Choosing Food-Based vs. Synthetic Supplements

synthetic supplements vs. food-based supplements

Today’s post comes from Kristin Savory, a licensed acupuncturist who specializes in women’s hormone and thyroid imbalances. After years of working with various supplements, she switched to food-based supplements in her practice with excellent results. 

Are your supplements synthetic?

If you’re into health then you’ve probably been known to cruise the supplement section of your local health food store from time to time. Maybe you’re even taking supplements recommended from your health care practitioner.

Over and over, we’ve been told that we need to take supplements because our diets are lacking vital nutrients.

But what’s really going on in those supplement bottles?

We don’t hear much discussion about synthetic supplements. Even as a health care professional, I assumed the nutrients in the high-end brand of supplements I was taking—and selling to patients—were extracted from a natural source. The Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) I was taking must have been from oranges or some other food, so that it was in a form my body could easily absorb.

Boy, was I wrong.

Whole Food vs. Synthetic Supplements

There’s a big difference between nutrients from whole foods and the nutrient ingredients used in the vast majority of supplements. After all, supplements are a billion- dollar industry aimed at maximizing profit. With modern day marketing, many popular supplement recommendations, from the necessity of a daily multi to high-dose vitamin D, are being sold to us.

Take a carrot for instance.

Carrots are loaded with nutrients. Bigwigs like beta-carotene (a precursor to vitamin A) and ascorbic acid (vitamin C), as well as lesser-known players like folicin and mannose. In fact, scientists have isolated about 200 nutrients and phytonutrients in the humble carrot.

These 200 nutrients work together in mysterious ways. The little guys help get the big guys and vice versa, There are enzymes, coenzymes, co-vitamins , minerals, and other factors that help the nutrients work together synergistically.

Scientists don’t know how all this works, and they probably never will. It’s the magic and mystery of nature.

Take a look at the standard multi-vitamin label. We’re content when we see 20 ingredients listed in high percentages. Now think about that carrot again. There’s over 200 known nutrients in that carrot. Foods are complex in their nutrients because nutrients need each other to be properly absorbed and integrated into our bodies.

In our culture, we’re used to the idea that “more is better.” If beta-carotene is good for the eyes, then a whole bunch of beta-carotene must be really good for the eyes.

This type of thinking is not how Mother Nature works when it comes to nutrition. 

Foods are balanced. Foods are loaded with lots of nutrients but never in megadose quantities. You’d be hard-pressed to find a food with 1,000 mg of ascorbic acid, let alone the 5,000 mg–10,000mg doses often sold at stores or from health care professionals.

Whole-food whiz Judith DeCava, CNC, LNC writes in her book The Real Truth About Vitamins and Antioxidants:

Natural food concentrates will show a much lower potency in milligrams or micrograms. This is frequently interpreted to mean they are less effective, not as powerful. Unfortunately, the `more is better’ philosophy is far from nutritional truth.

And this:

Vitamins are part of food complexes and must be associated with their natural synergists (co-workers) to be properly utilized and be a potent nutritional factor. In other words, a minute amount of a vitamin that is left intact in its whole food form is tremendously more functional, powerful, and effective nutritionally than a large amount of a chemically pure, vitamin fraction.

In the case of nutrition, “more” definitely isn’t better.

So where are supplement manufacturers getting the nutrients to make their pills?

Most of what’s being sold to us (even the supps with the healthy folks and rainbows on the label) are chemicals, repackaged in creative ways.

Most supplements contain mega-dose vitamin isolates without their little guy partners, also known as vitamin fractions. Others are simply chemical compounds made in factories, also known as pure, crystalline vitamins.

Both are synthetic and both are a detrimental to long-term health because they’re man-made, not nature-made.

Mother Nature knows best. Nutrients need each other to work effectively in our bodies. The big guys need the little guys just as much as the little guys need the big guys.

When we take supplements in high doses or in isolation from their natural counterparts, there will be consequences. Initially, our bodies might do well with these synthetics because of our extreme deficiencies. But over the course of time, synthetic vitamins can create even deeper deficiencies.

