When it comes to prenatal vitamins you may find yourself overwhelmed by the number of choices and left wondering what is important to look for when choosing a prenatal vitamin supplement. Prenatal nutrition is important and the vast majority of your vitamins and minerals should come from food. However, prenatal vitamin supplements are an insurance policy for getting essential nutrients. Here to help breakdown and demystify prenatal vitamin supplements is Dr. Shelia Varshney, Every Mother’s in-house dietician.
Note: Certain chronic conditions and medications can impact what supplements you need or don’t need. If you have a chronic condition or take a medication regularly, please consult with a health professional to get personalized guidance.
Prenatal Vitamins vs. a Regular Multivitamin
First things first, you may be wondering what the difference is between a regular multivitamin supplement and prenatal vitamins. A regular multivitamin supplement is formulated based on the nutritional needs for the average adult, while prenatal vitamins are formulated based on the nutritional needs for pregnant individuals. Prenatal vitamins typically contain higher levels of folate, iodine, calcium and other key nutrients needed for fetal development.
3 Things to Look for When Choosing a Prenatal Vitamin Supplement
Below we've identified three specific things to check for when choosing a prenatal vitamin supplement.
Third-Party Testing of Prenatal Vitamins
Supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so you’re at the mercy of the manufacturer to be honest. This is why third-party testing is important - it ensures two important things:
- That the prenatal vitamin supplement actually contains the amount of nutrients indicated on the label, rather than a false or inaccurate claim.
- That the prenatal vitamin supplement is not contaminated with toxic metals.
How do you find out if a prenatal vitamin supplement has been third-party tested? Look for the USP, NSF International or Consumer Lab marks on the bottle as they indicate the product has been third-party tested. Note that these certifications cost money so the products may be more expensive. If you don’t see one of these marks on the product, do your research - call the company or review their website to see if they run their products through third-party testing.
Folate Instead of Folic Acid
Having enough folate before conception and during the first trimester is essential to prevent neural tube defects. It is included in higher amounts in prenatal vitamins, but check the prenatal vitamins' “Supplement Facts” on the label. This list of nutrients should contain either “Folate” or “Folic Acid”. It is preferable to choose a prenatal vitamin that has “Folate” rather than “Folic Acid”. Recent research suggests that folic acid (the synthetic form of folate used by most manufacturers) may not be the best way to increase our folate levels. Some people don’t have the ability to efficiently convert folic acid to folate, so choose a prenatal vitamin that has the most bioavailable form, which is typically folate as methyltetrahydrofolate (MTHF). All prenatal vitamin brands contain folate but the key is to look for the form of folate on the label: methyltetrahydrofolate (sometimes listed as 5-MTHF) is preferred over folic acid because it is more easily used by the body.
Choline and Omega-3 Fatty Acids (DHA and EPA)
Look for a prenatal vitamin that has both choline and omega-3 fatty acids, which should again be found listed in the “Supplement Facts” on the label. Not all brands will contain choline because it is not required by the FDA. Recent research is showing that choline and the omega-3 fatty acids are critical nutrients that most pregnant women don’t get enough of through their diet alone. It is key for brain development. Choline may also be labeled as choline bitartrate, phosphatidylcholine, and lecithin.
When looking for omega-3 fatty acids, look for the two that will be labeled as DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid).
What About Iron?
The question of iron comes up because your iron needs increase during pregnancy. However, nearly one-third of women meet their iron needs through diet alone. So, Dr. Varshney recommends taking a separate iron supplement, but only if you need it. Getting too much iron may increase your risk for gestational diabetes. Ask your healthcare provider to do a blood test to see if you need iron supplementation.
Possible Side Effects
One possible side effect of prenatal vitamins may be nausea, especially if you are already feeling nauseous with your pregnancy. If so, try to take them anyway! Try taking your prenatal vitamins with food and find a time each day that is easy to remember, make it a habit!
Last Reviewed by Dr. Sheila Varshney on June 24th, 2022
Dr. Sheila Varshney is a registered dietitian with a doctoral degree in nutrition in public health and a mom of two young children. After spending over a decade helping individuals adopt healthier eating habits, she’s learned that making simple changes is the key to better eating. Dr. Varshney believes a healthy diet consists of whole foods and avoiding highly processed foods as much as possible. She also believes in the value of food beyond nutrition, namely its social and cultural importance, and reflects this through her work.