Vitamin D is commonly remembered as the vitamin we get from sun exposure.
After decades of research, scientists are still unable to pin down the true nature of this vitamin and what it can do for health, although we know Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium.
On the one hand, vitamin D has gained a reputation in just the last few years as a “wonder” vitamin with powers over cancer, heart attack, Alzheimer’s disease, and other serious conditions.
On the other hand, numerous reports suggest the fallacy of these vitamin D health claims.
Meanwhile, some doctors argue the population is severely deficient in this important vitamin, while others warn we’re dangerously over-supplementing ourselves (1).
Your body can’t synthesize it naturally unless you are exposed to sunlight, so for people who live in cold or sunless climates (especially if you have darker skin), taking a vitamin D supplement is a very smart call.
Here are the top 10 vitamin D supplements on the market, ranked. After the rankings, we’ll break down how vitamin D works and how it can benefit you.
Although Nordic Naturals is more famous for their fish oil products, they’ve branched out in to vitamin D as well. It makes perfect sense, considering that vitamin D is rather scarce in Scandinavia.
In any case, Nordic Naturals D3 provides a concentrated vitamin D source alongside some of its trademark healthy oils. Each softgel provides 1000 IU of vitamin D3, dissolved in olive oil and the omega-9 fatty acid oleic acid. These are hypothesized to have heart health benefits.
In terms of purity, Nordic Naturals scores tremendously well. Independent lab testing shows that each softgel contains 1010 IU of vitamin D, within one percent of its label-stated amount.
The softgels are flavored with natural orange extract, and preserved with rosemary extract, which prevents needing a synthetic preservative to keep the supplement fresh.
The only people who may not like Nordic Naturals Vitamin D3 are vegetarians and vegans (the capsule is made of gelatin, an animal product) and hardcore purists who desire as little extras in their supplements as possible. For everyone else, it’s a great choice.
Do Vitamins D3, a supplement that delivers 2500 IU of D3 per capsule, has two appealing qualities. First, unlike almost all other vitamin D supplements on the market, it’s derived from plant sources.
It’s very tough to find vitamin D3 in nature outside of animal sources (most supplements use D3 derived from sheep’s wool, as no plant makes it naturally in high qualities, with a few special exceptions: some fungi, like mushrooms and lichen, can synthesize vitamin D the same way people do, by using sunlight. Do Vitamins D3 uses a lichen source for its vitamin D3.
As you might guess, the capsule is made from plant cellulose. It’d be awfully silly to go to the trouble of sourcing plant-based vitamin D3 if you were going to deliver it in a gelatin capsule.
The other appealing aspect of Do Vitamins D3 is that, like its other products, it carries the LabDoor “Tested for Sport” certification.
Though the chances of contamination with banned doping agents like steroids are very low for a basic supplement like vitamin D, it’s still a nice perk if you need peace of mind.
People who compete in sports that use drug testing, like triathlons, road racing, all NCAA sports, and some bodybuilding and weightlifting divisions, can consider this as a good added value.
Supporting supplements that are tested for sport also encourages the spread of the practice, helping to stamp out the problem of contaminants in supplements.
The only drawback is that, because of this special sourcing and extra testing, the cost will be higher than average. But if plant sources or contaminant testing are important to you, it’s worth the increase in price.
Carlson Labs is a smaller company that doesn’t command nearly the market share of some of its competitors, but that does not prevent it from delivering a great product.
It’s a pretty simplistic supplement, using safflower and corn oil to dissolve the fat-soluble vitamin D3 it contains in a gelatin-based capsule that delivers 1000 IU of the vitamin.
In terms of purity, it does exceptionally well. Independent lab testing finds that it contains within two percent of its label-stated amount of vitamin D3, which is especially impressive considering that some of its competitors can’t even come within 40% of their own target.
Strictly speaking, olive oil is healthier than other plant oils like safflower oil and corn oil, but when each capsule contains such a tiny amount, being particular about this is a bit excessive.
Only the most persnickety buyer could fault Carlson Labs for using a less healthy option than olive oil. The only reason oil is present in the first place is because vitamin D3 is not soluble in water; it must be dissolved in fat instead.
Nutrigold has two vitamin D offerings; they are identical save for their dosage. One option is a 1000 IU dose delivered in bovine gelatin, and the other is 2000 IU.
