When a recent blood test revealed one of my sons had low iron levels, I headed to the store for a children's supplement with iron. And what I saw were rows and rows of colorful gummies. Turns out, gummy vitamins are a hot business, a growing segment of the multi-billion-dollar supplement industry. (They're even becoming popular with adults who are tired of popping pills.) On the surface, gummies seem like a sweet and easy way to help the medicine go down. But is there a downside?
"I never recommend gummy vitamins to my patients," says pediatrician Natalie Muth, M.D., RDN, co-author of The Picky Eater Project. For starters, they're usually higher in added sugar than other vitamins, she says. It's not uncommon for a serving (typically two gummies) to have almost a teaspoon of added sugar. Considering the recommended limit is six teaspoons a day, that's a lot!
Another pitfall: They look and taste like candy. Some are even coated in sugar, making them seem more like Sour Patch Kids than a supplement. So kids may be tempted to take more than they need—which can be harmful, especially if the vitamin contains iron, which the body only needs in small amounts. "Kids associate what is very much like candy as being 'healthy,'" Dr. Muth says.
Because gummy vitamins are sticky and chewy, they're also more prone to cling to the teeth and increase the risk for cavities—in the same way that tacky candy like caramel does.
The truth is, most kids don't even need supplements, says Dr. Muth. The exceptions: Breastfeeding babies benefit from vitamin D and iron. Kids with borderline anemia need additional iron. And when a diet limits food groups or categories of food, such as a vegan diet or a dairy restriction, supplements can help provide needed nutrients like vitamin B12 and calcium.
What about vitamins for picky eaters? A multivitamin can act a sort of "insurance" for children with severe picky eating while they're learning to expand their diet, says Dr. Muth, who says she may recommend one if parents are anxious about their child's eating (or lack thereof).
So if you are looking for a supplement for your child, here's my two-cents: Look for a chewable tablet instead of a gummy if you can, and compare brands to find one with less sugar. While you're reading the fine print, choose one that doesn't contain artificial dyes. Don't be wowed by fancy supplements that contain added herbs (supplements aren't well regulated, so it's hard to know if you're actually getting meaningful amounts) and look for Daily Values around 100 percent—more is not better. And if you do choose a gummy, have your child brush her teeth afterwards when possible.
Finally, be sure your kids know that vitamins aren't candy—and always keep them out of reach for young kids.
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author ofThe Snacktivist's Handbook: How to Change the Junk Food Snack Culture at School, in Sports, and at Camp—and Raise Healthier Snackers at Home. She also collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.