Quality Over Quantity

synthetic supplements vs. food based supplementsDeCava notes that synthetic Thiamine (B1: a common chemical ingredient of most standard multivitamins) “will initially allay fatigue but will eventually cause fatigue by the build-up of pyruvic acid. This leads to the vicious cycle of thinking more and more Thiamine is needed, resulting in more and more fatigue along with other accumulated complaints.”

But perhaps this story of a medical doctor held captive during the Korean War [1950-1953] is the most telling example.

After a period of time with a poor diet, his fellow prisoners of war began to show signs of beriberi, a disease that results from a severe thiamine deficiency.

After contacting the Red Cross, they sent him some vitamin B1 in the synthetic form, Thiamine HCL. What happened to his patients with the pure-crystalline fraction? They continued to decline.

In fact, the plague worsened until that same doctor listened to a couple of guards who told him that rice polish(known today as rice bran)could be used to alleviate the symptoms. The doc started feeding his patients the rice polish one teaspoon at a time. Within a short period, his patients’ improved and the beriberi plague ceased.

Bottom line is that nature’s nutrients are packaged to perfection. A simple teaspoon of rice polish outperformed a high-dosage, synthetic compound.

How to determine if your supplements are synthetic or food-based

Does this mean we have to throw out our supplements altogether? Not so fast.

First we need to know the difference between whole-food concentrates and synthetic supplements. It’s all in the label.

Read the ingredients. The ingredients tell it all. If a nutrient is listed as a food like liver, a glandular, an herb, fish oil, pea vine, or alfalfa, you’re good to go. If there are chemical names like niacin, thiamine, or tocopherols, you’ve got a synthetic on your hand.

In nature, B vitamins come from the likes of nutritional yeast and liver, not niacin or thiamin. Vitamin C comes from green leafy vegetables, citrus, and buckwheat juice, not ascorbic acid. You’ll find vitamin E in wheat germ oil and pea vine, not in tocopherols.

Look at the DV percentage. The percentage of Daily Value is based on chemically pure vitamin fractions. If the nutrient on the label is listed at 100% or more, you’ve likely got a synthetic product on your hands. Remember, nature is low dose but highly potent.

Beware of singular vitamins. Mother Nature works in tandem. Her nutrients are never found alone. If you’re taking a supplement all by itself, such as vitamin E or D, it’s guaranteed to be synthetic.

Don’t buy the hype. The supplement industry is an industry just like anything else. Major supplement manufacturers often sponsor studies and/or donate money to research programs at universities likely having some influence on both the study design and the results and conclusions reached.

The simple truth is that profit margins are much higher when manufacturers replicate standardized compounds rather than go through the careful, labor-intensive, more expensive process of compounding whole foods.

When it comes to supplements, it’s safer to stick with intuition and follow Hippocrates’ advice: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”

As always, it’s great to hear from you in the comment section. I wonder, what’s your experience with supplementation? Tell me, have you had great success taking a supplement or have you noticed your health starting to slide?

Note from Lauren: I put together the below list, which shows examples of  foods and food-based supplements that will deliver vitamins A, B, C, D, E and K. 

Vitamin A – Interestingly, you won’t get vitamin A from carrots or sweet potatoes, since the conversion of beta carotene to the useable form of vitamin A is virtually insignificant (learn more). Grassfed/pastured liver is the best source of bioavaiable vitamin A, and an easy way to get a daily dose of liver is through desiccated liver capsules, found here, or Homemade Liver Pills, recipe here. Fermented cod liver oil (this one)  also provides a potent dose of vitamin A with its cofactors. Pastured egg yolks also contain some true vitamin A. 

B vitaminsGrassfed liver, pastured egg yolks and pastured red meat provides an excellent source of a range of B vitamins. Standard Process, a food-based supplement line available through certain health care providers (such as many naturopaths) also carries a great food-based B vitamin supplement. 

Vitamin C – Citrus fruits, berries and tropical fruits are an excellent source of this vitamin. Interestingly, potatoes are also high in C, if you eat the skin! Camu camu powder, acerola powder and rosehip powder – such as these options - provides a powerful punch of whole-food vitamin c. Add half to a full teaspoon to your daily smoothie.

