There is a big debate out there whether you should be taking natural or synthetic vitamins. Previously, I had written a blog post trying to convince people to avoid synthetic vitamins, but I’ve changed my position on this issue. Learn about the debate behind synthetic vs food based vitamins.
While food-based vitamins sound like a really good idea, many people have problems with food-based vitamins. There can be ingredients in them that cause some people problems. I personally am taking synthetic vitamins with a few food-based supplements and am getting flying colors on my hair mineral analysis and vitamin tests.
In my first blog post about vitamins, I stated that synthetic vitamins should be avoided because they tax your immune system and are not well absorbed. In my research over the last year, I have found this to not be entirely the case. I have taken synthetics vitamins for years and have seen my health greatly improve. I have now switched to mainly food-based vitamins and I believe they are superior, but synthetics do work. Many healing programs use synthetic vitamins with fantastic results. My mineral levels have increased and I’ve experienced more vitality and energy — all from synthetics.
Then there is the issue of absorption. Absorption depends upon many factors. Many synthetic vitamins are poorly absorbed simply because they are bound together with cheap binders that don’t allow a release of the nutrients, not necessarily because the synthetic vitamins are themselves poorly absorbed. One must avoid cheap mass-market synthetics like Centrum, most brands at drug store chains, grocery store chains, and membership club stores (Kirkland brand) because they contain these cheap binders that prevent their absorption. Commonly, vitamins and mineral are in forms that are not absorbable, but this can be circumvented by educating yourself on the forms that are the best absorbed and buying from reputable manufacturers, whom I’ve listed below. People absolutely see their vitamins and mineral levels improve with synthesized vitamins and minerals.
A common issue with synthetics is whether they cause immune system reactions that lower your immunity. Any supplement can cause a reaction. This is not necessarily a reason to not take synthetic supplements and does not seem to harm your immune system in any meaningful way. Foods and food-based supplements can cause immune system reactions as well. Many food-based supplements have so many ingredients that sensitive individuals can have sensitivity issues.
Synthetic Vs. Food-based Vitamins
Food-based vitamins will not work for everyone. I believe food-based supplements are better than synthetics and should be taken if you tolerate them. Again, it’s the old adage: everyone is different. You have to find what supplements work for you. I’ve compiled a nice comparison of some of the pros and cons of food-based vitamins in comparison to synthetic vitamins:
1) Most food-based supplements contain synthetic vitamins. Some claim to be all natural, but use yeast or algae or other food as a base and simply add synthetic vitamins to this ‘food’ base. Under current law, a vitamin marketed as natural only has to contain 10 percent natural, plant-derived ingredients — the other ninety percent can be synthetic. An example of a natural base is Acerola cherry or rosehip, to which synthetic vitamin C, ascorbic acid, is added. The food-based vitamins I recommend do not use this loophole and are high quality, but this is something to watch out for. For instance, the Whole Foods Brand is not a true food-based vitamin and uses algae as their base with synthetic vitamins added to the product. This is the norm rather than the exception with food-based vitamins.
2) Food-based vitamins can also be isolated. While some food-based supplements are pure whole foods, many are isolates extracted from their whole food base. For example, a food-based chromium made from yeast is still an extract or isolate. This same chromium can be put into a synthetic or a food-based supplement. Even a food-based vitamin C is extracted or isolated from a plant such as the Acerola cherry. In some cases, the entire food is dehydrated and put into a capsule, but this is not always the case. The word isolate can apply to both food-based and synthesized products.
3) Food-based vitamins cost more. Food-based vitamins are almost always more costly than synthetics, even two to three times as expensive. This is understandable, as it is much more costly to manufacture food-based supplements. Vegetables and other foods must be harvested, dried, measured, tested and powdered into capsules. Food-based supplements also can be far more costly because more pills are needed to achieve the same dose. For instance, a natural vitamin C I used to take only contained 120mg of vitamin C, causing me to have to take 4 capsules to get 500mg of vitamin C. The bottle of 90 capsules cost $20. The same bottle of synthetic vitamin C costs far, far less.
4) Dosages are too low in food-based products. Today, most people are toxic and nutrient depleted. They need larger amounts of nutrients than can be obtained with the low doses found in food-based supplements. More food-based supplements are needed to obtain the same dosage as a synthetic in most cases. Food-based supplements are less convenient due to the larger number of tablets or capsules required. Even though a bottle contains 90 tablets, you will likely need to take 4-8 or more per day of a food-based multivitamin to get the same dosage you need with a synthetic vitamin in 2-4 tablets a day. This means that many more tablets must be given, rendering supplementation inconvenient. Most cannot remember to or are not willing to take more than 4+ pills a day in divided doses to satisfy their nutrient needs.
