Maybe it's the uppity female athlete in me, but what first made me notice One-a-Day Teen Advantage was the TV ad, which seemed like a flashback to a pre-Title IX world. Boys get their own version of the multivitamin, which among other things addresses their concern about "healthy muscle function." The girls, meantime, want "healthy skin," hence their particular formulation. I found it odd, since a lot of girls idolize Mia Hamm and are just as concerned about their muscles as their skin. (I wasn't the first to catch this—the blog Appetite for Equal Rights commented on the issue last fall, when the product launched.) Tricia McKernan, a spokesperson for Bayer, which makes One-a-Day, said in an E-mail that the formulations were based on "extensive market research" about the health concerns of teens.
Regardless of the ads, I wondered if teenagers need a vitamin of their own and, if so, whether boys' and girls' needs differ. To begin with, there's broad debate over whether healthy, nonpregnant adults without any specific deficiencies benefit from any kind of multivitamin or other supplementation. Chronic-disease-fighting benefits from many single-nutrient supplements appear to be nonexistent, according to recent studies. Another recent study of kids and teens, meantime, found that those who were taking the most supplements were already engaging in healthful behaviors—including getting physical activity and eating a nutritious diet that includes milk—that were likely to protect them from health problems. (The kids and teens at highest risk of nutritional deficiencies are not taking supplements.)
Everyone, including the supplement industry and doctors, says that in an ideal world, we'd all—kids, teens, and adults—get our nutrients from food. "A pill will never replace the goodness that a well-balanced diet brings," says Ulfat Shaikh, a pediatrician at the University of California-Davis School of Medicine and lead author of the recent study of supplement use in kids.
But teens are at particular risk of dietary shortfalls, since they often skip breakfast, consume much of their food outside the home, and are more likely to have sodas, snack foods, and fast foods rather than low-fat milk, fruits, and vegetables, says Shaikh. Because of that, and to make sure they get enough vitamin D, which can be tough to get from food alone, she recommends to teenage patients that they take a regular adult multivitamin as a decent insurance policy against nutritional shortfalls. This is especially true if your diet is restricted—for example, if you're a vegan.
But there is really no need for a vitamin aimed specifically at teens, says David Schardt, senior nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "Most of our nutrient needs are pretty similar," he says, varying chiefly by weight and body size. "And a child's nutrient needs are similar whether they're male or female," he says. He took a look at the claims for and the labels of the male and female versions of One-a-Day Teen Advantage and wasn't impressed. Doses exceeding the percent daily value of thiamin, riboflavin, and vitamins B6 and B12 do not provide an extra energy boost, he says. (The vitamin maker's website says they "support energy through the conversion of food to fuel.") And skin isn't likely to be helped by a supplement unless you're deficient in vitamin A, which isn't a problem in the United States, says Schardt. (Bayer's McKernan says the teen vitamins, like the company's other niche market offerings, are "designed to address the specific nutritional needs at that stage of life.")
Schardt's standard recommendation for those who would like to hedge their bets against any gaps in their usually healthful diet: a cheap multi. There's no need for anything that claims any particular medical benefit, and there's no need for teens to buy something different from adults, unless you're a girl and simply can't do without the pink-and-melon packaging.