Are More Expensive Prenatal Vitamins Worth It?

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By Lisa Lombardi | Updated on Sep 12, 2023
Image for article Are More Expensive Prenatal Vitamins Worth It?

There’s no doubt that eating healthy is important for anyone, but pregnant people need more of certain nutrients that are hard to get from diet alone. That’s where prenatal vitamins come in. “Supplements are guarantees that essential vitamins and minerals are delivered to the baby, even if a mom’s diet doesn’t supply everything needed,” says Dr. Gloria Bachmann, associate dean of women’s health at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

In the past, a mom-to-be might grab a prenatal vitamin off a local drugstore shelf and not think too much about it . But now—as anyone with an Instagram account knows—there are many new-age brands on the market, including Ritual1 Needed2 Perelel3 Natalist4 Goop and more. These subscription-based prenatals promise convenience plus something special, often in the form of purer ingredients or supposedly better formulations. But are they truly better? The answer to that question depends on your priorities.

Here’s what you need to know about prenatal vitamins—both the over-the-counter staples and boutique brands—to make the best decision for you.

What Are Prenatal Vitamins?

A prenatal vitamin is like an insurance policy for your diet. During pregnancy, you need extra nutrients for your growing baby, and your diet can do a decent enough job, but it won’t get you all the way there. So a good prenatal can give you a big leg up and relieve the stress of trying to eat perfectly.

What to Look for in a Prenatal Vitamin

What makes a good prenatal vitamin, anyway? According to Dr. Bachmann and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists5  (ACOG) the most important nutrients during pregnancy, and the ones your prenatal vitamin should include, are:

1. Folic Acid (600 micrograms): Folic acid is a synthetic version of folate (vitamin B9) that’s often used in supplements (more on folic acid vs. folate in a moment). It helps prevent neural tube defects6  that affect the baby’s brain and spinal cord. Experts recommend popping at least 400 micrograms (mcg) as soon as you start thinking about trying to conceive. Once you’re pregnant, you need 600 mcg5  per day.

2. Iron (27 milligrams): Your body needs to produce extra blood cells during pregnancy, which is why your iron needs go from 18 to 27 milligrams5  (mg) per day.

3. Vitamin D (600 international units): Vitamin D works together with other minerals, including calcium, to build your baby’s teeth and bones. All women—pregnant or not—need 600 international units5  (IU) per day.

4. Calcium (1,000 milligrams): You need 1,000 mg of calcium per day during pregnancy, but most prenatals don’t have nearly that much (130–300 mg is more common). Why the discrepancy? “Our bodies best absorb calcium in doses of 500 mg or less,” Dr. Bachmann explains. “So it’s especially important to work calcium into your diet, too.” (Need ideas for calcium-rich foods? Check out this guide to getting all the nutrients you need.)

5. Omega-3 Fatty Acids (200–300 milligrams): These healthy fats are important for your baby’s brain development, Dr. Bachmann says. Most health experts say to aim for at least 200–300 mg7  of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid, which is one key type of omega-3) per day. Many standard prenatals include omega-3s, but check the label to confirm. Perelel and some other newer brands offer them as a separate supplement.

6. Choline (450 milligrams5 ): Another important brain builder8 , this nutrient is often missing in prenatal vitamins—but it’s still worth looking for. If yours doesn’t have it, ask your ob-gyn if they recommend a separate supplement.

On top of all that, a prenatal that provides the following vitamins and minerals (all essential during pregnancy) is helpful:

Lastly, check the label for a seal of approval from the United States Pharmacopeia (USP)9  or NSF International10 . These badges guarantee that a supplement contains the exact ingredients in the exact amounts listed on the bottle and that it doesn’t contain any harmful additives.

Boutique Prenatals: What You Need to Know

Many of the newer supplement brands bill themselves as better than what’s already out there—better ingredients, better formulations or better at providing exactly what you need during each stage of pregnancy. It’s only natural that this would strike a chord, Dr. Bachmann says. “Parents always want the best for their growing baby.”