Vitamin D - Cod liver oil, a time-honored superfood, is a rich source of fat-soluble vitamin D with the necessary co-factors. Lard and wild salmon are also rich in vitamin D with its cofactors. Egg yolks from pastured chickens are another good source. 

Vitamin E – Get this essential antioxidant vitamin though sunflower seeds, pastured eggs, almonds, avocado and leafy greens. As a fat-soluble vitamin, it requires fat to be utilized in the body. So add a dollop of ghee or butter to your steamed spinach to aid vitamin E absorption.

Vitamin K – There are three types of vitamin K: K1, K2 and K3. K3 is synthetic, and should be avoided. K1 is found in leafy greens and cruciferous veggies. k2, the most important and potent type of vitamin K, is found only from animal sources with the exception of natto (a sticky fermented soy product). You’ll get K2 by consuming dairy from grassfed ruminants, eggs, liver, beef and chicken.

  About Kristin Savory

kristen bio picKristin Savory, LAc, helps women heal their thyroids and balance their hormones so they can live their most vibrant lives. She does this naturally through acupuncture and the wisdom of whole-food nutrition. Hop on her newsletter by clicking here and find delicious Recipes to Heal Your Thyroid and learn the first steps towards Balancing Your Hormones Naturally at www.kristinsavory.com

 

Some of the ads on this site are served by AdChoices and, as a result, I do not necessarily recommend the advertised products. The revenue from the ads makes it possible for me to continue blogging, so I appreciate your understanding.

Comments

  1. Kristi says

    Thank you for this post! I am currently a nursing mother eating the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (no dairy) and it seems that I need more calcium than I am gettin for this stage in life. Do you recommend any real food supplement for calcium?

  2. says

    I loved this article and shared it with others. It pays to be a label reader! I am so glad I discovered whole food nutrtion from Juice Plus capsules a few years ago. My family and I get 25 fruits, veggies and grains daily. My sons get their healthy gummies free with our orders. Juice Plus has a nutrition label and helps to boost our immune systems naturally. http://www.kpiccola.juiceplus.com

    • Rachxl says

      Juice Plus is hardly ideal…. the first ingredients are tapioca syrup and –even worse– maltodextrin, a sugar usually derived from corn and very likely genetically modified. Not to mention the “natural flavors” and the fact that all the fruits and vegetables advertised are NOT organic, meaning there are plenty of pesticides along for the ride as well. This is the type of supplement that does more harm than good.

  3. says

    Hi Kristi~

    Thanks for reading. Yes, as a nursing momma you want to be particularly careful about your calcium sources. I love Calcium Lactate by Standard Process for a couple of reasons.

    1. The lactate form of calcium is the easiest for the body to utilize. The only form of calcium you can utilize in your blood is calcium bicarbonate. Calcium lactate changes to bicarbonate in just one step. Other forms of calcium (ie. calcium carbonate) can take up to a dozen biochemical steps.

    2. Calcium Lactate is slightly acidic. Your stomach needs to be pretty darn acidic to be able to digest calcium. (Stomach acidity is also important in the metabolism of protein and iron.)

    3. Is calcium lactate a food? Rest assured Standard Process’ Calcium Lactate is made from beets. You’re in good hands with Standard Process. Their founder Royal Lee, DDS was a nutritional whiz who collaborated with other well-known pioneers; Weston A. Price, Pottenger, and Dr. Melvin Page.

    If you can’t find a Standard Process practitioner in your area, then you can contact me directly through my website at http://www.kristinsavory.com

  4. Terri says

    Hi Kristi,
    I had thyroid cancer about 14 years ago and had a complete thyroidectomy. Any good recommendations for hormone balancing (of course along with monitoring thyroid medication) that may be different than for someone who has their thyroid?
    Thank you,
    Terri

    • says

      Yes Terri~ great question. Considering that your question is more medical in nature it would be better if I have a more information regarding your specific case. Go ahead and contact me through http://www.kristinsavory.com. I’ve got some ideas for you.

