Are Prescription/Pharmaceutical Vitamins Better?

“Hello, What companies make the best pharmaceutical grade vitamins and supplements or are they only available with a prescription?
Are prescription vitamins/supplements better?


This is a difficult question to answer. The reason it’s difficult is that I don’t know what you think a “pharmaceutical grade vitamin and supplement” is. There is no definition, legal or otherwise, of a “pharmaceutical grade vitamin supplement.” The term is indeed used, but it is more a marketing term–both positive and negative, by the way–than a meaningful one.

In a positive sense, it is used to imply a higher level of purity or regulatory oversight. A good example would be omega-3, fish oil supplements. In a negative sense, the term is often used in the health food industry to connote so-called “synthetic” or “USP” vitamins. The idea is that vitamins of this type are in some ways inferior to “natural” or “whole-food” vitamins.

Neither is true. (At least not as a generalization. See my comments at the end)

With fish oils, it became clear that supplements offer an advantage over fish. Fish often contains undesirable levels of contaminants (mercury, PCB’s, etc). Those contaminants can be removed during processing, and a purified, concentrated fish oil supplement can provide high levels of omega-3 fatty acids (EPA & DHA) with almost no contaminants. This purification, however, is not limited to “pharmaceutical” products–the same raw material is used in most “health food” brands at this time as well.

What about the negative connotation? One of the ways the health food industry has always attempted to define itself, has been to embrace the concept of “natural.” The idea is that natural is inherently superior to . . . what? “Unnatural?” No, “unnatural” wouldn’t be a good term to use, would it? So what do we say? Artificial? Synthetic?

In many people’s minds, “synthetic” came to represent the opposite of “natural.” If something had a “chemical” sounding name, it was automatically thought to be “synthetic,” and bad for you. This, of course, is an unfortunate, misguided generalization.

Not everything “natural” is good for you, and not everything “synthetic” is bad for you. There is often no clear distinction between the two. Ascorbic acid (vitamin C) is “synthesized” from various natural substances, e.g. corn syrup. Is it natural or synthetic? You see ingredients such as “dehydrated sugar syrup” or “dehydrated grape juice” on a natural product label. Is that natural, or is it just another way for saying “sugar?”

Things have become even worse in recent years with the rise to dominance of “whole food” or “food based” vitamins. As part of the marketing propaganda for such products, an attempt is often made to imply that these “food based” vitamins are not only superior in various ways to “synthetic” vitamins, but are actually different in their make-up, and have in some way been changed, or modified structurally, so that they are now different from their “synthetic” counterparts. (Of course, one could argue that if they have been changed to such a degree, they are now just as “synthetic” and unnatural as the others, but that is a topic for another time.)

To clarify this question, I suggest we discard the term “synthetic” in this context (as well as “pharmaceutical,” “USP,” etc) and replace it with the term “pure.”

“Pure” is a much more accurate term, and much more representative of the real difference between the various types.

How does this relate to the question about “pharmaceutical vitamin supplements?” Pharmaceutical companies and reputable health food companies use the same vitamin raw materials. They do not manufacture the vitamins themselves. They buy them from a small number of manufacturers and blend them (or have them blended) into their products. This blend is then incorporated into tablets or capsules, and packaged.

There can be differences in raw material quality, however, as foreign suppliers are beginning to dominate the market, and quality differences can surface. There can also be differences in the blending, filling, and packaging operations. Issues of cleanliness, accuracy, conformity, etc must be taken into account. Integrity of formulation, and stability are factors. If the product label bears an expiration date, how was it determined?

There was a time when pharmaceutical companies operated under a set of rigid guidelines called GMPs (current Good Manufacturing Pracices) and “food” manufactures had a less demanding set of guidelines. Now, a new set of guidelines for nutritional supplement manufacturers are being adopted, so it is no longer appropriate to assume that quality levels are automatically higher in drug company facilities.

This is why is it important to buy your vitamin supplements from reputable companies, and to avoid prices that are illogically low.

Buying reputable brands, from retailers who are capable of helping you evaluate which brands fall in that category, is the important thing. “Pharmaceutical” branding is not necessarily an indicator of higher quality. The current situation with Johnson & Johnson is a good case in point. And, as I have pointed out in earlier writings, many of the “pharmaceutically” branded products are, in fact, inferior to similar health food brands. It’s a question of priorities. They see no problem with loading their products with artificial colors, preservatives, less active forms of vitamins (dl-alpha tocopherol rather than d-alpha or mixed tocopherols, for example), and potencies too low to be meaningful.

In summary, for general vitamin, mineral and other nutritional supplements, there is no reason to purchase “pharmaceutical” or prescription products. More important, limit yourself to those brands that are reputable, and quality-oriented. Find a retailer like Willner Chemists, where the owners have the educational background and experience that enables them to properly evaluate the quality and integrity of the various brands on the market, and follow their advice.

Don Goldberg

Addition notes: There are, in fact, certain situations where a “synthetic” vitamin can be less effective than a “natural” vitamin. The best known example is probably vitamin E. The reason for this is that natural vitamin E is actually a mixture of 8 isomers. Each of these isomers exert varying degrees of biologic activity, and perhaps even have different types of activity. The “synthetic” or pure form consists of only one isomer. Thus, “natural” vitamin E has a higher potency, and broader activity. This is true even though the I.U. may seem the same on the label.

About Don Goldberg

Hello. I am what you might call a Nutritional Pharmacist. After college, I worked in the Pharmaceutical and Nutritional Industry, first in Quality Control, and then in Manufacturing and Product Development. Increasingly, as the years passed, I became more involved with nutritional supplements. I spent many years detailing physicians, herbalists, and homeopaths about nutritional and herbal therapies and products. In 1992, along with my friend Arnie Gitomer, I bought Willner Chemists, a well-established nutritionally oriented pharmacy. For the first time, I had an opportunity to communicate directly with the consumer, the patient, and the customer. I love it. This blog is an additional way for me to extend my personal views and opinions directly to you. I also used to be on the radio, every Sunday, from 2 to 4 pm on WOR radio in NY (710 AM). You can listen to, or read excerpts from those shows on our website,
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2 Responses to Are Prescription/Pharmaceutical Vitamins Better?

  1. iheartruthie says:

    Don, this is seriously so awesome. This is VERY hard to find information on without leading to some add. I will continue to follow. Thanks!

  2. Julie Low says:

    Wow! You have really shed a bright light on this subject. Thank you for your insight and help in making people healthier … Me especially. 😉

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