The Inigo Montoya Guide to Whole Food Vitamins

whole food vitamin

Photo courtesy of Ginny

G’day, neighbor!

Today we’re going to re-hash a subject that’s been talked about a time or four around here: the whole food multi-vitamin.

Being the nature-loving, health-oriented supplement junkies that we are, the very concept seems like a perfect synergy between science and nature.

The traditional multivitamin is so out of style.  Chalk full of weird chemicals and additives that we can’t pronounce…..how could we have been fooled for so long?  But hey man!  The whole food multi does away with all that.  We get that shiny little pill and it’s made from straight Kale.

Synthetics need not enter!

“I Do No Think It Means What You Think It Means”

If I can borrow a theme from an earlier post, let us summon the wisdom of the Spanish henchman in search of the Five Fingered Man: Inigo Montoya.

If you recall (and I sure do!), he regularly had issues with the diction of his boss Fizzini:

If we can use Inigo’s logic to the topic at hand, let us ask ourselves:

Are the majority of promoted whole food multivitamins really getting their entire vitamin content from fruit and vegetable extracts?

Inconceivable.

It’s a nice thought, like the Tooth Fairy and sane Republicans.  But if you pore over the concept with a fine-tooth comb and a little bit of common sense we’ll see that when it comes to how these products are perceived Inigo knows best.

im-with-stupid

I’m the Dunce

When I first went into business I had some vague ideas about what I thought people would want and a lot of anxiety about giving it to them in order to stay in business.

There was a lot that I didn’t know, and some of my ignorance was of the Donald Rumsfeld variety:

I had unknown unknowns.

But I was in such a hurry to do something that I hitched my apple cart to a variety of popular mood affiliations without taking the time to really think them through.  Blithely chopping wood in the forest of public opinion, I was convinced that if I churned through enough health meme’s eventually I’d find one that stuck.

Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, STUPID!

When I look back at what I was doing then, my editorial dialogue was that of a hamster on a higher meta-level:  I had some picture of where I was going, but my inability to distinguish the map from the territory led me to waste a lot of time spinning my wheels in one place.

I’ve written about whole-food vitamins here, here, and here.  They are all sort of true, but anyone who manufactured vitamins who read them would gladly send me a thank-you card for being the useful idiot who unknowingly legitimized certain consumer perceptions that aren’t congruent with reality.

How Whole Food Vitamins Are Made

Very few (and maybe none) of whole food vitamins get all of their vitamin and mineral content from food.  The majority of them take USP vitamins (the kind that are manufactured in a lab) and then add them with a small amount of fruit and vegetable extracts (maybe 500-3000mg) and put them in a ribbon blender to make the capsules.

The key point is that the actual vitamin content primarily comes from manufactured products.  Fruits and vegetables do not have the nutrients in sufficient density to cost effectively put them in a capsule in the amounts you typically find on the labels.

As we’ll see later, it’s practically impossible to create a vitamin with 100% of your D.V. of everything with all the ingredients coming straight out of the garden

And About Those Labels…….

Vitamin labels read something like this:

NutrientAmount% D.V.
Vitamin A (as something)5000 IU100%
Vitamin D (as something)400 IU100%
Vitamin B3 (as somethig)20 mg100%
Vitamin C (as something)120mg200%

You might think that skipping straight to the “% DV” column is where the juice is at, but the the real dirt is in understanding the as something part of the label.

The as something discloses what form of the vitamin they used, which tells you a lot about where it came from.  The as something tells you about what manufacturing processes were likely used to make it and how much it cost.  The  as something reveals vast corporate secrets hidden behind a veneer of corporate branding that no one would EVER EVER EVER WANT YOU TO KNOW! The as something leads you to sacred truth, a holy place where kindness and grace run rampant and beautiful women flock like the salmon of capistrano.

I kid about the last two sentences, but you get my idea.

But seriously, usually a cursory glance at the label will tell you enough to know that there’s simply no-way, no-how its nutrients come entirely from broiled cabbage and a sack of carrots.

Going Down the List, One by One.

Let us now turn our attention to the mechanics of what it would actually take to condense an entire orchard grove into a tablet, and shine light on what’s often used in these products instead.

Nutritional Yeast (a.k.a. Saccharomyces cerevisiae)

Many whole food vitamins will ferment the fruit and vegetable extracts with nutritional yeast during the manufacturing process.

If you read their marketing literature they’ll usually make some reference to this process and use it to buttress their claims about the whole-foodsiness of their products without actually calling it what it is.

Verbiage like this is pretty typical:

We take our carefully crafted vitamins and minerals and then mix it with a proprietary elixir of living organisms that allows your body to recognize these vital nutrients as true food.

