B Vitamins: Energy Miracle or Wallet Drain? [Taking health advice from the Costco samples guy]

by Charlotte on March 6, 2013 · 52 comments


Cartoon says: (man) “Gosh, Honey, you seem to thrive on cooking, cleaning and dusting and I’m all tuckered out by closing time. What’s the answer?” (woman) “Vitamins, Darling! I always get my vitamins!” Charlotte says: Gee willikers, where can I get some amphetamines fortified with vitamins too??

Accosted at Costco. That’s either the best name of a new novel or the worst way to spend a Saturday. I think you can guess which direction this is going. After a sweaty Turbokick class I was feeling blitzed so I suggested to my husband that we take the kids to Costco for what I call “the walking lunch.” (Confession: I actually wanted to go to Costco because my friend told me they had tutus on sale there and you know I have a tutu addiction. So what if they only come in sizes 3T-7? Elastic is stretchy, right??) See, on Saturdays Costco deploys their fleet of taste testers – generally sweet elderly people who give my kids two of everything – and by the time we’ve walked up and down all the aisles the kids have had lunch and I’ve got my shopping done. I know, I’m a parenting genius. (Or lazy.)

As a general rule I don’t eat grocery store samples – first because I don’t like packaged food and second because Intuitive Eating says you should always sit down to eat and sitting in the aisles makes my shopping go slower than it already does with four kids in tow. But this time the last sample table caught my eye. At first because the young man was trying to hand my kids a caffeinated drink and they need caffeine like Nicki Minaj needs more wigs but as I got closer I realized it wasn’t just a drink, it was a fitness supplement. I was curiouser than Lindsay Lohan’s accountant.

The product was Zipfizz. The man rattled off his spiel, something akin to this, off their website:

Zipfizz is healthy energy in a tube! Give your body a rush of vitamins, minerals and key amino acids to protect the immune system. Zipfizz has created an advanced formula that provides a significant amount of vitamins, fewer calories, lower carbohydrates, superior taste, variety and unique packaging! Simply put, it’s different because it’s good for you!

You guys, it has unique packaging! You should totally buy it!! Actually what really made me stop was when the salesman said, “It’s our signature Vitamin B12 that gets you movin’! Dedicated to providing consumers with a healthier alternative to energy and sports drinks we deliver an amazing amount of B12 41,667%. Straight to the point…Vitamin B12 equals ENERGY!” That much is from their website, he added, “It works because B12 uses the excess protein in your body and synthesizes it into energy. B vitamins are natural fat burners so they’ll help you lose weight too.”

I was annoyed. Why does every fitness professional automatically assume I want to lose weight? (Okay, I do but still… I’m trying to not be obsessive about that anymore and this didn’t help.) I smelled shoddy science which, for the record, smells like burnt popcorn and public toilets. I didn’t buy the Zipfizz. I’d like to say I was overtaken by rational thought but really it was when my husband announced loudly that I’m not allowed to take caffeine as it interferes with my crazy meds and led me away by the arm. I love that man.

So caffeine’s out but what about those B vitamins? Do they really do what he says? When I was a vegan I took a B12 supplement – of which it is also rumored that Madonna gets megadoses shot into her butt once a month (I’m so on top of my celeb butt gossip!) – but I never really paid attention to why I needed it.

What are B Vitamins?

The category known as B vitamins contain 8 water-soluble vitamins including those known commonly as riboflavin, thiamine, folic acid, biotin and niacin. The nice thing about being water soluble is that it’s nearly impossible to overdose – you just pee out the excess. Bonus: it turns your urine a shade of neon yellow so shocking that if you aren’t prepared for it you will scream out loud in a public bathroom stall. Not that I know anything about that personally. Ahem. The downside of water solubility is that if your body doesn’t need them, it doesn’t store the extra and therefore you just have really expensive pee.

B Vitamin Deficiencies

Remember beri-beri, that hilarious sounding illness that your history teacher talked about, usually in conjunction with scurvy, the other illness that always makes me think of pirates and giggle? It’s caused by a B1 deficiency. Other not-so-funny problems resulting from B vitamin deficiencies include “emotional disturbances”, acne, irregular heartbeat, psychosis and pernicious anemia (beware the pernicious knid!).