Nutrigold has a strong tradition of quality ingredients for a low cost with a purist, minimalist design philosophy, and for the most part, that holds true here, too.
Independent lab testing finds that it does exceed its label-claimed amount by around ten percent, delivering 1100 IU per capsule instead of 1000 IU.
One attractive perk that speaks to Nutrigold’s commitment to purity is that, unlike some of its competitors, this supplement is not manufactured on equipment shared with allergens like soy, milk, wheat, or fish.
If you have allergies to any of these ingredients, getting Nutrigold Vitamin D3 is a good call for some peace of mind.
As the number one best-seller on Amazon.com, NatureWise Vitamin D3 has some serious clout. It’s also a very serious supplement-it delivers 5000 IU of the vitamin per capsule.
This is a lot higher than the recommended daily intake (600 IU, updated from 400 IU in 2010). Still, many scientists and nutritionists advocate for much higher values, noting that exposure to direct sunlight can elicit the same blood vitamin D response as several thousand IUs per day.
If you are a believer in a higher daily intake of vitamin D, which might be a good idea for residents of northern climates in the wintertime, and especially so for those residents with darker skin, this is a great choice.
This product appeals to the minimalist, too, as the only ingredients aside from vitamin d are olive oil and the constituents of the capsule (gelatin and glycerin).
All but serious avoiders of animal products can be encouraged to see this ingredient list.
Since each bottle provides 360 capsules, and each capsule contains 5000 IU of vitamin D, it’s among the best in terms of value: the amount of vitamin D you’ll get per dollar is tremendously high.
The Doctor’s Best brand has a reputation for high quality supplements with low cost and good purity. Its vitamin D offering lives up to this standard fairly well.
It comes in two different dosages, 2000 IU and 5000 IU. These give you flexibility when it comes to dosing, both from person to person (a large man needs more vitamin D than a slim woman) and throughout different times of the year.
You may want to do a lower dosage in the summer and a higher dose in the winter, for example.
It should comes as no surprise that the only other ingredients are virgin olive oil, gelatin, and water. One downside to Doctor’s Best Vitamin D3 is that no independent lab testing is available to assay its purity, so you’ll have to rely on the overall reliability of the brand based on its other offerings.
Fortunately, Doctor’s Best has one of the best track records among the widely distributed low-cost brands, so odds are the dosing is accurate and there are no impurities present.
As one of the mainstays of inexpensive and simple vitamins, Now Foods brand is a common sighting at local big-box retailers and pharmacies.
It’s a very simple supplement; each softgel contains 1000 IU of vitamin D dissolved in olive oil, and delivered in a gelatin capsule.
Problems start to arise when we look at how Now Foods Vitamin D3 fares on independent lab testing of its contents.
Analytical tests show that the supplement actually contains 30% more vitamin D than its label states: each softgel actually delivers 1300 IU of vitamin D.
While this might sound like a good deal from a value perspective, it is not exactly a ringing endorsement of the quality control capacities at Now Foods.
This is a problem its other supplements have struggled with, too. Sometimes it’s worth it for a cheap supplement with no extra ingredients.
You’ll have to decide what’s important to you; if you want precision, look elsewhere, but Now Foods Vitamin D3 is not a bad deal as far as cost per serving of vitamin D goes.
On the surface, Thorne Research Vitamin D-1000 looks pretty standard. It’s a vegetarian cellulose-based vitamin D supplement that delivers 1000 IU per day.
However, it’s got one interesting and unusual ingredient: the amino acid leucine.
The choice of this particular amino acid might seem a bit puzzling at first, but Thorne Research might be ahead of the curve: a 2015 study on elderly patients found that adding leucine (as well as whey protein) to the vitamin D supplementation regimen of people at risk for sarcopenia–the loss of muscle mass associated with aging–found that leucine helped prevent this muscle loss (1).
It’s not clear how or why this works, but it might be a good idea to go for Thorne Research’s vitamin D offering if you are getting older and want to think about your muscle mass retention.
That being said, the leucine content probably needs to be higher to elicit the kind of effect seen in the scientific research study.
Beyond this, it’s a little disappointing on the purity front. Independent lab testing determined that each capsule actually contains 1300 IU of vitamin D, far above its label stated amount.