Or maybe something like this:

The secret to our vitamins is that we mix our blend of organic foods and their nutrients with living microbes which allows the food to be digested in such a way that it becomes biologically active itself, making sure it can enter your body and get absorbed into your system just as if you were eating a salad!

These statements, and most of the others that sound like them is vitamin-speak for taking isolates and fruit and vegetable extracts and fermenting them with yeast.

You’ll also see yeast listed on the label like this:

NutrientIngredient% D.V.
Vitamin A (as S. Cerevisiae)5000 IU100
Folic Acid (as S. Cerevisiae)800 mcg200
B12 (as S. Cerevisiae)1000 mcg16,667

There are two inferred points from this:

  1. That the vitamins themselves come from the yeast.
  2. That fermentation with the yeast improves the absorption of the vitamins the yeast is mixed in with.

Point 1 is definitely not true.  Except for selenium and chromium yeast does not naturally provide any vitamins. 1.  S. Cerevisiae is a primordial microbe that doesn’t do much of anything besides eat sugar.  It has no need for vitamins.

Point 2 might have some truth-iness to it, but it’s a point that’s in the realm of “sounds-kind-of-interesting-but-is-basically-conjecture” at this point.  A little searching on google scholar or pubmed yields a giant sucking sound of nothing about whether or not fermenting vitamins improves their absorption. 2

And it certainly doesn’t change the fact that the vitamins themselves are sourced from synthetic sources and not Farmer Billy Bob’s local garden patch.

Vitamin B1 (Thiamin)

Most vitamins carry B1 as thiamin.  However, the vast majority of thiamin in food exists in its enzymatic form thiamin pyrophosphate (TPP).

There are some vitamins that use thiamin pyrophosphate, but that doesn’t mean it was sourced from vegetables.  More than likely you’d buy it from a chemical manufacturer like Sigma Aldrich.

To prime your senses about how a “true” whole food multivitamin would work consider this: the RDA for thiamin is 1.2 mg/day.  1/2 cups of lentils provides 0.15mg of vitamin B1.  This means to get 100% of your RDA of thiamin would require 4 cups of lentils.  This means a 30 serving bottle would require 120 cups of lentils to provide the necessary amount of thiamin in one bottle of whole foods multi’s.  3

Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin)

Riboflavin is an abundant antioxidant that your body uses to turn food into energy.  About 95% of the time you’ll see B2 listed as riboflavin.  However, this is not Mother Nature’s preferred form.

In biological systems riboflavin forms two co-enzymes 4, riboflavin-5-phosphate (also known as FMN) and flavin adenosine dinucleotice (FAD).

It’s true that you can buy supplements that use flavin-5-phosphate, but again, it’s very easy (and far cheaper) to buy it from a lab than grow it from the dirt.  It’s not that hard to find.  Companies like GWI and DSM regularly supply it.  And the majority of flavin in food comes in the form of FAD, which is never used in supplements because it’s too expensive and unstable.

And again, if you look at the amounts of food that’d be required, it’s gargantuan.

You need about 1 mg/day of riboflavin.  1/2 cup of spinach provides 0.15mg of the vitamin.  That’s 3 cups of spinach per serving, and 90 cups per 30-serving bottle.

And better yet, since you never see riboflavin listed as flavin adenosine dinucleotid (FAD) and 2/3 of dietary riboflavin comes in this form, for whole food multivitamins to provide the listed amount of the vitamin from foods and still get rid of the FAD would require 3x this amount, or a whopping 270 cups of spinach to get the necessary juice.

Vitamin B3

Most B3 from vitamins comes from niacin or niacinamide.  Most B3 from foods comes as nicotinamide adenosine dinucleotide (NAD) or nicotinamide adenosine dinucleotide phosphate (NADP).

It’s possible to buy niacin as NAD, but it probably doesn’t come from plants.  That’s because most of the B3 in plants is not very well absorbed.  It’s usually esterified 5 to other molecules, which means too much energy will be required to release the niacin once it’s digested.

It’s one of the many reasons most traditional cultures have so many elaborate methods of preparation for grains.  The majority of their nutrients are locked up and stowed away so the plants can keep them for themselves.  In South America it’s common to treat corn tortillas with lime juice which, in addition to providing a little zest to your meal, frees the niacin found in them from their covalent bonds.

Vitamin B6

If you can believe it, vitamin B6 isn’t really a single molecule.  It’s a collection of six different compounds that can be inter-converted to one another inside the body to be used for B-6 like things.

However, there’s a big cahuna B6 that your body uses 95% of the time in circulation and tissues:

Pyridoxal-5-phosphate.