      In the meantime, here is one general piece for you to consider:

      With a thyroidectomy, it’s common to have a more sensitive digestive system. Digestion and absorption of nutrients tends to be a bit more challenging once the thyroid is removed. So, you’ll want to keep track of intake and elimination. And in the long run, you’ll want to look for more specific support so that you can get the most out of your foods.

      This is important because we can still use foods to get better endocrine function for you…..but your digestion needs to be optimal for it all to come together. Send me a note-

  5. Lynne says

    Someone above mentioned JuicePlus+ Curious what your thoughts are on this product. It states it is “whole food based nutrition from wide variety of fruits + vegetables”. Most of the ingredients on their Orchard Blend fruit juice powder and pulp from 7 different fruits while the Garden Blend is powder and pulp from 10 different vegetables (they also have a Vineyard Blend). The vitamin levels for A, C, E and foliate are under 100% as listed on their label, however I see other ingredients listed. For instance: citric acid, ascorbic acid, lactic acid, glucomannan, D – alpha tocopherol, folic acid, tapioca syrup, maltodextrin. So I’m not sure where these would fall according to your article above.

    • says

      Hi Lynne~

      First, I want to pat you on the back. Look at what you’ve already taken in about label reading. It’s a bummer that we can’t 100% trust the front of a package. The front of any package (food, supplement or otherwise) is all about marketing. It really has very little to do with quality or what is going on with a product. Kudos to you for noticing that difference.

      Second, yes- Juice Plus does start out as a whole food brand, but because of the incessant marketing and touting of synthetic pure-crystalline vitamins they add in synthetics to boost their products. Just think about how much education they’d have to do as a multi-level marketing company to teach their sellers that low dosages are highly potent? It’s a hard sell.

      Here’s what you should know about a couple of those ingredients:
      -ascorbic acid is made from corn syrup
      - D-alpha tocopherol is only one of the 10 known tocopherols. All the tocopherols need to be present to work efficiently. Good old fashioned wheat germ oil out performs 400IU units of Vit E every time.

      • says

        I enjoyed your article a lot! I prefer to get what I need from whole foods and natural sources but I do bridge the gap with some products. As I read further down in your article though, I think we may disagree on some things with regards to whole food ‘vitamins’ I believe that there are some underlying assumptions.

        I am a certified health coach and I coach clients on food integrity and label reading is heavily influential in this. I have personally aligned myself with Juice Plus. I do a lot of research before I “represent” a company. I have emailed the head chemist on numerous occasions about specific ingredients in our products. As I come to learn more about ingredients, I start asking A LOT of questions – I often dig deep. If I don’t understand the first response, I ask again and again until I have a full understanding of the response. Needless to say, I have been pleased with the answers and five years later, I am still proud to represent Juice Plus+.

        FYI: There is no ascorbic acid in the Juice Plus+ products. Juice Plus+ carries a Nutrition Facts label and is third party verified by NSF (non-bias). Juice Plus+ is also not an MLM, it is a direct selling company. MLMs are top heavy meaning they have more reps than customers. Though the business opportunity is there with Juice Plus+ most of our volume (about 85% currently) is from customers. (You can find more direct selling companies on dsa.org.)

        While Juice Plus+ has an interest in the independent research done with our complete products, we have no influence on the results. You may be interested in learning more about this comment here: http://www.juiceplusfacts.com/research.html (see question #2 for specifics).

        With regards to folic acid as mentioned above, it is the last ingredient on our labels. When you look at the percentages, you will see folate. The folic acid is through fermentation. Why the difference in words? That was my question too! Here is why:

        Because we have a nutrition label, we are regulated by the FDA which has the rule that we must declare the exact % of 4 vitamins/minerals. [Here is the code: http://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cdrh/cfdocs/cfCFR/CFRSearch.cfm?fr=172.345

        In order to do that, we have to have those values consistent across the board for every batch/bottle.

