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Vitamins for Children
As a nutritionist, I receive so many questions from parents about their fussy eaters. It seems that, no matter what parents do, there are still little ones who just won’t eat their vegetables! If your child falls into that category, you might need to discuss a vitamin supplement with the pediatrician.

Even though children slow down their visible growth after the first birthday, their brain and organs are still maturing throughout that second year. They also get more cuts, scrapes and dings as they learn to walk, run and explore the world on their own. They need to be healthy to repair these “ouchies.”

Most pediatricians and nutritionists encourage whole foods to obtain vitamins and minerals, but we also recognize that the time when little kids need the best nutrition is also the time they get most picky about what they eat. Additionally, with all the refinement in today’s foods, some vitamins can be lost in processing.

Before you run to the pharmacy to get some chewables, you should learn a few things. To begin, vitamins are not single molecules but rather a combination of components that work together to produce an effect. For example, ascorbic acid, which is known to most of us as Vitamin C, is actually only a part of the vitamin molecule. Ascorbic acid also needs enzymes, co-enzymes and things called co-factors in order to do the job of a Vitamin C molecule.

More simply put, if you took the wheels off your car, it would still look like a car but it wouldn’t do much. Each wheel of that car is an enzyme, a co-enzyme or a co-factor specific for Vitamin C, with the ascorbic acid being the car’s body. Without the wheels, the car won’t move. Get those wheels back on and it does what it’s supposed to do—drive!

There are two kinds of supplements: natural and synthetic. Natural vitamins are those found in food and contain the “wheels,” while synthetics are just one part of the vitamin. Using Vitamin C as an example again, a natural source would be orange juice.

Does this mean synthetics aren’t good for you? Not necessarily. When you take an ascorbic acid supplement, your body will try to combine it with other components already in your body to make it a usable Vitamin C molecule. The molecular structure will be the same as a natural vitamin, and your body will recognize it as such. Whatever ascorbic acid that is left over will be excreted in the urine.

A synthetic supplement is considered a substrate, meaning a molecule that can be used to make another. Most commercial vitamins are synthetic and are actually made in a higher potency than natural vitamins so that there will be enough substrate available to make other vitamin molecules. If the other components aren’t available in adequate amounts, much of the substrate will be excreted. That’s why we don’t recommend people try to meet all their vitamin needs through supplements—it doesn’t work!

Synthetic vitamins certainly have their value. It is often said that natural Vitamin C in pill form would be so large that you couldn’t take it. Synthetic supplements are also much cheaper to produce.

You might see a supplement advertised as “natural” because most of it is taken from a food source, but in reality it is still only a part of the active vitamin molecule. So, how can you tell if a supplement is natural or synthetic?

Synthetic supplements often end in “ate,” “ide” or have some other scientific name. Natural vitamins are listed as a real food—rose hips (Vitamin C), yeast (B6 and B12), fish oil (A) or wheat germ (E) are examples. There is a lozenge that contains acerola (a whole food) instead of Vitamin C (a synthetic). Both work well.

Another rule of thumb is if the percentage on the ingredients label is more than 100 percent, it’s definitely a synthetic vitamin. It’s not necessary to take a super-charged supplement since you’ll probably excrete a good portion of it. And I rarely recommend an isolated vitamin supplement (as opposed to a multivitamin) unless there is some blood test data to back up the need. Individual supplements can unbalance your body chemistry.

Now, how can you get a toddler to take a vitamin supplement? If he’s not ready for chewables, crush the vitamin pill with the back of a spoon and mix it into applesauce or pudding. Supplementing can ease some of the worry you might have that your child is not getting his nutrients through food. As with other health matters, before taking this step, please discuss it with your pediatrician.

Susan M. Leisner RD, IBCLC, RLC Nutritionist & Lactation Consultant