While nobody wants to be emotionally disturbed, it’s the anemia that is the real killer. And I mean that literally. The anemia resulting from a deficiency can be fatal and even when it isn’t, the brain damage is irreversible. B12 comes from a bacteria that is only found in animal products (although there is some evidence that some seaweed may contain a form of it), hence the reason vegans are told to either take a supplement or eat foods fortified with it like most breads and cereals.

B Vitamin Benefits

Now that we’ve covered the death and destruction segment of today’s show, let’s look at those Zipfizz claims. According to research, B vitamins are known to increase the rate of metabolism (I suppose that’s where the weight-loss claim comes from), help skin, increase muscle tone, improve the immune and nervous systems, aid in cell growth and division especially that of red blood cells, prevent anemia and reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer.

I know. I’m kinda wishing I’d bought the Zipfizz now. But there’s a catch – like many vitamins, they don’t operate in a vacuum. Many studies, especially the ones related to cancer risk, only show the benefits when the B vitamins are consumed from food and not in pill form.

To Supplement of Not to Supplement, That is the Question

In an LA Times article about B-vitamin infused sports drinks, Hope Barkoukis, an associate professor of nutrition at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and chairwoman of Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutritionists says,
“Contrary to what ads would have us believe, B vitamins aren’t little packets of energy. It’s brilliant marketing but it doesn’t have any basis.”

“It’s true that the vitamins help unlock the energy in foods, Barkoukis says, but weary office workers can’t expect to get a jolt from extra B vitamins in any form. The reason, she says, is simple: Just about everyone in America [with the exception of some of the elderly] already gets all of the B vitamins they could possibly need in their diets.”


Surprising no one, whole foods win out again! Instead of buying Zipfizz or other b-vitamin supplements, make sure you get plenty of (this will shock you) leafy greens, fruits like watermelon, tomatoes (they are too a fruit!) and bananas, beans, lentils and the full gamut of animal products including eggs, chicken, beef, liver, seafood, and dairy.

If you are vegan or don’t like lots of produce you should consider a supplement or fortified foods. (Note: despite the popular wisdom in some vegan circles, neither nutritional yeast nor brewer’s yeast contain B12 unless they are fortified with it and it says so on the label.) B12 supplements are not derived from the animal products themselves but rather the bacterial microorganisms that live on animals. (One website adds “although some vegans may get b12 from inadequate hand washing, this is not advisable.” In all my time as a vegan I never once considered getting b12 from my own fecal matter! You learn something new every day…)

Grocery store samples: love or hate? Have you ever tried an energy drink like Zipfizz or 5-hour Engery fortified with megadoses of B vitamins? How do you feel about getting health advice from the taste-tester guy at Costco?

*Let’s remember that I am not a nutritionist, doctor or scientist and am completely unqualified to give advice, even when it comes to wearing black socks with sandals. I’m just telling you the information I found so you can make your own informed decisions.


{ 52 comments… read them below or add one }

Shadowduck March 7, 2013 at 1:48 am

“I smelled shoddy science which, for the record, smells like burnt popcorn and public toilets.” <– I knew I recognised that smell from somewhere!


Redhead March 7, 2013 at 5:43 am

Did I read 41-THOUSAND percent? Holy moly. That just can’t be necessary. When I need energy I go for good old fashioned coffee or peanut butter crackers (and pee normally).


Naomi/Dragonmamma March 7, 2013 at 6:47 am

We’ve had the exact same Zipp-fizz sample and shpiel here at my California Costco. Because it was an extremely slow day, the guy even gave me an entire bottle of the stuff to drink as I shopped. It did not give me boundless energy. It did make me burp and need to go pee.


Charlotte March 9, 2013 at 7:26 am

Glad I’m not the only who got sucked in! (And had to pee like mad too!!)


Shelly March 7, 2013 at 6:58 am

My mom totally did the walking lunch thing at her local Sam’s Club! Love it!
When I was in college (and on the pill and super mood-swingy) my gyno suggested that I take additional B6 to help with my mood swings because taking birth control pills can lead to a B6 deficiency. It seemed to help, especially since I didn’t eat a lot of nutrient dense foods back then (unless microwavable taquitos dipped in copious amounts of sour cream are somehow nutritious!).
So no B12 stories (although I think my B6 vitamins usually came with B12 and folic acid anyway so I was certainly taking plenty), but I’ve taken B6 for years.