This is unusual for the smaller, usually high-quality batches from a company like Thorne Research; better purity and quality would land it higher in the rankings.
Vitafusion is a top-seller online, probably because its gummy-based formulations appeal to people who dislike taking solid pills or capsules.
Unfortunately its track record is a little shoddy, perhaps because it’s harder to accurately control dosing in a gummy formulation.
Each gummy provides 1000 IU of vitamin D, which is 250% of your (pre-2010) recommended daily intake.
It’s sweetened with sugar, colored with fruit extracts, and flavored with natural flavoring agents. The sugar alone probably makes it a non-starter for aggressively low-carb enthusiasts, as there are so many other good options for vitamin D that contain no sugar.
As it turns out, independent lab testing shows that the reputation of subpar manufacturing quality control holds true for Vitafusion Vitamin D3 Gummies.
Each gummy actually contains 40% more vitamin D than the label claims it does. While this is much better than containing less than advertised, it still does not speak well to the quality of the supplement.
Since it’s so much easier to get quality vitamin in an inexpensive form elsewhere, these should only be a choice if you abhor taking solid pills.
Nature Made is a widely available brand that also sells a perfectly fine vitamin D3 supplement in capsule form. But, perhaps for the same reason Vitafusion gummies are popular (some people do not enjoy swallowing pills), Nature Made makes a chewable form of vitamin D3 as well.
Sadly, despite its popularity, it suffers from many of the same problems as other non-capsule based vitamin D3 supplements.
Vitamin D3 being the fat soluble molecule it is, it takes a lot of extraneous ingredients to get it to a) stay in a solid chewable form, b) taste good, and c) look appealing enough to chew instead of swallow.
It is sweetened with sorbitol and sucralose, flavored with artificial flavoring agents, and colored with red dye #40, which is controversial and has a questionable safety record (though is still considered safe and okay for use in food by the United States Food and Drug Administration).
Though Nature Made Adult Chewable D3 delivers a label-claimed 1000 IU per chewable tablet, lab testing reveals how impressively inaccurate this claim is.
Each tablet actually contains 60% that much! Again, it seems that non-capsule based forms of vitamin D3 are very hard to get right.
There just aren’t enough positives to place this supplement any higher on the rankings.
Vote with your wallet and support a supplement that’s measured more accurately and pays closer attention to eliminating extraneous and unnecessary ingredients.
Part 2: What is vitamin D and how can you benefit from a supplement?
What’s the real story about vitamin D?
You’ll also get answers to questions like these:
- Are we getting enough or too much vitamin D?
- What can it really do for our health?
- Are there side effects if you take too much?
- What’s considered too much?
Here’s what we know for sure about vitamin D
What we do know for sure is that vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium. For that reason alone, it’s crucial that we get enough of this important vitamin in our diets. After all, calcium (along with phosphate) is the essential building block of bones. If you don’t get enough calcium in your diet, or if you aren’t absorbing the calcium you do consume, bone production and bone tissue are severely impacted.
Beyond that, the role of vitamin D and its effect on health is highly debated. That doesn’t mean there aren’t additional benefits to supplementation, however. There simply needs to be more data (more on these possible benefits in just a bit).
Why vitamin D supplements are necessary
It’s estimated that worldwide, around a billion people don’t get enough vitamin D (2).
There are very few food sources of vitamin D, but beef liver, cheese, mushrooms, and egg yolks provide tiny amounts.
Fatty fish provide even more, but the best way to get your vitamin D is to drink fortified milk, get 15 minutes of sunshine every day, or take supplements.
In fact, it’s very difficult to get all the vitamin D from food sources.
Likewise, if you live in a northern part of the world it can be hard to get your vitamin D from sunshine, too. Not only that, but certain segments of the population have trouble getting enough of the vitamin from the sun, too: people with dark skin.
Finally, the elderly need more vitamin D than the rest of us.
For all these reasons, vitamin D supplements are among the most widely necessary supplements on the planet.
Vitamin D toxicity
Did you know there’s something called vitamin D toxicity? Vitamin D supplementation may be necessary for much of the population, but more doesn’t always equal better. Vitamin D toxicity almost always comes from supplements.
It’s easier to get too much vitamin D than other vitamins. Like vitamins A, E and K, is a fat-soluble vitamin which are easy to overdose.
