To Your Health

A decision on whether to supplement with ultratrace minerals or not depends on diet

Q. I've noticed that some multivitamin/mineral supplements have small amounts of unusual minerals like manganese, molybdenum, and vanadium, but others don't. Is it worth paying extra to get these, or do we usually get enough from our diet?

A. This is a very, very difficult question to answer. There is no doubt that the trace minerals mentioned, plus several others commonly found in comprehensive multivitamin/mineral products, are essential nutrients. However, there is little scientific evidence that supplementing a normal diet with these nutrients provides any measurable benefits. When you pay extra for a product with these "ultratrace" minerals, you are paying for insurance against ignorance in the entire field of nutrition.

The failure of scientists to unearth benefits from supplements of various food components may simply reflect the current primitive nature of nutritional science. Although growing rapidly, the field of nutrition is still mostly undeveloped. Only a few years ago, for instance, when zinc was listed on a food supplement label, a footnote was required stating, "The need for zinc in human nutrition has not been established." Since zinc was known to be necessary for certain enzymes, such as the enzyme that allows the lungs to exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen, and since there is no source of zinc other than diet, the need for dietary zinc was well established in the eyes of any biochemist. Only the nutritionists working for the U.S. government denied the obvious.

Another uncertainty is, "What exactly is a normal diet?" The food choices of a large population can be accurately tracked, but there is enormous variation in food choices and amounts among individuals, leading to variations in nutrient intake. For instance, research indicates that organically grown food provides roughly double the trace minerals of conventionally grown food. A person choosing organically grown food for half or more of their diet would obtain significantly more of these trace minerals. It is quite conceivable that one of these nutrients could make a difference in the health of someone whose requirement for that specific nutrient happened to be higher than average.

Although some trace minerals have potential toxicity if present in large amounts, the amounts used in food supplement products are generally less than 1% of any worrisome amount.

Finally there is the consideration of cost. Although the cost of these minerals as inorganic salts is insignificant, the supplement products that make a label claim for trace minerals often use organic food sources that may be pricey. Instead of using an inexpensive inorganic vanadium salt, a supplement producer may use a more expensive food such as parsley as a source of vanadium. One advantage of this would be that the food is likely to supply many other trace minerals that, whether or not they are nutritionally helpful, will add to the length of the ingredient label and likely result in increased sales.

Until more is known about how these trace minerals affect the human body, your decision on whether to supplement with ultratrace minerals or not depends on issues such as how much value you place on the "insurance" part of supplements and whether you eat a wide variety of organically grown whole vegetables and fruits.

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