Charlotte March 9, 2013 at 7:29 am

I did not know that about the BC pills!! And I hear you on poor eating in college. I was the queen of Lipton rice-n-sauce. Oy.


JavaChick March 7, 2013 at 8:02 am

For years my Mum was telling me I should be taking a B-complex supplement for energy. I never found it made any difference, but to be fair, I’m bad at remembering to take supplements regularly.

That said, lately I’ve been feeling really awful – tired, headache-y, weak, etc. I happened to see something about iron deficiency and read up on the symptoms…and said: “A-ha!” I probably should go to the doctor and get checked out, but I chose the quickest route and bought some iron supplements (they also contain B-12). It’s only been a few days, but I do feel much better. This would be one of the few times in my life where I’m sure a supplement is actually doing something for me.


Charlotte March 9, 2013 at 7:32 am

Yes, iron can make a HUGE difference! You do have to be careful not to OD but I’m sure if you’re just following the dosing guidelines on the bottle you’re fine. Anemia can be exhausting and is sorely underdiagnosed in women. (Gotta love the monthly bleed out…) So glad you are feeling better!


JavaChick March 9, 2013 at 10:13 am

Thanks Charlotte! I actually did make an appointment to see my doc as well. Figured I should get checked out and I plan to take my supplements with me to find out what the doc thinks. I’m just glad to be feeling better!


Abby March 7, 2013 at 8:36 am

In the worst of the anorexia my doctor put me on a B complex vitamin (among other things). Not really sure if it helped but I took it for a few years afterwards until I finally decided it was silly to spend money on supplements when I was eating like a semi-normal person again. I stopped taking it and noticed no difference. So my guess is I was getting enough from food by then.

And (not sure why this whole post reminds me of the crazy days but it does!) I remember trying to figure out the calories in Costco samples. That will drive you insane. These days my grocery store almost always has cookie samples near the bread. Yum!


Charlotte March 9, 2013 at 7:34 am

Sorry this triggered some crazy! But yeah, I hear you about trying to figure out the calories in random things like one bite of my husband’s ice cream or that 1/8 of a cookie from the sample lady. CRAZY MAKING. And I’m so glad I don’t feel compelled to do that anymore!


Geosomin March 7, 2013 at 8:42 am

Back in university I had digestive issues and was low in energy and my doctor suggested taking more B12 (plus folic acid as part of a B complex to make sure I could process and absorb it properly) since I was on the low range of normal for vitamin B levels and it made the world of difference for me as far as energy, mood and not having weird stomach issues anymore. Now that eat more healthy I still do try and take my vitamins for this reason and it seems that the more often I do the less stomach problems I have. Works for me. Can’t speak for anyone else though.


Stephanie March 7, 2013 at 9:12 am

“B12 supplement – of which it is also rumored that Madonna gets megadoses shot into her butt once a month ” – Funny, Roger Clemens said his shots were B12 as well! =)

And the warehouse walking lunches are awesome! No kids, just a love for small snacks doled out by elderly people.


Charlotte March 9, 2013 at 7:36 am

Buwhahah! I didn’t think of it that way!! Although that would explain a lot frankly…


Jenny C. March 7, 2013 at 9:18 am

I love sample days at the store! I absolutely love appetizer/snack-type foods, though, so that helps. Once, I got a whole cup of jelly beans! Those were my favorite days as a kid, and if I bought enough groceries to merit a membership, they’d probably be my favorite days as an adult (I live by myself and would probably end up having to throw a lot of the food away if I bought in bulk).

Also, I wouldn’t put too much stock in what a guy running a booth at Costco says. I only say that because I’ve been that person before. I spent a couple weekends peddling Centrum multivitamins at a Sam’s Club, and basically just memorized the brochures they had sent me the week before. I didn’t know anything about the product other than what was in their advertising materials. I’m not saying the product is bad or anything, just that the salesperson might not be as knowledgeble as they appear.


Charlotte March 9, 2013 at 7:40 am

Hahah – good to know! I kind of thought that was the case. He was definitely nice and personable!