        So each batch is topped off with a tiny bit of folic acid (through fermentation). The amount of the “tiny bit” will vary, depending on how much folate is already naturally occurring in each batch (because they are fruits & veggies, and thus natural, they vary depending on growing conditions, etc.).

        So the amount of folic acid is tiny, and is only there to top it off so we can be accurate with our % which we have to have listed on the bottle as per FDA regulations.

        Juice Plus+ is not meant to replace. It is to truly bridge the gap because most people do fall short in getting their vitamins from whole foods daily. Juice Plus+ is gluten free, contains no artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives, and contains no added starch. The ingredients in Juice Plus+ Orchard, Garden and Vineyard are non-GMO. We also have Complete powder and bars that are vegan, non-GMO, and gluten free (and no dairy obviously).

        Thank you for the opportunity to share from my perspective. Be well! =)

        • Kristie Jo says

          I have been taking Juice+ for over a year now and have just started to read more into the label part of it. You did clarify some things that I have been wondering about. BUT I am looking at the Garden Blend & Orchard Blend chewables labels right now and it clearly states ascorbic acid right in the ingredient list. You had stated that this is not an ingredient in Juice+. Just wanted to clarify.

    • Marlene says

      I checked out the Juice Plus website provided & can’t find the word organic anywhere, also, the ingredients: citric acid, ascorbic acid, lactic acid, folic acid, maltodextrin are usually derived from GMO corn. Check out the corn allergy list online.

  6. Shaina says

    I have been taking Rainbow Light Prenatal One because the label says it’s a food-based multivitamin. It lists the vitamin name (Vitamin B-6) and the chemical name (as Pyridoxine) and that particular one is listed at 600% DV. Then at the bottom it says Other Ingredients (natural mineral and vegetable source): microcrystalline, cellulose, stearic acid, modified cellulose, silica. I originally thought that this was a good brand based on the fact that it’s food based, but am I wrong? If so, do you know of a brand of prenatals that is better? Thanks!

  7. Stacy says

    I have access to Standard Process and we also currently have JuicePlus+. I have never been one to swear by supplements because I have never noticed a huge difference in how I feel when taking them. I’m sure I’m lacking in important vitamins and minerals so I’d love to hear about comparisons, pros and cons of both products. Especially if you have experience with both. Thanks!

    • says

      Hi Stacy~

      Standard Process is the industry leader when it comes to whole food concentrates. They’ve been farming their plant ingredients from their own farm in Palmyra, Wisconsin over the last 80 years! I personally have not been to the farm, but I hear that it is absolutely gorgeous.

      Plus, Royal Lee DDS- the man who started Standard Process- worked in conjunction with Weston A. Price and Francis Pottenger. These are the folks who lived, breathed and studied whole food nutrition.

      In terms of feeling a real difference with supplements, I often find that people come to me and they’re taking an “assortment” of nutrients. They might be taking a high quality nutrient (like Standard Process), but if the program isn’t aimed for success, then it can still be muddled and lacking the type of results that you really want.

      Lastly, whole food concentrates will not give your body the “boost” that we’re so used to with synthetics. I encourage low dosage over a period of time. My clients do however notice the difference when they run out. That’s when they just don’t feel the same strength in their foundation.

      Hope this helps- best wishes for you on your health journey.

  8. says

    Kristen,
    I disagree with your comments regarding Juice Plus – It is 100% whole food and the most researched product in the world with over 31 Published studies in Top peer reviewed medical journals – all 3rd party cross over clinical studies published in peer reviewed medical journals. JP+ is also the most consumed supplement in the world so not hard to sell, the research speaks for itself. The greatest part of JP+ is that it is NSF certified and very few supplements have this certification. This means that it is not only safe but what they say is in JP+ is 100% the truth. Kids get it for free and my son is 10 and has never been on an antibiotic and we are at peace since just like you did state, you can not get what you need from a vitamin. We do not have vitamin deficiencies we have whole food deficiencies and JP+ is the not to replace eating real fruits and veggies but to fill the gap. The products you listed above – not one single one of those have a single piece of research published in a peer reviewed medical journal or are NSF certified. We do love what you are saying that, whole food nutrition is key! Blessings, Karen Wiegand

  9. Elizabeth says

    I can also vouch for Standard Process. I had horrific eczema all over my hands for months and nothing really helped take the problem away–not even an elimination diet or a variety of synthetic supplements. Just a few weeks into starting a Standard Process regimen, my skin rapidly cleared up. Two months later, the eczema is almost completely gone. Amazing stuff.

