Based on your current knowledge, which are better “whole food” supplements or supplements that use synthetic ingredients? The issue of synthetic vs. whole food supplements is one of the most controversial, misunderstood debates in nutrition. On the surface it seems like the answer should be completely obvious. One would think that whole food supplements are superior to synthetic supplements. This is because the words “whole food” or “natural” conjure up images of fresh fruits, colorful vegetables and healthy grains. And the marketing teams behind these whole food supplements are well aware of this. So much so, that these supplements are almost always delivered in packages adorned with beautiful photos of these foods. The goal is to keep that image of whole food in your head while their marketing copy demonizes synthesized man-made “Franken” supplements.
Note: Before we continue it is important to note that this blog is not going to cover the pros and cons of synthetic vitamins. We will do that in a follow up blog. In this blog we are exposing the misleading marketing practices of whole food vitamins. We want to be clear that it is not our belief that all synthetic supplements are bad—in fact, many have superior absorption and utilization rates compared to their whole food based counter parts. Our goal is to expose the fact that many supplement companies sell their consumers whole food supplements that contain the very same synthetically formulated micronutrients that they say to avoid like the plague.
WHOLE FOOD VITAMINS STILL CONTAIN SYNTHETICS
What if the words “whole food” on your supplement package doesn’t mean what you think it means? What if it is a lie, half-truth, or at very best if it’s a simple marketing ploy? After all, for individuals who choose to spend their money on “whole food” supplements, the phrase “whole food” being plastered on the packaging is likely the main reason they purchase the product. So, what does “whole food” actually mean? And does that mean that “whole food” supplements only contain vitamins and minerals from “whole food” and are free of synthetically produced vitamins and minerals?
First, let’s be straight about what a whole food vitamin really is. No matter how big or how many times the words “Whole Food” or “Natural” appear on the label or how many beautiful, shinny and delicious looking fruits and vegetables they have in their advertisements, make no mistake, whole foods supplements are not the same as the fresh, whole food we buy in the grocery store or our local farmers market. At the very best they are dehydrated, pulverized, highly processed versions of these foods. Not too bad if that was all these whole food supplements contained. But that isn’t the whole story. In order to truly know what is in these whole food supplements you have to look past the pretty pictures on the front of the package and investigate their ingredients and supplement facts on the back.
What will you find? You will quickly discover that more often than not these “whole food” supplements start out with a “food” base and simply add synthetic, lab made, USP vitamins and minerals to these bases. Shocking, right? They try to convince you to purchase their products because they are made from whole food, when in fact they are actually utilizing the same synthetically made micronutrients that they have tried to make you afraid of! Did you know that legally a vitamin can be marketed as natural or whole food based as long as a mere 10% of its ingredients are from natural, plant-derived ingredients – the other 90% can be, and most times are, synthetically made in a laboratory!
THREE CASE STUDIES OF WHOLE FOODS SUPPLEMENTS CONTAINING SYNTHETICS: MEGA FOOD, JUICE PLUS+, and MERCOLA
CASE STUDY #1: MEGA FOOD – Multi for Women
Mega Foods tag line is “Fresh From Farm To Tablet”. Wow! That tag line, along with the image of a bounty of harvested fruit on the label, certainly conjures up a vision of whole, healthy foods, doesn’t it? This multi must be all natural, right? WRONG. In fact, if you delve deep into this companies website, which you wouldn’t be able to do if you were shopping at the health food store, you will discover this very honest statement from their medical director:
“… regardless of whether the supplement is “whole food” or “food based”, a USP vitamin or mineral will be part of the process. From my perspective as a Naturopathic Doctor, that’s a good thing. This assures a standardized form of a nutrient, and guaranteed potency… What makes a whole food vitamin or mineral unique is that it is actually delivered in a whole food. What does that mean? As an example…our whole food vitamins and minerals…are made with whole foods to provide vitamins and minerals that are easy-to-digest and gentle on the body, even when taken on an empty stomach. Right on the label you will see that Vitamin C is delivered in whole oranges, Folate is delivered in broccoli…”
Did you catch that? They are telling you outright that this “whole food” multivitamin takes synthetically produced, standardized USP vitamins, like those they have been telling you to avoid like the plague” and deliver them in a whole food base. You can see this on the Supplement Facts below from this company. Look for yourself.
As you read down the supplement facts you can see the synthetically manufactured ingredients right there in black and white. Going down the list:
- ascorbic acid for vitamin C – synthetic
- menaquinone-7 for vitamin K2 – synthetic
- thiamine HCL for B1 – synthetic
- riboflavin 5 phosphate for B2 – natural active form, but synthetically made
- P5P for B6 – natural active form, but synthetically made
- 5-MTHF for folate – natural active form, but synthetically made and patented
- calcium pantothenate for B5 (pantothenic acid) – synthetic
- choline bitartrate for choline – synthetic
Additionally, it is highly likely that most if not all the minerals in their yeast base are also synthetically produced USP minerals. Shocking right? We are not saying that this Mega Food multivitamin is bad, we are just trying to make you aware of the fact that whole food vitamins may not be exactly what you thought there are. Remember, these manufactures can get away with this kind of marketing as long as 10% of the ingredients are natural plant derived ingredients. We are not sure that will make you feel any less hoodwinked, but their marketing trickery is not illegal, just misleading.