Amy N. March 7, 2013 at 10:12 am

I think the calories you burn getting samples at costco nixes out any extra you may eat by not sitting down to a meal. I mean you have to run over there, push people out of the way. make sure there are enough samples for your party, and grab them all before someone else steals one you claimed dibs on. Then you have to make sure all the appropriate items get into a garbage can (including any disgusting samples) which are usually also surrounded by people since they’re always by the carts of food, meanwhile you are sizing up the competition at the next station. I’d say it was a good interval workout.


Amy N. March 7, 2013 at 10:12 am

Not to mention the laps you may do while waiting for a new sample batch to come out while not trying to look like you’re waiting for them to come out.


Rosa March 7, 2013 at 2:10 pm

Let’s call this the Costco diet! You can only eat at Costco, you can only eat each sample 2x, and all your samples have to fit into a 2 hour window. New fad diet? If I write this as a book, will I become a millionaire? ;)


Charlotte March 9, 2013 at 7:41 am

ROFL. You two crack me up! I love it!!! And I agree. Especially if you add in a part about running laps around the store chasing my speedy escape-artist toddler…


Daniel D March 7, 2013 at 11:09 am

I never felt any difference when I took vitamin B supplements on normal days. However, I really do feel a much greater boost in energy and stamina when I’ve taken vitamin B prior to intense physical training. So these days I only supplement on days I’m going to work my body hard.


Charlotte March 9, 2013 at 7:43 am

Oh this is an interesting distinction! I wonder if I can find research linking B vits to strength training…


Stacy J March 7, 2013 at 12:28 pm

Thanks for the great post! Vitamin B is so very important to take! Learned a bunch of new things though!


TS March 7, 2013 at 1:30 pm

I think you forgot the one fun part of B-supplements: neon pee! (no, just me?)
I never noticed a difference in my energy when taking b vitamins. I did, however, notice a change when I stopped drinking coffee/tea and took extra iron (vegans really shouldn’t have those, the tannins block iron absorption.) I think people notice a difference if they eat crap food, but if the person eats well balanced meals, extra b vitamins doesn’t make a difference.

I learned a long time ago to not take costco samples. I always feel sick after eating it. When you’re used to healthy food, you have a really hard time going back to processed…and that stinks, because sometimes I want to splurge…and I can’t :( Family is annoyed at me also, because they miss being able to enjoy junk food.


Naomi/Dragonmamma March 7, 2013 at 4:17 pm

It’s not all junk food. My Costco often has a “meat” day: Tri-tip, Aidell sausages and meatballs, Harris Ranch pot roast, etc. It may not be grass-fed, but I sure wouldn’t call it junk food.


TS March 7, 2013 at 11:19 pm

I’m vegan, and my family is vegetarian. That pretty much leaves the overly salted crap that stores well on the shelves. Except when they try to sell salad dressing, which is loaded with sugar and canola oil. :-) Also, at my costco, they don’t really have samples of actual meat, it’s samples of the frozen, ready made meals.


Charlotte March 9, 2013 at 7:49 am

I had no idea about the tannins blocking iron absorption!! So interesting. And holla to the neon pee! (That also smells vaguely vitamin-y!!). Also, I gotta agree that most of the samples are processed junk. Although last week they did have fresh fruit samples so that was awesome!


Kara March 7, 2013 at 3:44 pm

I take a liquid form of B12 everyday. I am not sure about boundless energy but I think that it does help (I am a vegan by the way). I used to get the B12 shots in my butt. However, going to the doc once a month for the shot did not really work into my schedule so I switched to the liquid. I make a green/protein drink every morning and just put my dose in there.


Sarah March 7, 2013 at 3:52 pm

As someone who can’t digest B-12 and now needs shots every month, I can tell you that vitamin B-12 deficiency is no joke. I was tired, weak, weird chest pains, faint/short of breath/weird heart rate after working out, etc before they figured it out. I wish I could just take a pill or drink the B-12 but I am lucky people who don’t properly digest it (it is one of the harder vitamins to absorb properly).


Charlotte March 9, 2013 at 7:50 am

Yes, B12 deficiency can even be deadly. SO glad you figured it out and are taking care of it! Sounds scary!


