From arginine to zinc, there's a frighteningly long list of nutrients that you can't live without. You certainly don't want to fall short of choline -- a nutrient that the body uses to make cell membranes and key compounds in the brain.
Choline is found in many foods, including eggs, beef, salmon, wheat germ and broccoli. That's the good news about essential nutrients: They tend to show up regularly in foods, which helps explain how humans managed to survive quite a while before the invention of the multivitamin.
But not everyone is willing to take chances on diet alone. Like many other nutrients, choline is now a commodity in the supplement market. Touted as an aid for mood, mental sharpness and cardiovascular health, choline supplements are sold at health food stores everywhere.
GNC sells 100 tablets of 250-milligram choline for about $7. Users are instructed to take one or two tablets each day. You can buy 60 tablets of 500-milligram choline from Physician Formulas for about $15. Physician Formulas also offers choline as one of the main ingredients (along with ginkgo and ginseng) in Mind Power Rx, a supplement that supposedly improves alertness and focus. Ninety capsules -- each containing 25 milligrams of choline -- costs about $30. Choline is also showing up in multivitamins: Even Flintstones Complete now includes 38 milligrams of choline per tablet.
The claims: According to the GNC label, its choline supplement "supports brain, liver and cardiovascular health." The Physician Formulas website claims that "most people who take a choline supplement notice having more mental focus and being more alert." The company also claims that Mind Power Rx will improve memory, concentration and focus. The Flintstones Vitamins website says that the choline in Flintstones Complete will "support healthy brain function."
The bottom line: Choline is undoubtedly a vital nutrient, and anyone who skimps on it does so at their own peril, says Dr. Steven Zeisel, professor of nutrition and pediatrics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the director of the UNC Clinical Nutrition Research Center. But since many people already get plenty of choline in their diets, the value of supplements is uncertain.
Men should get at least 550 milligrams of choline each day and women need at least 425 milligrams a day, according to guidelines set by the National Academy of Sciences. A single egg contains about 130 milligrams, 3 ounces of beef contains about 70 milligrams, a cup of cooked broccoli contains about 60 milligrams, and a glass of milk contains about 40 milligrams.
Even people who aren't getting enough choline -- perhaps they avoid eggs or have a very low-fat diet -- shouldn't expect an instant pick-me-up from supplements, Zeisel says. "I don't think they would notice more energy or a better mood."
But for pregnant women, the benefits of extra choline could go far deeper than a mood lift, says Marie Caudill, an associate professor of nutritional sciences and genomics at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. Like folic acid, choline seems to help prevent neural-tube defects in developing fetuses, and it may also help prevent cleft palates. There's also intriguing evidence that choline can supercharge developing brains. When researchers give pregnant rats extra choline, the pups showed impressive memory skills throughout their entire lives.
Caudill says it's too early to say if pregnant women who get extra choline can expect extra-smart children. Still, she says, women who are pregnant or breast-feeding should try to get plenty of the nutrient every day. "My first inclination would be to recommend foods that are high in choline."
Mothers aren't the only ones who could potentially benefit from choline. The nutrient might also help nourish growing brain cells in young children, Zeisel says, although the amount found in Flintstones Complete may be too small to make much difference. High levels of choline in adults may help reduce homocysteine, a compound that can increase the risk of heart disease. A shortfall of choline can cause liver damage known as fatty liver. (On the flip side, exceeding 3,500 milligrams daily -- the highest a person can consume without risk -- could result in a fishy body odor and an unsafe drop in blood pressure.)
Despite these potential benefits, Zeisel doesn't believe that supplements are always in order. "I would try to get my diet in good shape first," he says. If that's not possible, he says, choline supplements could be a valuable addition.