CASE STUDY #2: JUICE PLUS+ – Orchard, Garden and Vineyard capsules
Let’s begin again by quoting this company’s tag line, which reads, “Blended fruit and vegetable juice powders.” Hmm… knowing what you know now, do you really believe that this is all that they have in their capsules? Come with us… let’s explore their label together.
Now again, we are not saying there is anything wrong with Juice Plus+, but what we want you to see is the ingredients list we have listed below. You can see that while the Orchard Blend is made from fruit and vegetable juice powder, apple pulp, cranberries, oranges, beets, pineapples, acerola cherries, papaya, peaches, dates, and prunes – look closely—it also contains isolated, lab-created, food-derived vitamins and synthetically produced vitamins!
According to the nutrition facts, 2 capsules of the Orchard Blend Juice Plus+ can only promise, or make label claims, to contain a total of 4 vitamins:
- 42% of the daily value for vitamin A
- 121 % of vitamin C
- 27% of the recommended daily value of vitamin E
- A mere 24% of the daily value for folate (vitamin B9).
You can see from the ingredients list on their label that the vitamin A comes from an isolated, natural carotenoid blend that has been added to the whole foods listed above. The vitamin C is coming from synthetic calcium ascorbate, the vitamin E is coming from the isolated, again lab-created, natural tocopherol blend, and finally the folate is coming from the synthetic folic acid listed right on their label. Again, this might be shocking to people who believed they were getting a purely whole food supplement!
Now in defense of Juice Plus+ – they do say right on their website (if you happen to read it) that:
“Juice Plus+ is whole food based nutrition, including juice powder concentrates from 30 different fruits, vegetables and grains. Juice Plus+ helps bridge the gap between what you should eat and what you do eat every day. Not a multivitamin, medicine, treatment or cure for any disease, Juice Plus+ is made from quality ingredients carefully monitored from farm to capsule to provide natural nutrients your body needs to be at its best.”
But, before reading this article you may not have noticed all the little loopholes in this statement. It doesn’t say Juice Plus+ is 100% whole food nutrition, it says that Juice Plus+ is whole food BASED nutrition. It doesn’t say that it is made entirely from juice powder concentrates from 30 different fruits, vegetables and grains, it says INCLUDING juice powder concentrates…And it does not say that Juice Plus+ is a multivitamin or that it should be used as a multivitamin. In fact is says very clearly that Juice Plus+ is NOT A MULTIVITAMIN! The problem is most people who are taking this product and others like it, are often using it as their multivitamin, believing that they are taking something completely natural and that will provide them with all the nutrition they are missing each day. And why wouldn’t they? The statement above does say that Juice Plus+ is made from quality ingredients carefully monitored from farm to capsule to provide natural nutrients your body needs to be at its best. This however, is a little misleading in that you now know that only some of the ingredients even come from a farm and that the people buying the Juice Plus+ Orchard, Garden and Vineyard capsules are really spending more than $70 a month to get 4 vitamins, half of which are synthetic.
CASE STUDY #3: MERCOLA WHOLE FOOD MULTIVITAMIN PLUS VITAL MINERALS
Ok, by now, you know where we are going with this. However, we wanted to include this brand due to its popularity. Even when a popular, well-respected nutrition guru, like Dr. Mercola, creates a whole food product it is a case of partial truths that only those who know the specific names of natural vs. synthetic vitamins might understand when reading the label closely. In fact, if you looked at his website you would be convinced that there is no way Dr. Mercola would include synthetic micronutrients in his whole food multivitamin because the sales page for this product has the following big, bold header, “Why You Should Avoid Synthetic Forms of Certain Vitamins Like the Plague…” Like the plague, really? Well, if he really believed that he probably would not have synthetically produced vitamins and minerals in his product. Now, using what we have discovered about loopholes in marketing can you see the big loophole in the above statement? “It says… “Why you should avoid synthetic forms of CERTAIN vitamins…” Obviously he does not think all synthetically produced vitamins should be avoided. However, when most curious consumers who are looking for information on what makes a good multivitamin read this statement – what most come away with is – You should avoid synthetic vitamins like the plague, and this gives a big advantage to his whole food multivitamin, which the consumer is now sure is made from whole food and void of horrible synthetic ingredients.
The worst part is that when taking a quick look at his label an unfamiliar eye might not realize that his forms for folate (5-MTHF), vitamin B6 (Pyridoxal-5’-phosphate), vitamin B5 (Calcium Pantothenate), vitamin B1 (Thiamine Pyrophosphate), vitamin C (magnesium ascorbate, calcium ascorbate, ascorbyl palmitate) as well as all of his chelated minerals and numerous other micronutrients are all lab made, synthetically produced ingredients and in some cases so far removed from whole food that they are even patented by drug companies such as Merck.