Therefore, it’s important to recognize what’s officially known as the “Safe Upper Limits” for daily vitamin D intake. These are the MAXIMUM levels considered safe (400 IU is equal to 10 mcg.)
The U.S. National Library of Medicine (3) gives the following Safe Upper Limits for vitamin D:
- Infants: 1,000 to 1,500 IU/day
- Children 1-8 years: 2,00 to 3,000 IU/day
- Everyone else: 4,000 IU/day
Keeping within those Safe Upper Limits, dosages of vitamin D are believed to have a wide range of health benefits. Here’s where things get a little confusing.
Confusion over causation vs. correlation causes confusion over the benefits of vitamin D
Extra vitamin D has been attributed to a whole series of wonderful benefits, not the least of which is preventing fractures in the elderly. While that seems to be pretty well grounded in scientific data, other health claims are a little less clear.
Ongoing research reveals many possible applications of vitamin D supplements, but this is where the confusion begins.
Every time there’s a new study, the media takes that news and runs with it. For example, even a very a weak data link between vitamin D and lower incidences of cancer produces a flurry of reports that vitamin D is the new cancer-preventing drug. A mere suggestion that people who live longer tend to have optimal levels of vitamin D leads to reports that D supplements will make us live longer…even though there’s no clear indication whether it’s causation or correlation between longevity and vitamin D.
What can vitamin D supplements really do for you?
But there is actually some promising research suggesting vitamin D can help in many areas of health. Here are the areas which show more than just a faint possibility of good things happening from taking vitamin D supplements:
- Cancer. 30 years ago, it was discovered that people living in northern areas had higher rates of colon cancer (4). That led to the theory that lower vitamin D levels might increase colon cancer risk. Dozens of studies have been performed since then that strongly support the theory, but that doesn’t necessarily mean vitamin D supplements will lower the risk.
- Heart Disease. A 20 year study (5) found that men with vitamin D deficiencies had double the risk of having a heart attack. There’s a strong link between D and heart health, but more research is needed.
- Multiple Sclerosis. MS rates are higher in the north and one study (6) showed that white people with higher vitamin D levels had a 62% lower risk of contracting MS. That study did not find this to be the case with black people, so the link between D and MS is weak. Nevertheless, there is hope.
- The Common Cold. A study performed in 2012 indicates that when kids take vitamin D, their chance of getting a cold decreases by 50% (7).
- Type 1 Diabetes. A child in Finland is around 400 times more likely to develop Type 1 Diabetes than a child living in Venezuela (8). Since there is less sun in Finland (therefore lower vitamin D levels), this suggests a link between vitamin D and the disease.
There is danger in taking too much, and beyond bone health, the disease-fighting properties are not yet confirmed by science.
- Wasson, Nick. Vitamin D Supplement Dosage Warning. Retrieved 9/1/2015 from http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/health/2013/02/11/vitamin-d-supplement-dosage-warning/
- Vitamin D and Health. Harvard School of Public Health. Retrieved 9/13/2015 from http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/vitamin-d/
- Vitamin D. Medline Plus. U. S. National Library of Medicine. Retrieved 9/13/2015 from https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002405.htm
- Garland CF, Garland FC. Do sunlight and vitamin D reduce the likelihood of colon cancer? Int J Epidemiol. 1980; 9:227-31. Retrieved 9/13/2015 from http://ije.oxfordjournals.org/content/9/3/227.short
- Giovannucci E, Liu Y, Hollis BW, Rimm EB. 25-hydroxyvitamin D and risk of myocardial infarction in men: a prospective study. Arch Intern Med. 2008; 168:1174-80. Retrieved 9/13/2015
- Munger KL, Levin LI, Hollis BW, Howard NS, Ascherio A. Serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels and risk of multiple sclerosis. JAMA. 2006; 296:2832-8. Retrieved 9/13/2015 from http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=204651
- Abrams, Kindsay. Study: Vitamin D Supplements May Protect From Colds. The Atlantic Monthly. Retrieved 9/13/2015 from http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/08/study-vitamin-d-supplements-may-protect-from-colds/261347/
- Gillespie KM. Type 1 diabetes: pathogenesis and prevention. CMAJ.2006; 175:165-70. Retrieved 9/13/2015 from http://www.cmaj.ca/content/175/2/165.full