Although a well-balanced diet is believed to be best way to consume vitamins and minerals, some people prefer to take out an “insurance policy” in the form of supplements. And sometimes, when our diets are limited, getting everything you need can be trickier. Fortunately, there is no shortage of calcium supplements on the market.
But not all supplements are created equal. Which is why I’ve created this quick guide to help you narrow down the options, and choose what’s best for you. This information is excerpted from my flagship book, Go Dairy Free: The Guide and Cookbook.
Are Calcium Supplements Dairy Free?
Most calcium supplements are dairy free because calcium is a mineral, not a dairy product or extract. Calcium is one of the most abundant minerals in our environment, so it would be unnecessarily expensive to extract it from cow’s milk for supplements. In fact, most supplemental calcium is either synthetic or derived from rocks, like limestone or marble. However, some supplements do have lactose or other forms of dairy added as a filler, so be sure to read the label.
Types of Calcium Supplements
Various types of calcium are used in supplements, but I have more specific information on the most popular calcium compounds. You can find out which type of calcium is in your pills by looking at the supplement facts on the label.
This is the most inexpensive and readily available option. It contains the highest level of elemental calcium (40 percent), so fewer pills may be required in order to reach your desired daily intake. However, a big pill typically accompanies this big amount of calcium. A chewable calcium tablet or liquid calcium may be preferred for those who find the tablets too large to swallow.
Calcium carbonate should be taken with meals or with an acidic beverage such as orange juice. It’s alkaline based and requires extra stomach acid for maximum absorption. For some people, intestinal distress in the form of gas or constipation is a possibility. If this happens to you, try upping your dietary fiber intake, and drink more water. If that doesn’t help, your doctor might advise you to switch to calcium citrate.
Calcium citrate usually costs just a bit more than calcium carbonate, and is not quite as easy to find, but overall it’s an excellent option. It has less elemental calcium (21 percent), but it’s better absorbed than calcium carbonate. Calcium citrate is also more acidic, and may be taken at any time in the day, even on an empty stomach. If you are taking acid blockers for indigestion, acid reflux, or other intestinal conditions, calcium citrate may be your best option from an absorption point of view.
Calcium phosphate is rarely recommended by the scientific community. Although some types of calcium phosphate contain high levels of elemental calcium, the average diet already contains ample phosphorus from processed foods.
This type of calcium supplements is usually well absorbed, but it has just 13 percent of elemental calcium. Calcium lactate is derived from lactic acid, but it is not considered to be a problem for milk allergies or lactose intolerance. Lactic acid is created via the fermentation of sugars, and can be found in many dairy-free and/or vegan foods. Most commercially used lactic acid is fermented from carbohydrates, such as cornstarch, potatoes or molasses, and thus dairy-free. Though lactic acid can be fermented from lactose, its use is generally restricted to dairy products, such as ice cream and cream cheese. But always check with the manufacturer if you have any concerns.
Like calcium lactate, this type of calcium has been shown to absorb well, but it has a very low level of elemental calcium – just 9 percent.
Coral and Chelated Calcium
Most doctors agree that coral and chelated calcium supplements are frequently overpriced and overhyped. Companies have yet to prove their advantages over any of the calcium compounds noted above. However, a calcium collagen chelate has shown promise in studies.
Types of Calcium to Avoid
It is best to avoid supplements that contain dolomite, bone meal, or oyster shell, as these products may be contaminated with lead, mercury, and/or arsenic. Vegans might also want to use caution in selecting calcium supplements, as other non-vegan ingredients could be used.
What About AlgaeCal?
This is a brand of calcium supplements made from red algae. It is calcium carbonate, but the company claims it is more bioavailable because it is extracted from plants. Compelling scientific evidence is limited, and some of their studies don’t tell the whole picture, as noted in this report. Not to mention, it’s far more expensive than other types of calcium. At last check, a 1 month supply of AlgaeCal was about $60, while an equivalent 3 month supply of calcium carbonate with magnesium and vitamin D (like AlgaeCal) was less than $10. But you can read more at AlgaeCal if interested.
What is Elemental Calcium?
Several different calcium compounds are utilized in supplements, such as calcium carbonate, calcium phosphate and calcium citrate mentioned above. The elemental calcium represents the actual amount or percentage of calcium in the compound.
You should always read the labels of calcium supplements to verify the amount of elemental calcium available. To find it, look at the nutrition/supplement facts label and look for the calcium % of daily value is listed. In the past, the FDA used 1000 milligrams as the recommended daily value for calcium, but they have moved it up to 1300 milligrams. Some labels might differ. But under the newer amount, a supplement with 25% of the daily value for calcium has 325 milligrams of elemental calcium.
Also, be sure to note the serving size. That is the number of tablets or pills you must take in order to obtain that level of elemental calcium. Some supplements require that you take more than one pill to obtain the amount of calcium listed.
If you choose to supplement, do not consume more than 2000 milligrams of elemental calcium daily (diet and supplements combined)! This is considered the upper limit for calcium consumption.
Aren’t Calcium Supplements Regulated?