Yes, he does give you some whole foods at the base of this product. It contains a bunch of powdered produce including spinach, carrot, beet and blueberries. However, as we stated above the vast majority of consumers likely believe that this supplement is made out of whole foods and void of any synthetically produced ingredients. This company and others like it are cashing in on the whole food supplement trend and are not really delivering what their customers think they are getting. Again, we are not saying that the Dr. Mercola whole food multivitamin plus vital minerals is a bad product. We agree with many of the synthetically produced micronutrients he has included in his formula. Just because a supplement contains a synthetically produced micronutrient does not make it a bad product, nor does it automatically make it a good one.
Our main goal with this post is not to demonize whole food vitamins, but to make sure consumers are aware that just because a supplement has the words whole food on the label does not mean that it is made from 100% whole food or that it does not contain synthetic vitamins or minerals. Here at Calton Nutrition we don’t want anyone to be misled by misleading marketing.
OTHER CONCERNS (BEYOND MISLEADING MARKETING) WITH WHOLE FOOD SUPPLEMENTS
So, while whole food supplements try to convince you (through the inspiring images and promising sales pages) that they are superior due to their all-natural, whole food ingredients, we hope we have made it quite clear that most of these whole food-based supplements contain synthetically created vitamins and minerals. However, that is not where the story ends. There are additional drawbacks to whole food multivitamins that should also be considered.
- They are more expensive. Whole food multivitamins are usually more costly than synthetic based multivitamins. This is because most consumers are willing to pay more for a whole food-based supplement even though, as we have just seen, they often still use synthetic ingredients to ensure potency.
- They contain anti-nutrients What do you get when you ingest a supplement containing spinach, carrots, beets and blueberries? You get a gut full of oxalates, phytates, and tannins. If you have read our book The Micronutrient Miracle you know that these naturally occurring food factors are all classified as anti-nutrients, or Everyday Micronutrient Depleters (EMDs), because they can actually block your body’s ability to absorb the vitamins and minerals you are trying to get from your multivitamin! They act like stealth thieves that can greatly reduce your ability to absorb your essential micronutrients, and while it is difficult to avoid anti-nutrients in the foods you eat (they are hiding everywhere), using foods that contain large amounts of these anti-nutreince as a whole food base can actually reduce your chances of absorbing the vitamins and minerals you whole food multi is promising to provide.
Doesn’t it seem counterproductive to have foods that contain oxalates (which reduce absorption of any calcium, magnesium or iron it comes into contact with) phytates (reduces the absorption of vitamin B3 (niacin), calcium, chromium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, and zinc, and accelerates the metabolism of vitamin D) and lectins (can cause leaky gut and make it difficult of properly absorb micronutrients) in a product that is meant to deliver those very same micronutrients? In other words, the whole food bases in whole food supplements contain anti-nutrients that have been proven to reduce micronutrient absorption.
- They can be problematic for individuals with food sensitivities and damaged gut. Some products blend in wheat, potato starch, nightshades and other ingredients that not only contain additional anti-nutrients such as lectins and trypsin inhibitors, but can also cause negative reactions to those with food sensitivities. Synthetically created, or lab created, micronutrients do not have this issue. Additionally, individuals with a compromised gut lining will likely find these whole food supplements more difficult to absorb. Here again, liquid, synthetic micronutrients may be more easily digestible and thus more easily utilized by the body.
- They can only supply non-specific dosages and have inherent absorption blocking competitions. Because whole food based supplements contain many different kinds of pulverized whole foods, they cannot guarantee the potency of each micronutrient (unless they use standardized, synthetically produced USP vitamins and minerals). This is why you often see 1000% DV for some micronutrients and only 5% or 10% for others. Additionally, all the vitamins and minerals are delivered at once (i.e. in the same pill, capsule or powder) which means that many of the vitamins and minerals in these whole food vitamins (and in almost all synthetic multivitamins) are actually competing with one another for absorption and greatly reducing the amount of each micronutrient these supplements are actually delivering. While you may know us as the micronutrient “anti-competition” couple, let’s see what another well-respected micronutrient expert has to say about micronutrient competition and its very real absorption blocking effects. (Learn more about anti-competition technology here).
According to Wendy Myers, FDN-P, NC, CHHC, an expert in detoxification and minerals, “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.”
When you look at the fact that these micronutrient competitions occur between nearly 80% of the vitamins and minerals in commonly found in a multivitamin, you quickly realize that this one issue alone can leave you with a very expensive, but generally ineffective supplement.
In the end the choice is yours as to whether you are going to choose a whole food multivitamin or a well formulated synthetically based one. We hope we have at least exposed the rampant use of synthetic micronutrients in many whole food based supplements and brought awareness to the other issues that can make whole foods supplements less effective and potentially more problematic than their synthetic counterparts. These include cost, the introduction of anti-nutrients, food sensitivities and digestibility issues and lastly the potential for less than optimal dosages and absorption rates due to micronutrient competition. We will address the many issues with synthetic based supplements in a future post, until then read your supplement labels carefully so you don’t fall victim to misleading marketing.
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