Alyssa (azusmom) March 7, 2013 at 6:25 pm

I tried 5-Hour Energy once. Didn’t feel a thing. and then I heard about all those lawsuits in which people complained of heart palpitations and coronaries. Now I just try to get enough sleep and eat Good Stuff. And take a multivitamin.
My father-in-law is also a big fan of Lunch de Costco. exceot he’s not as cute as your kids, and only gets one of each sample. :)


Matt March 7, 2013 at 10:46 pm

Oh poo! You mean to tell me that the rush I get from energy drinks isn’t from the B vitamins in it?

Ah well I guess I’ll just have to go back to good old standard caffeine doses so large they would animate dead tissue.


Charlotte March 9, 2013 at 7:51 am

This made me laugh out loud so hard I startled my kids. Twice.


John@Buy Clenbuterol UK March 8, 2013 at 12:09 am

The benefits of B Vitamins are many. Some of those are ease stress, reduce heart-disease risk, treat anxiety and depression etc. The B vitamins are related family of nutrients.


Jess March 8, 2013 at 4:34 am

Great article.I always knew that vitamins B were for your health but after reading this post I have to admit that i learnt quite a lot about them….
Thank you for you great post :)


Linda R. Dickerman March 8, 2013 at 7:12 am

Vitamin B is so very important to take! They bring your body into balance and help with stress, weight loss, depression, poor memory, energy levels and disease prevention.
Thank you for your sharing :)


Julie March 8, 2013 at 8:25 am

Another great post in my INBOX this morning… love your commentary & humor, Charlotte. The bigger question, however, is did you find your tutu?!


Charlotte March 9, 2013 at 7:53 am

Buwhahah! I DID actually. It’s pink and orange and awesome and all I need now is an occasion to wear it!


javamonster March 8, 2013 at 8:01 pm

I was diagnosed with borderline anemia years and years ago (and I keep getting diagnosed with it through the years, so it’s a persistent problem) and with low B12 more recently. I do take B12 supplements, but not consistently. I have no idea if it helps at all.


Jess March 9, 2013 at 4:43 pm

I was going to ask if you found your tutu too! Sounds like an awesome purchase. I’m not sure about the whole supplementing thing. I always feel as though it gives me really expensive pee and that is it. I was really anaemic during my pregnancy and the iron tablets made me sick, so I stopped taking them and focused on iron heavy foods. My blood was Back to normal in a month. Can’t beat whole foods!


Jessica Miller March 10, 2013 at 1:50 am

During my pregnancy I took pills that include all needed vitamines and Iron too. Actually it was enough to make my blood tests fine. Those who have not enough iron in their blood, may eat mean. Turkey has a lot of iron.


Stefan March 10, 2013 at 11:00 am

I like to believe the fact that beer contains some vitamin B makes it tastes better after a workout. And justifies my actions and some social behavior with my friends :)
That is, if taken responsibly.


Nate March 10, 2013 at 7:20 pm

Considering caffeine is a diuretic I’m pretty sure a lot of those vitamins would get peed out before adequate absorption. Also, you’d want to understand which vitamins are water soluble and which are fat soluble because then whether or not you take food with it will be an issue.


Nate March 10, 2013 at 7:33 pm

Actually, I missed the mention of B12. that’s one that does become more bio-available with caffeine.


Chris March 10, 2013 at 8:27 pm

I couldn’t agree more. The way the vitamin companies and nutrition supplement companies manipulate the market just to get people to buy more products is insane. Especially when you could get the same amount (if not better quality) of vitamins from natural sources. Great article.


Zack C. March 11, 2013 at 10:10 am

Zipfizz NICE! Most of these companies are not regulated by the FDA and it’s amazing how they get away with the claims that they do! Thanks for a great article!


maimona March 11, 2013 at 10:20 am

Vitamin B is extremely important for every age person.thanks for this incredible post


Timothy Swanson March 14, 2013 at 5:04 pm

Yeah, the sales pitch will get you every time. I really like your Costco lunch technique. I’ve tried to pay attention and eat foods with B vitamins during the afternoon when I’m at work to try to give me a little bit of an energy boost. Haven’t tried the five hour energy although I’ve heard that others have good results with it.


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