It’s also natural to have questions about these claims. Here are some of the most common ones, answered by trusted experts.

1. Folate vs. folic acid

Brands like Ritual, Needed and Goop readily promote that they use folate, the natural form of vitamin B9, instead of folic acid, the synthetic version. But for most people, this distinction doesn’t matter, Dr. Bachmann says.

What’s behind the claim that folate is superior? Two main things:

  • First, some people have a hard time converting folic acid into the form of folate our bodies can use—a condition known as hereditary folate malabsorption11 , Dr. Bachmann says. But according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), there’s not enough research to confirm these people benefit from getting folate instead of folic acid.

  • Second, since folate is the natural form of the vitamin found in foods, it’s easy to assume that means it’s better. But research shows12  that folic acid, the synthetic form that’s used in many supplements and fortified foods, is easier for most people to absorb. Folic acid is also the version that’s been best studied for preventing neural tube defects, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The bottom line: Unless your doctor tells you otherwise, there’s no need to seek out a prenatal vitamin that uses folate instead of folic acid.

2. Probiotics and prebiotics

Some new prenatal packs, like Perelel’s “The Complete Plan”, include probiotics and prebiotics. But you should check with your ob-gyn before you take them, says Dana Ellis Hunnes, a registered dietitian at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and author of Recipe for Survival.

“While most probiotics are safe, there are times when it’s not the best idea during pregnancy, like if a woman is immune-compromised,” Hunnes says. “Prebiotics are simply foods that feed probiotics, so they shouldn’t be a problem.”

3. Multi-packs

When you go with a standard prenatal supplement, one capsule often covers most of your daily needs. With boutique prenatals, multi-pill packs that include personalized add-ons and upgrades based on your nutritional needs or stage (trying to conceive, pregnant or postpartum, for example) are common.

This can be a nice perk, especially if you know you’re deficient in a certain nutrient. But check with your healthcare provider before you order, Dr. Bachmann says, because you might be missing out on some essentials. For example, the Needed Prenatal Multi that’s part of their Starter Plan doesn’t include iron—it’s an add-on. The Ritual Prenatal Multivitamin does contain iron. Perelel bundles calcium with magnesium into an extra supplement, so their “Core Prenatal” doesn’t provide one of the minerals ACOG considers, well, core.

As long as you know this and take the extra pills every day, it’s not a problem. The number of capsules you swallow is much less important than getting all the nutrients you need. But if this feels like too much trouble to you, the single pill approach might be your best bet.

4. Powder supplements

Some modern prenatals, like Needed, let you pick from a powder or capsule. There’s no medical reason to choose one over the other, and powders are great if you like mixing your daily dose into smoothies, oatmeal or yogurt, or if you’re experiencing morning sickness and you’re having trouble swallowing a pill or can’t keep one down.

“Capsules can be a ‘filler’ of sorts, made from either plant-based cellulose or animal-based collagen,” Hunnes says. “You might pick a powder if you want to avoid that.”

Potential Benefits of Boutique Prenatal Vitamins

Still on the fence? Here are three reasons a subscription prenatal might make sense for you.

1. Convenience

“There’s no doubt it’s easier to get something delivered right to your door, especially if you only need to order it once in early pregnancy,” says registered dietitian and nutritionist Bonnie Taub-Dix, author of Read It Before You Eat It. But keep in mind: they tend to be more expensive.

A subscription to Goop’s “The Mother Load” packet, for example, costs $75 with a monthly subscription,or $90 for a single month. “The Complete Plan” from Needed comes in at $129–$149 per month. For comparison, a drugstore staple like Nature Made Prenatal Multi + DHA Softgels cost less than $30 for a 90-day supply.

