The Difference Between Whole Food Supplements and Isolated Vitamins

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Vitamin supplement sales are a multi-billion dollar industry in the United States alone. Just walk into your local health food store and you will find rows and rows of vitamins for sale; vitamins A, B, C, D, E, heck, there’s even a vitamin F (essential fatty acids). This industry is so lucrative because most Americans are deficient in at least one vitamin due to poor food choices. One can only assume that the 35% of American, who report regular supplementation with vitamins, must belief that these vitamins will fix the void in their diet. Another reason for this vitamin obsession may be to reduce disease risk. It seems like every week you hear about how eating so much of a certain vitamin boosts your health. If 500 milligrams of vitamin C per day is supposed to reduce heart disease risk by 30%, won’t taking a 1000-milligram vitamin C supplement reduce it that much more? The short answer is no. Despite their widespread use, supplementing the diet with megadoses of vitamins is ineffective at best and, at worst, a hindrance to human health.

The first reason that taking isolated synthetic vitamins can be ineffective is because the vitamin industry is loosely regulated. Even though the Food and Drug Administration mandates that all vitamin manufacturers test their products for purity and correct dosage, most do a poor job at best. Tests from independent laboratories often report substantial differences in dosages when compared to the manufacturer claims, as high as 50% in some cases. In addition, these independent tests have also made other surprise discoveries, including small amounts of inactive ingredients like heavy metals, that have uncertain long-term health consequences.

Another reason to avoid vitamins is that they can actually increase rather than decrease the risks of chronic disease and side effects. A supplement containing alpha-tocopherol, beta-carotene, and selenium is known to chronically increase blood pressure. Vitamin C use as short as 6 weeks has been linked to excessive free radical activity. Vitamin E supplementation increases lung cancer and stroke risk, and overall mortality. Furthermore, the fat-soluble vitamins; A, D, E, and K, are stored in fat tissue and can cause symptoms of overdose if over-consumed for a long period. Examples include yellowing of the skin with beta-carotene, high triglyceride levels with vitamin A, and bleeding problems with vitamin E.

Aside from safety concerns, supplementation with isolated vitamins is terribly ineffective. The bioavailability, which is the amount absorbed by the GI tract, of isolated vitamins pales in comparison to those found in whole food supplements. Whole food supplements have greater bioavailability for two reasons. First, they contain phytonutrients that actually increase the absorption of vitamins. Second, whole food supplements generally contain more moderate dosages of vitamins compared to isolated vitamins. This is important because single high doses of vitamins are absorbed poorly compared to moderate dosages.

Supplementation with vitamins alone is not the answer to any health problem. They are chemically isolated and manufactured in mass quantities, much like prescription drugs. Vitamins are meant to be consumed in foods and drinks, not by swallowing a handful of pills contained synthetically-extracted vitamins inside. You can purchase 1,000- milligram tablets of vitamin C in any health food store today. But, if you stop to think about it, the recommended daily intake of vitamin C is only 60 milligrams. One of these tablets is enough vitamin C to last for over 2 weeks! Similar unhealthy mega doses can be found in the 1000-milligram doses of vitamin E, representing over a month’s worth of vitamin E, a vitamin stored in the fat that would easily build up to toxic levels in no time at these dosages.

Whole food supplements are superior to vitamins in every way. Whole food supplements are comprised of concentrated portions of entire foods, not synthetic extracts. The advantage of these supplements is that you are getting a rich source of natural vitamins, but not so high that you are essentially overdosing. Also, whole food vitamins contain vitamins and phytonutrients and many more cofactors and enzymes, which exponentially increase vitamin absorption in the body.

Consumers should not buy into the “more is better” approach with vitamin supplementation. Vitamin makers continue to produce pills with higher and higher dosages, tempting you, the consumer, into believing that it’s the cure for everything that ails you. However, if you don’t understand why you need a particular vitamin and in what dosage, don’t be fooled. Isolated vitamins provide a mega dose of a synthetic chemicals. Isolated vitamins often contain other ingredients such as glycerin, gelatin, silica, trans fats and more. Whole food supplements offer a concentrated source of nutrition, which includes vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, phytonutrients, enzymes to aid digestion and the list goes on and on. Whole food supplements are clearly the superior choice for supplemental nutrition.

Dr. Linda Kennedy MS SLP ND

References

Lichtenstein AH, Russell RM. Essential nutrients: food or supplements? Where should the emphasis be? JAMA. 2005 Jul 20;294(3):351-8.

Murphy SP, White KK, Park SY, Sharma S. Multivitamin-multimineral supplements' effect on total nutrient intake. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007 Jan;85(1):280S-284S. Review.

Penniston KL, Tanumihardjo SA. Vitamin A in dietary supplements and fortified foods: too much of a good thing? J Am Diet Assoc. 2003 Sep;103(9):1185-7.

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