5) Sensitivities to foods or fillers in food-based products. Some companies put oat flour, potato starch other fillers in their tablets. The problem is that many people are sensitive to all gluten-containing foods. Others are sensitive to nightshades. Food-based products can contain all kinds of different foods to which many could have allergies or sensitivities. As a result, food-based products can cause mild to severe reactions, while the so-called isolated, synthetic nutrient products would not cause such a problem and work far better for sensitive people. People vary in their tolerance to all supplements, as well as to foods.
6) Inexact dosages. Food-based products pose problems with obtaining the exact amount desired nutrients, coupled with the difficult in controlling undesirable nutrients in the products. When combined in a food or even an herbal product, one is getting the desired nutrient, but also getting extra nutrients that often counteract or antagonize the desired nutrient. Important nutrients may be omitted or others included because that is the only way to obtain the correct amount of the desired nutrient. For example, suppose we wish to take 25 mg of zinc to a person. In a food-based product, the zinc will be combined in a food or herbal form that most likely contains a little copper, manganese, selenium, chromium and other minerals. However, the other minerals directly compete with zinc for absorption. So, no matter what the label says, you will not be getting the same amount of zinc as you would if there were no antagonistic or competing nutrients present. Additionally, food-based vitamin companies may add herbs to their products without realizing that the minerals in the herbs can and do also compete with the desired advertised mineral in the product. This can also reduce the effective dose of the desired mineral.
7) Food-based vitamins are not always better absorbed. This is not the case with every person or every nutrient. Absorption depends upon many factors. While true at times, the body is very capable of absorbing a synthesized or isolated nutrient such as vitamin B or vitamin C, even if no other food components or cofactors are provided. The absorption issue is a stance many food-based supplements take as a reason to use their products, but this issue is really blown far out of proportion. Synthetics are absorbed quite well when taken with a meal. Many synthetic vitamins are poorly absorbed simply because they are bound together with cheap binders that don’t allow a release of the nutrients, not necessarily because the synthetic vitamins are themselves poorly absorbed.
Best Synthetic Multivitamins
Not everyone responds well to natural, food-based vitamins for the reasons I mentioned. You have to experiment and see what works for your individual biochemistry. These vitamins are not food-based or natural, but very high quality:
Best Natural Multivitamins
If you want natural vitamins, I’ve compiled a list of brands I like, though it is my no means comprehensive. For a list of names of synthetic and food-based ingredients on labels that will help you discern if the brand you are using is truly natural or a phony food-based vitamin, see my blog post 90% of Vitamins are Synthetic. Some of the best natural food-based brands are:
For a list of names of synthetic and food-based ingredients on labels that will help you discern if the brand you are using is truly natural or a phony food-based vitamin, see my blog post 90% of Vitamins are Synthetic.
Supplements to Avoid
The following supplements are generally okay for a month or two. Generally, I think you should avoid any food or supplement that contain too many toxic metals. We are so toxic already. Why pay for a supplement that adds toxic metals to your body? This is a list compiled by drlwilson.com. He suggests avoiding all prolonged use of:
- Fulvic and humic acid products. These will give symptomatic results, but they contain a ton of toxic metals.
- All chelation products. Extracts of cilantro, chlorella, bugleweed, yellow dock, EDTA, DMPS, DMSA and other chelators should generally be avoided unless you have an acute metal toxicity. While they do chelate toxic metals out of your body, they also chelate minerals out of the body. Taken for too long, it can be difficult to replace the vital minerals lost using these products.
- Clay supplements such as bentonite, zeolite, montomorillonite, azomite, etc. While they do contain minerals, they contain a ton of toxic metals, especially aluminum. Additionally, they can remove vital minerals like any chelator.
- Most protein powders. These tend to be nutritionally incomplete because they are usually protein isolates. This means the protein is isolated from the other cofactors — nutrients and vitamins needed to process them. Read your product label. It likely contains soy protein isolate, whey protein isolate, etc. When you eat an isolated protein powder, it robs your body of the co-factors or vitamins needed to process it! Whole foods and real protein eaten as actual foods are so much better for you and contain additional nutrition that could never be replicated by a powder. I say use a whole food protein powder once or twice a week, but eat real protein foods the rest of the time.
- Cleansing and intestinal cleansing drinks, powders, and supplements. Cleansing powders should only be used, if at all, for very short periods of time. Many can be very harsh. Some intestinal cleansers stimulate peristalsis and trigger emptying of the bowels. While this is fine occasionally, they can cause dependency if used regularly. Many go on a few week cleanse thinking they are doing their body a lot of good, but in reality it takes many years to rid the body of heavy metals and chemicals.
Why You Need to Supplement
I cannot stress enough why you need to take vitamin and mineral supplements. Our modern food supply is severely deficient in nutrients, mainly minerals. In fact, a head of broccoli grown today has 20% of the mineral content that it contained in the 1920’s. The reasons you need to supplement are due to many factors:
1) You are born nutrient depleted and toxic. No matter how healthy our lifestyle, we are born with the nutritional deficiencies and heavy metal and chemical toxicity of our mothers. These toxins are easily passed from mother to child in the womb.
2) Soil is depleted. Many soils are low in zinc, manganese, chromium, molybdenum, calcium and magnesium. No matter what diet you eat, you cannot obtain all the nutrients you need from food.
3) High-yield crops are deficient in certain nutrients. Soils, even at organic farms, become depleted of vitamins and minerals after years of cultivation. For example, ten times the amount of wheat is grown on the same land as was grown 100 years ago. Today’s wheat contains about 6% protein whereas 100 years ago it contained 12-14%. Trace mineral levels are similarly much lower due to high-yield farming methods.
4) Modern fertilizers do not supply enough trace minerals. One hundred years ago, manure was used for fertilizer. Today, chemicals fertilizers are used but contain mainly nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus, but are deficient in the trace elements found in manure. This has contributed greatly to depletion of the soil and crop minerals. Organically grown food is generally more nutrient-rich because it is grown on better quality soil with proper farming methods and fertilization, but this is not always the case. Almost invariably, all the produce grown at every farmer’s market in Los Angeles is grown using chemical fertilizers. I know — I’ve asked every vendor.
5) Pesticides deplete soils. Pesticides kill soil microorganisms that are needed to make minerals and other nutrients available to plants. The result is lower nutrient content. Many pesticides are deadly chemicals that severely tax the human system. Many contain lead, arsenic and other toxic metals that slowly accumulate in the body unless one detoxifies from them. Our laws currently allow sewage and factory sludge to be sold as fertilizer that contain significant amounts of toxic metals. These add greatly to our toxic metal burden and require extra nutrients to help remove them from the body. Additionally, many pesticides work by chelating minerals out of weeds to kill them. They die of malnutrition. The same effect is at work inside your body when you eat pesticide residues.
6) Long-distance transportation. Due to the time it takes fresh foods to get from the farm to your table, 57% or more of the nutritional value can be lost. Many foods are grown thousands of miles from where they are purchased. Some are grown on the other side of the planet! On average, they spend a week in transit to reach you. Because of this, produce is picked before it is fully ripe, preventing maximum nutrient potential. The minute food is picked nutrient levels begin to diminish. Grow your own garden and eat veggies while they’re still alive!
7) Food processing reduces nutrient content. Refining of wheat to make white flour removes 80% of its magnesium, 70-80% of its zinc, 87% of its chromium, 88% of its manganese and 50% of its cobalt. Refining sugar cane to make white sugar removes 99% of its magnesium and 93% of its chromium. Polishing rice removes 75% of its zinc and chromium. Even foods that are in whole grain form still suffer from nutrient deficiency if they are ground into flour, processed, boxed, shipped, and stored for any significant period of time. Frozen foods are nutritionally better but not as good as fresh vegetables. It’s always best to eat foods as close to their original, minimally processed form as possible. For instance, eat a fresh strawberry, not a dried one.
8) Food additives can further deplete nutrients. Thousands of artificial flavors, colors, flavor enhancers, dough conditioners, and preservatives are added to foods. While some are harmless, many are toxic and deplete the body of nutrients. For example, EDTA added to some frozen vegetables to preserve the color of the vegetable does so by removing minerals from the vegetable so it does not “tarnish.”
9) Weakened digestion. One result of eating refined, low-quality food with hundreds of food additives is that most people’s digestion is impaired. This further impairs nutrient absorption and increases nutritional needs. It’s a vicious cycle that continues as long as one eats a poor quality diet. Additionally, eating a lot of sugar and wheat flour depletes your body of vitamin and minerals. It takes 56 molecules of magnesium to process one molecule of sugar.
10) Stressful lifestyles deplete many nutrients including calcium, magnesium and zinc. Zinc begins to be eliminated from the body within minutes of a stressful situation. Stress causes excessive sympathetic nervous system activity, which reduces digestive strength. This, in turn, reduces nutrient absorption even further. Thus, anyone under stress will need even more nutrients than someone that lives a very peaceful existence.
You can take synthetic vitamins or food-based vitamins to fill in the blanks of your nutritional needs. But by all means, take something! My goal with Live to 110 is to illustrate how to live a healthy life within the context of our modern toxic environment and navigate all the health myths fed to us my manufacturers and the pharmaceutical companies. Taking supplements is definitely part of the program.
Do you have an opinion about synthetic versus food-based and natural vitamins? Have I left anything out of this article? Have you had problems with either of these types of vitamins? I want to know! Tell me your story by leaving a comment below.
1. Wilson, Lawrence, MD. Food-Based Supplements Versus Others. December 2009. http://drlwilson.com/Articles/FOOD-BASED%20SUPPS.htm
2. ** Why Take Nutritional Supplements? July 2008. http://drlwilson.com/Articles/why%20take%20supplements.htm
3. Askew, Gloria. The Secrets of Supplements: The Good, the Bad, the Totally Terrific. Phyte Media Inc, 2008.