  10. says

    Thank you so much for this post! For me this is very fitting as I was just reading earlier this morning on how the FBA is trying to ban natural Vitamin B folate from supplements, and using only the synthetic version, folic acid. No doubt this is yet another special interest business plan between the FDA and our synthetic pharmaceutical companies. If you would like to sign the petition to prevent this, please check it out below:

    http://www.thepetitionsite.com/takeaction/285/872/893/

    I would also like to know if this is something we should be taking action on, as I feel it is our right to have natural vitamins and minerals that are often easier to digest and overall more beneficial to our heal than synthetics.

    Thank you for this post, extremely helpful!!

  11. Ani says

    Kristin,
    I have hypothyroidism and have been taking T3 and T4 for a year now. I feel a lot better once I found the appropriate dosages. When I switched to a traditional foods/ autoimmune paleo diet, my hair and eyebrows started growing back and I lost excess inflammation. However, my sex drive is simply not there. I know that I also likely have estrogen dominance and low progesterone since my mother and her whole side has that and I have a lot of symptoms. My mother, her siblings, and all of my female 1st cousins on that side have also had breast cancer, likely also related to estrogen dominance. However, I am the only one who has experienced thyroid issues before ever becoming a mother.

    What can I do to bring up my progesterone levels without resorting to creams? How can I shed excessive estrogen (Yes, Lauren, I eat my raw carrots!).

  12. kristy f says

    i love all this advice and i have been following it for almost 2 years. unfortunately i got some vit d bloodwork done and my levels are still really low….22. it’s only a slight improvement over my last bloodwork 2 years prior. (a level of 10).

    So i’m going to supplement with D3. its frustrating because sometimes even with a good diet, help is needed.

  13. Marlee says

    I’m definitely interested in this topic, however you lost my attention when your list of vitamin sources contained mostly animal foods, and certain excellent plant sources were not mentioned. I know not everyone sees things the same, but I’m not about to start consuming animal flesh and secretions to get my vitamins. Animals get their vitamins from plants, and that’s the same place we can get them! I’m not saying an animal’s liver doesn’t contain certain vitamins, but why would I want to contribute to violence toward innocent animals, when I can be healthy eating a plant-based diet? To consume animal foods is to add WAY more fat and cholesterol, and even protein, to your body than anyone needs. I know there are other factors to consider, like processed junk food, but too many people are overweight nowadays, and on things like high cholesterol and blood pressure medications. This is simply not necessary. I personally don’t want to have a triple bypass heart surgery, or be debilitated by a stroke when I’m older, so I choose to follow the way of eating that is associated with increased longevity and freedom from illness. People who feel the same may want to research at http://www.nutritionfacts.org, http://www.pcrm.org, http://www.forksoverknives.com, http://www.drmcdougall.com, http://www.meatvideo.com, http://www.happyherbivore.com, http://www.thelunchboxbunch.com, http://www.engine2diet.com, and many others that those websites might link you to. Thank you for the opportunity to comment.

  14. mic says

    I wonder about some of the ingredients used in the processing of the *Standard Process* – an appropriate name it seems – supplements, such as maltodextrin and magnesium stearate. Seems that the company has put a great deal of energy into creating solid formulas, only to have undermined their positive intentions by allowing undesirables to slip in.

  15. Rachxl says

    Do your own research on Juice Plus, folks– look at those ingredient labels and them compare them to The Synergy Company, for example. Note that on the Synergy Company’s label that asterisks indicate organic ingredients–and that the products are basically entirely organic and free of pesticides. If ever there is a time to skip ALL added sweeteners, syrups. gums, dyes, fillers, etc., it’s in your supplements!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *