About 40% of Americans popped a vitamin or mineral within the past month. The most common vitamins taken include vitamin C, B12, B6, niacin, thiamin, B2, E, A, D and folic acid. But are they the right kind? For many years, the pharmaceutical companies have produced synthetic vitamins in a laboratory setting. The "Whole Food" supplement industry claims that only natural vitamins from whole food sources will give you the health results your body needs and deserves. They claim that "Natural" vitamins from whole food sources are safer and more effective (absorbable) than a synthetic vitamin made in a lab. To defend their position, they site several vitamin studies that have come out over the last few years that seem to suggest that taking synthetic vitamins could be useless and even life threatening.
Although I would agree that many vitamins that come from a natural source are more superior to a synthetic source, I will not get into the flawed science of these studies today. I have covered this before. It is nothing but a regurgitation of the old anti-supplement propaganda. When the “Whole Foods” multivitamin companies use these studies as a proof that all synthetic vitamins are bad, they show themselves to be intellectually and professionally irresponsible. They prove no such thing. Here are a few links that might explain what I mean.
Vitamins Found To Be Risky And Impotent
Rebuttal to the Recent FLAWED Report that Antioxidants Shorten Lifespan
Vitamin Studies: Rebuttal to Allegation That Certain Vitamins May Shorten Lifespan
Many of these studies used synthetic forms of vitamin E that are petroleum-derived products or they used dosages that were 100 times higher than the safe upper limits would allow. In some cases, they used dosages that were way under the amount that would be therapeutic for their condition. Would you take a tenth of an aspirin for a headache? How about 100 aspirins at one time? If you drink to much or not enough water, it could kill you too.
But what about multivitamins? Can I trust them to be balanced and safe? According to the following report from MSNBC, Consumer Labs studied 21 products and found that only 10 met the stated claims on their labels or satisfied other quality standards. Two contained high amounts of LEAD and one (for children) contained a dangerous amount of vitamin A.
Synthetic Vitamins vs. Whole Food Supplements
Some claim that synthetic vitamins are the problem and encourage you to trade your synthetic vitamins in for whole food supplements which they claim are safer and more effective. I have noticed at least a dozen different companies that are marketing a "natural" whole food supplement in the last year. My chiropractor believes that vitamins should come from natural sources. Synthetic vitamins do not absorb well into the body and can sometimes do more harm than good. He claims that 90% of all synthetic vitamins are not absorbed and that they go down the toilet. He recommends an all-natural vitamin that is made from real fruits and vegetables. He sells it in his office. I read over the literature that he gave me and did a little research on my own. Let me ask you a question. Which one of the following three pictures looks "natural" to you?
The vitamin that my chiropractor was selling had a vegetable based pill and a fruit based pill with several fruits and vegetables packed into a tiny pill. The American Society for Nutritional Sciences published a study of this vitamin in the Journal of Nutrition five years ago. The vegetable blend for the vitamin was made of carrot, broccoli, spinach, tomato juice extract and kale leaf powder, which contain a variety of carotenoids.The claim was that it lowered your chances of getting a heart attack through the lowering of plasma homocysteine in men.
In a response to that study, two German scientists observed that the vitamin was fortified with ß-carotene, ascorbic acid, vitamin E and folic acid. After testing the plasma levels of test subjects, they found a significant increase in ß-carotene but the other carotenoids levels like plasma lycopene and lutein+zeaxanthin did not change at all. They suggested that the dried vegetables in the vitamin had carotenoids that were either not bioavailable (not well absorbed) or that there were none in there in the first place. In other tests, subjects who ate real vegetables saw a rise in plasma levels of the carotenoids missing in the vitamin takers (source: Fruit and Vegetable Concentrate or Vitamin Supplement?).
A whole food supplement sounds like a good idea in theory. Eating more organic fruits and vegetables is certainly the way to go but sounds questionable when put in the form of a pill. What happens to the fruits and vegetables that are dehydrated and ground into a powder form? Remember, fruits and vegetables contain some vitamins but are not pure vitamins. You would have to eat 7-10 oranges to get 500 mg. of natural vitamin C. You would have to eat 33 pounds of spinach or drink a whole quart of canola oil to get a therapeutic level (400 mg) of natural vitamin E. How do you fit that in a few tiny little pills?
Fiber Reduces Heart Disease
What happens to the fiber? According to the American Heart Association, it is the fiber in our diet that contributes to lower incidence of heart disease. The whole food supplements are devoid of most or all of the fiber they once contained. They take all of the water and fiber out so that they can fit it into the pill form. People who don't get enough fiber in their diet pop a few veggie or fruit pills thinking this will make up for their lack of fresh fruits and vegetables in their diet. This becomes their excuse for not eating and lulls them into a false sense of security. Less fiber in your diet has been linked to more obesity, higher blood pressure and cholesterol. How much fiber should you be eating per day? Click here to access a fiber calculator that will tell you how much you need personally. Remember, the average American eats about 14 grams of fiber per day. That's way below what is considered healthy.
Taking Whole Food Supplements is not the same as eating whole foods.
Of the 13 major nutrients found in fruits and vegetables, six have declined substantially over the last fifty years, according to a study by Donald Davis, a biochemist at the University of Texas at Austin.
Using data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Davis concludes that recently grown crops have shown decreases of up to 38 percent in protein, calcium, vitamin C, phosphorus, iron and riboflavin when compared with produce from past decades. According to the Journal Of The American Medical Association, "low levels of the antioxidant vitamins (vitamins A, E, and C) may increase risk for several chronic diseases. Most people do not consume an optimal amount of all vitamins by diet alone. Pending strong evidence of effectiveness from randomized trials, it appears prudent for all adults to take vitamin supplements."Because of our depleted soils, green harvesting, cold storage, processing, and food preparation methods, our foods have a significant decrease in nutritional value. This is certainly true of the micronutrients, especially the antioxidants.
So, if the vitamin content of fruits and vegetables is dramatically declining, what are you getting in a whole food supplement? Maybe a better question is, what are you not getting?
What is in a Whole Food Supplement?
It sounds great! What is in the supplement does not bother me. It is what I don't see, that concerns me. How much wolfberry is actually in each pill? How much of anything is in each pill? Why won't they disclose this? If I want to compare how much vitamin C is in there compared to another vitamin, how would I go about that? If I want to compare anything to that vitamin, it would be very hard without knowing how much of anything is really in there.
According to the literature, they claim that it is not about the quantity. It is about the balance of cofactors and the synergy between all of the ingredients. Vitamin C is better absorbed when it's cofactors of bioflavonoids are present. According to them, "less is more."Unfortunately, they will not independently verify the ingredients and the vitamin potency of those ingredients. The marketing is energetic but the science is weak.
According to the Comparative Guide to Nutritional Supplements, synergy of all the vitamins and cofactors are also important. So is quantitiy and quality. The conclusion of the author and biochemist, Lyle MacWilliam and 13 other nutritional experts (whose opinion are noted in the book) is that vitamins work best when they are in balance with each other and in balance with their cofactors. While many vitamins (A, C, E) are best in their natural forms, some vitamins are more readily absorbed and more efficient in their synthetic form.
Are Synthetic Vitamins Poorly Absorbed?
According to a recent advertisement for a whole food multi, 90% of all synthetic vitamins are not absorbed. They just make "expensive pee." Again, this is an intellectually irresponsible statement that makes a distortion of the truth.
A multivitamin might be made up of 40-100 different ingredients. Some are more absorbable than others. Calcium, for instance is poorly absorbed (~25-35%), no matter what form it is in - and for good reason, to prevent dangerous "calcium intoxication." The idea that any calcium is 100 percent absorbed by the body is ridiculous and if true, would be potentially hazardous. Coral calcium is a form of calcium that has been touted as a superior form of calcium because it is natural. It is nothing but the dead remains of a coral reef that has washed up on some beach. It is made up of calcium carbonate and is the same thing as the calcium carbonate in found in "synthetic" vitamins. It does not absorb any better than the "synthetic" form.
There are many factors that can affect the absorption of vitamins and minerals in the body. Some of these factors are a function of the person taking the nutrient and are dependent on the age of the person, the integrity of their digestive system, the state of their health, the time of day, the person's gender, and if the supplements were taken on a full or empty stomach. People whose nutrient needs are greater - such as growing children, pregnant or lactating women, and those who are currently deficient - may have significantly enhanced absorption rates for certain nutrients.
Boron, molybdenum, and iodine can be absorbed at over 90 percent, while the average absorption rates of zinc, copper, and selenium can range from 30 to 80 percent depending on the form.
Asking The Wrong Question
Assuming that all synthetic vitamins are bad and all vitamins derived from whole foods are good is not wholly accurate and misses the point. There is a common misconception that "natural" vitamins and minerals are extracted from plants in their pure form, and as such, are superior to "synthetic" vitamins and minerals which are made in a laboratory. This is a very misleading distinction.
First, it is not possible to extract pure vitamins from plants without considerable and significant chemical processing. Dehydrating and grinding the plants into powder is a form off processing too. Some of the natural qualities of fruits and vegetables are lost in such a process.
Next, the biological activity of a compound has nothing to do with its source but is determined by its chemical structure. In other words, it makes no difference whether the chemical originates from a leafy plant or a test tube - it is the same compound, regardless. Some (not all) vitamin and antioxidant compounds can be efficiently synthesized in laboratories to produce products that are identical in chemical form to those found in nature, and that are totally pure and totally safe (and oftentimes much less expensive than their "natural" counterparts).
In addition, some synthetic vitamins are preferentially absorbed over food sources. One good example is folic acid, which is preferentially absorbed and utilized over natural food folates that must go through several conversion processes to be utilized as folic acid.
Vitamins should not be chosen based on whether they are "natural" or "synthetic." Ingredients should be chosen based primarily on their effectiveness, bioavailability, purity, and safety.
When choosing a vitamin supplement (natural, synthetic or a combination), choose one that is
- A pharmaceutical-grade product. Most vitamins are manufactured on a food-grade level. The difference between the two are like the difference between how pizza and penicillin are produced. When you make a pizza, it doesn't matter how many or how much of any one ingredient you put on there. You don't have to be that exact with pizza. If a rat hair gets in there, no one will know. Penicillin, on the other hand has to be exact and pure. Every pill must have the EXACT amounts with no other traces of anything else in there. Vitamins that are manufactured at a pharmaceutical-grade level should insure the potency, safety and purity of their product. What is on the label should be guaranteed to be in the bottle.
- Certified by an independent lab. Vitamins are not regulated by the FDA, so there is no way you can know if there are contaminants (lead, steroid, pharmaceuticals) in the product without having it certified by an independent lab like the NSF, Consumer Lab, Natural Products Association (NPA), True-Label Program, USP Dietary Supplements Verification Program, NHPD (Canada's version of FDA), Therapeutic Goods Association (TGA - Australia's version of the FDA) and Independent ISO 17025 verification.
- Rated Highly in the Comparative Guide To Nutritional Supplements . If you are from the United States or Canada, watch the first movie clip about the Comparative Guide to find the top rated supplements. If you are from Australia or New Zealand, watch the second clip about the Comparative guide and the top supplements in your country.
U.S and Canada
NutriSearch Comparative Guide to Nutritional Supplements
Australia and New Zealand
Comparative Guide to Nutritional Supplements, Australia-New Zealand Edition