2. A Built-in Community

With most modern vitamin brands, you get more than a package of pills, gummies or powder—which usually come in cool, eco-conscious packaging. Ritual’s blog offers factual and friendly coverage of everything from nutrition myths to stop believing14  to easy ways to take care of yourself after birth15 , sourced from real moms who have been there.

The Needed Changemakers16 , a community of women’s health practitioners, host free virtual events where they discuss topics like food anxiety and breastfeeding. These supplements come with a side of social interaction!

3. Peace of Mind if You Have Food Allergies

Most boutique supplement brands prioritize total transparency about their ingredients, which makes shopping much easier for people with food allergies or intolerances. For example:

  • Natalist is free from the top eight food allergens17 , along with other ingredients like corn.

  • Perelel supplements are gluten- and soy-free.

  • Ritual has a map18  showing exactly where each vitamin is sourced, including background info on the supplier.

  • Most subscription picks say they’re free of fillers and genetically-modified ingredients.

All supplement makers—drugstore brands included—are required by law19  to list whether they include the top eight food allergens. But if you need to avoid anything beyond that (gluten, for example), it usually takes some detective work. “It’s best to call the manufacturer directly to confirm whether your allergen is in the supplement,” says Dr. Zachary Rubin, an allergist and spokesperson for the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

If that feels like too much trouble or you can’t get a direct answer, “avoid that supplement altogether,” he says.

The Bottom Line: It’s Personal

There’s not one best prenatal vitamin for everyone. “Every woman is unique,” Dr. Bachmann says. “And you may have special considerations based on your health profile that your provider can point out.”

That’s why it’s always a good idea to ask your ob-gyn to weigh in. If they don’t recommend any extra vitamins or minerals, you can safely stick with the mix ACOG5  considers essential (listed above). Whether you get that from a drugstore brand, a subscription service or a combination of both is up to you.

Pregnant woman holding her stomach on a bed with a plant in the background

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Expectful uses only high-quality sources, including academic research institutions, medical associations, and subject matter experts.

  1. Katerina Schneider"It’s time to clear up the facts"

  2. Needed Website"Your prenatal nutrition isn't cutting it."

  3. Alex Taylor, and Victoria Thain Gioia"We are Perelel. Here is our story."

  4. Natalist"Every reproductive moment IS WORTHY."

  5. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists"Nutrition During Pregnancy"

  6. Jill Jin"Folic Acid Supplementation for Prevention of Neural Tube Defects"Jama Network, vol. 317, no. 2Jan 17, 2019

  7. Emily Oken"Fish consumption and marine omega-3 fatty acid supplementation in pregnancy"Jan 4, 2022

  8. Sarah Jane Schwarzenberg, Michael K. Georgieff, Stephen Daniels, Mark Corkins, Neville H. Golden, Jae H. Kim, C. Wesley Lindsey, and Sheela N. Magge"Advocacy for Improving Nutrition in the First 1000 Days to Support Childhood Development and Adult Health"AMERICAN ACADEMY OF PEDIATRICS, vol. 141, no. 2Feb 1, 2018

  9. UPS"About the U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP)"

  10. NSF "The NSF Mark"

  11. MedlinePlus "Hereditary folate malabsorption"

  12. Marie A Caudill"Folate bioavailability: implications for establishing dietary recommendations and optimizing status"EL SEVIER, vol. 91, no. 5Mar 10, 2010, pp.  1455S-1460S

  13. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention"General Information About NTDs, Folic Acid, and Folate"Jul 13, 2022

  14. Victoria Hoff"6 Nutrition Myths We'd Like to Clear Up"

  15. Arianne Vance"11 Easy Ways to Take Care of Yourself After Birth"

  16. Needed"Meet the Needed Changemakers"

  17. FDA"Food Allergies"Jan 10, 2023,peanuts%2C%20wheat%2C%20and%20soybeans..

  18. Ritual"Traceable Ingredients"

  19. FDA"Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004"Nov 29, 2022

  20. Rutgers"Core Faculty Member Gloria Bachmann"

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