Pyridoxal-5-phosphate is what you get when you eat food..  Pyridoxal HCL is what you get when you take a vitamin.

Folate

I know we’ve all been taken down the yellow brick road that folic acid and folate are the same thing.

But here’s a small fact that most people overlook:  folic acid isn’t found in nature.

The folate in plants comes from a compound called (a big mouthfull……get ready for it)…….Tetrahydropteroypentaglutamate. 6

The folic acid from supplements comes from a reaction between pyrimidine and glutamic acid.

Anything on a label that refers to folic acid did not come from food.

Oh Yeah….and Metafolin®.

I’ve seen some vitamins that advertise themselves as whole foods vitamins that deliver folate as Metafolin®.

And about that….

  1. Our universe didn’t bring itself into existence under a trademark.
  2. Metafolin is made by the pharmaceutical company Merck.
  3. I actually think Metafolin is great, but isn’t it a *tad* bit ironic that vitamin companies that tout the benefits of only using whole foods and the magic that comes from delivering biological compounds from the food matrix are putting an expensive molecule made by big pharma in the exact same product?

A few weeks ago a reader pointed me to one of these products and I had to hold back a snarky little giggle when I went to the product link.  There was a miles-long sales page about the wonderful benefits of only using whole foods in a vitamin and all the synergies that come from eliminating synthetics.

It was quite ironic.

Food was pure.  Isolates were agents of cancer.  WE SHOULD ONLY CONSUME VITAMINS IN THE FORM OF FOOD.  Taking vitamins as isolates is effiminate, fool-hardy, and something fit for luddites.  You get the idea.

And then on the label there was a big, fat, heaping dose of 800 mcg of Metafolin.  A flagship molecule of the biggest pharmaceutical manufacturer in the world.

Uh-huh.

Vitamin B12

In our bodies circulating B12 is in the form of hydroxy cobalamin.  In the brain it’s in the form of methylcobalamin.

The most common form of cobalamin in supplements is cyanocobalamin.  Cyanocobalamin is not found in nature.  

Nowhere!

Not under a tree

Not in plants.

Not in bugs.

Not anywhere your legs could wander

Or anywhere your eyes could see.

Cobalamin of all types is not found in any plant food.  It’s only made by bacteria and found in the muscles of animals.  There’s no garden growing anywhere in the world that contains enough cobalamin in its leaves to fill up a bottle of vitamins.

Biotin and Pantethenic Acid

There’s good reason to believe the axiom that nutrients that come from food are better than those that are manufactured.  This is true for a lot of the reasons mentioned in those looooong sales pages and the purveyors of journalistic subtlety at Natural News.  (And even, ahem, some of the reasons mentioned on this blog).

They come with other vitamins, often in combinations that allow them to be used for useful stuff in the body, and also have the added benefit of not carrying TOO MUCH of something that could otherwise do harm if taken in large doses day-after-day.  That’s important.

However, it’s also true that sometimes the difference between synthetic and manufactured is just about non-existent (non-existent: just like my love life…..it’s very time consuming writing long-form articles about vitamins, you know).

And if that were true of any vitamin(s), it’d be pantothenic acid and biotin.

Both of these are almost universally delivered in the latter form, but true pantothenic acid and biotin are typically found in their co-enzyme forms inside the body.  Pantothenic acid gets turned into two very useful cofactors 7 called CoA and Acyl Carrier Protein (ACP) which are used, recycled, chopped up sloshed together in a whole schmorgasbord of useful reactions.

Biotin is a little less sexy.  Rather than being stealthily shuttled throughout your entire body to be used to simultaneously break food down for energy and then build it back up, lil’ old biotin is only used to activate a PATHETIC 4 enzymes.  And when it does this it’s usually complexed to a lysine amino acid.

So why am I blabbing about all of this?

I’ll give you three choices:

  1. I have an unhealthy obsession with biochemistry and nutrition and the friends I’m staying with have already told me to can it and keep my vitamin-talk to myself.  (They’re normal, I’m not).
  2. Digesting both of these vitamins in their native form has very little additional effect compared to regular ol’ synthetics.
  3. Choices 1 and 2.

Wanna guess which one it is?!?

Okay, in case you’re still stumped, I’ll slip you a clue….it’s choice number 3.

I’m as happy to talk about my peculiarities as the next guy, but I’ll spare you the stories about my freudian dark side (not to mention my manservant Claude) and stick to what I’m good at: nutrition.

So what’s true about #2?  Your body quickly breaks down all forms of these vitamins inside the gastrointestinal tract into pantothenic acid and biotin…..the exact same forms you’d get by sending a wire transfer to ChemMol for a 25kg tub.