Although the FDA does not currently regulate calcium supplements, you can check the label for the initials USP. This is a guarantee that the product meets with the U.S. Pharmacopeia’s voluntary standards for quality, purity (lead content), and tablet disintegration. NatureMade and Kirkland Signature are two mainstream brands that usually obtain USP certification.
Since the USP system is completely voluntary, it does omit some top brands. You can sign up with Consumer Lab for a broader selection of reputable vitamins and minerals. They test, and report on, various brands and types of supplements, utilizing the same basic markers as the USP (quality, purity, and disintegration/absorption).
The National Science Foundation (NSF) also runs an independent testing standard and product certification program strictly for dietary supplements. The program tests for harmful levels of contaminants and certifies that supplements contain the ingredients listed on the label and nothing else.
The body will easily absorb most brand name calcium products. However, if in doubt check for the USP symbol, select an approved product from Consumer Lab, or try a simple test on a sample tablet. Place it into a glass of warm water or clear vinegar. Stir occasionally. If the tablet dissolves within 30 minutes, then the supplement will most likely dissolve in your stomach as well.
As a rule of thumb, calcium, whether from diet or supplements, is best absorbed when consumed throughout the day in increments of less than 500 milligrams. See our article on How Much Calcium for more guidance.
Other Bone Builders to Take with Calcium
Calcium supplements can be found in varying combinations, often paired with other vitamins and minerals. Two of the most common calcium buddies you will find are magnesium and vitamin D, and for good reason.
Approximately half of the magnesium in our bodies is located in our bones, making it another important piece in the bone health puzzle. Many doctors argue that most healthy individuals do not need magnesium supplements. Magnesium is abundant in leafy greens, nuts, peas, beans, and whole grains, so in theory, those who consume a varied, well-balanced, whole food–oriented diet should be well covered.
However, other medical professionals argue that magnesium is deficient in most modern diets due to high fat consumption, low plant consumption, the tendency to cook vegetables, depleted minerals in the soil, and excessive use of medications that can block the absorption of magnesium. Hence the popularity of calcium-magnesium supplements.
Calcium and magnesium are quite synergistic, so if you do choose to supplement with magnesium, a combination of calcium and magnesium may simplify things. Those who believe they may have a magnesium deficiency due to illness should consult a physician.
Vitamin D is essential for promoting calcium absorption in the gut and maintaining adequate concentrations of calcium in the blood. It is also required for bone growth and remodeling.
Most doctors seem to agree that sunscreen, age, and increasing indoor activities are depleting the levels of vitamin D we as humans are producing. This is prompting both Eastern and Western medical professionals to unite in the recommendation of vitamin D supplementation.
You may opt to take calcium supplements that contain vitamin D, which is great, but not an absolute must. Although vitamin D enhances calcium absorption, it is taken in and stored in a unique way and at a different rate than calcium. Therefore, it can be taken separately from calcium, and still prove effective.
Will a Multivitamin Cover My Calcium Needs?
The multivitamin has become a convenient, one-stop vitamin and mineral insurance policy for today’s hectic lifestyles. Not all multivitamins are created equal, though. Multivitamins possess numerous vitamins and minerals; therefore, quality is at greater risk. Be sure to select a USP or Consumer Lab verified product.
Beware of Interactions
Always check with your doctor or pharmacist before adding calcium or any other vitamins or supplements into the mix. This is particularly important if you are taking any prescription or over-the-counter medications.
Calcium has been shown to interfere with the absorption of iron supplements, Synthroid for hypothyroidism, bisphosphonate medication for osteoporosis (i.e., Fosamax or Didrocal), and certain antibiotics such as Tetracycline. A window of 2 hours or more between the medication and calcium supplementation is often recommended to prevent an interaction.
Favorite Calcium Supplement Brands
Each person is different and has their own unique needs. This short list is based on the above information and my own research. This should not be construed as medical or dietary advice. Always consult your physician regarding any supplements and to help you choose what is best for your health needs and concerns.
Bluebonnet Liquid Calcium – This is the brand I personally use, since I find calcium pills difficult to swallow, and I like the nutritional profile. It’s gluten-free, carrageenan-free, and free of top allergens (including dairy). It’s made with calcium citrate with magnesium citrate and D3 in amounts I look for. I also like that I can easily vary the amount I take (usually a half serving) and it doesn’t taste bad (it comes in several flavors). You can also add it to smoothies or recipes.
NatureMade – This is a readily-available, budget-friendly brand that’s USP certified and often recommended as a top calcium supplement. Like many brands, some of their supplements have too much calcium in one pill. But they do offer 500 milligram calcium carbonate supplements, which also contain a dose of vitamin D.
Citrical – This brand comes highly recommended by a lot of doctors, and it’s received high marks from Consumer Lab in the past. (We haven’t seen their most recent report.) But I prefer their Petites, which come in smaller doses that are easier to swallow, and helpful for fine tuning your daily intake. These also contain some vitamin D.
Now Foods Calcium Citrate Powder or Calcium Carbonate Powder – These are pure calcium, no other ingredients, and are great for adding to smoothies or other recipes. Since it is typically consumed with or in other foods, this is a great way to take calcium carbonate, if you prefer it. If you want more of a combination powder