading supplement labels. As is the case with your favorite granola bars or pasta sauces, when it comes to individual supplements (think vitamin D or calcium), the fewer ingredients the better. More ingredients increases the chance of contamination as well as an adverse reaction, since the interaction between all those ingredients might not be known, says Mark A. Moyad, M.D., M.P.H., author of The Supplement Handbook and the Jenkins/Pokempner Director of Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the University of Michigan Medical Center.
Also smart: Check the label to make sure the supplement is free of food dyes, artificial sweeteners, and other additives. And since some products contain egg whites or gluten, Evers advises keeping an eye out for any ingredients your kids may be allergic to as well.
Look for these symbols
Although the FDA doesn’t offer certifications for supplements, the agency does expect companies to comply with its standards—specifically, current good manufacturing practices, or cGMPs. This means that companies can’t make unsubstantiated claims about their products and must manufacture products on clean machinery, among other regulations. The FDA checks companies for quality control and can pull supplements if the rules aren’t followed.
But the truth is that the FDA doesn’t always have the manpower to investigate every company, says Moyad. So how can you tell if the brand you’re choosing is up to par? Look for seals from verifiers like NSF International (NSF), the Natural Products Association (NPA), and the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (USP). “All offer a level of transparency and screening that should make people more comfortable,” says Moyad.
Watch for mega-dosing
When choosing a supplement, be sure to get a dosage recommendation from your pediatrician. Kids need a lower dose than adults and it’s easy for them to take too much, says Moyad, which can lead to anything from uncomfortable symptoms (too much calcium can cause constipation, for example) to more serious issues like liver or kidney problems.
If your child is taking a supplement, you also may want to keep an eye on what fortified foods they’re eating, to avoid overdoing it, says Giana Angelo, Ph.D., a research associate at the Micronutrient Information Center at the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University.