But……never the less………

You know, if whole food vitamins were truly made by sticking a head of kale and a genormous basket of turnips into a Vitamix we’d have a label that read like this:

NutrientAmountD.V.
Biotin (as Biotinyl AMP)150 mcg50%
Vitamin B5 (as Acyl Carrier Protein/CoA)10mg100%

And that’s not what we get, folks.

Vitamin D

The presence of vitamin D on a whole food multi used to be a dead giveaway that the vitamin manufacturer’s nose was growing after he fibbed.

Up until recently it was impossible to get plant based D3.  Now you can source it from Vitashine, which makes it from lichen.  (A lichen is this weird plant-like thing that happens after algae and bacteria have sex and produce a red-headed halfling that doesn’t quite qualify as either).

The other D3 comes from the fatty part of fish skin or sheep wool (lanolin).  So if you enjoy anchovies on your pizza you can now get an extra sense of satisfaction knowing that when you order that extra slice you’re doing your small part to supply the nutraceutical industry with the cheap 7-DHC it needs to give back to you once your arteries turn into a cement-mixer.  America salutes you, Patriot.

The other plant based vitamin D is ergocalciferol, but you should avoid this, even if you have plant-based scruples.  It’s irradiated mold, and it’s really only useful if you’re so deficient that you’re about to get rickets and so broke that you can’t spot that extra $6 bucks for the D3 you can buy at Walgreens.

If D3 were a normal person, then D2 would be Sloth from the Goonies. Misshapen and grotesque, and lurching around in barely recognizable human form.  But not nearly as cute.  Sloth was cute.  Ergocalciferol is not.

Minerals

Minerals from food almost always come complexed with some other protein or biological molecule.  Our bodies have little little use for hard little stones coursing through our bloodstream.

Manufactured minerals usually come complexed with some sort of acid that has the ending “ate”:

  • ascorbate (vitamin C)
  • picolinate
  • orotate
  • aspartate
  • fumarate
  • sulfate
  • lactate

The list goes on, but you get the idea.  If you “ate” a mineral supplement with that ending (yes, bad pun intended) then it came from a lab.

But What About Amino Acid Chelates?

A lot of minerals will come as amino acid chelates.  Are these natural?  After all, amino acids are  the building blocks of protein and what you typically find minerals bound to when you gnaw on a stick of celery.

Can this be the one class of nutrient that actually comes 100% from mother nature?  

The answer is possibly, but probably not.  Amino acid chelates are common ingredients from ingredient suppliers (particularly Albion) and while I can’t absolutely positively expialadociously guarantee these chelates didn’t come from leeching bone marrow, my own experience strongly leads me to believe this isn’t the case.

Chelates came onto the scene big when this patent was used to explain how you could complex a mineral with an amino acid with a particular molar ratio that’d make it a suitable for being absorbed by the body.

The idea is that if you use a 2:1 ratio of amino acids to minerals you theoretically can carry the mineral into the stomach without it being broken down by stomach acid, but the mineral can still be broken apart at just the right time: when your small intestine is gnoshing on its own insides and producing slightly-uncomfortable butt gurgles as you finish digesting your meal.

The superior digestibility of amino acid chelates might be true (it’s only been tested on one particular form so far: iron bis-glycine chelate), but it’s less likely the minerals came from the same stuff you get at the salad bar.

If You Add It Up:  Yes, It Really Does Look Inconceivable

If we go by the USDA Nutrient Database, it’d take the following amounts of food to fill up one bottle of a whole food multivitamin entirely from produce:

NutrientTypical Amount in VitaminAmount of Food Required Per ServingPer Bottle
Vitamin A5000 IU2.5 Cups Carrots150 cups
Vitamin D2000 IUHard to SayDitto
Vitamin E100 IU15 cups pumpkin450 cups pumpkin
Vitamin K90mcg1/10 cup Kale3 cups Kale
Vitamin C400mg4 Cups oranges120 cups oranges
Thiamin3mg7.5 Cups peas225 cups peas
Riboflavin3.4mg20 cups spinach600 cups spinach
Niacin20mg10 cups corn300 cups corn
B12800mcgNot possibleNot possible
B64mg10 cups broccoli300 cups broccoli
Pantethenic Acid30mg25 cups split peas750 cups peas
Calcium250mg9 cups spinach270 cups
Magnesium200mg1.25 cups spinach37.5 cups spinach
Zinc15mg7.5 cups lentils225 cups lentils
Selenium100mcg5 cups mushrooms150 cups mushrooms

If you take out that pocket calculator and add ‘em up THAT’S 3,580 CUPS OF VEGETABLES FOR ONE BOTTLE!  GOOD GRAVY!

I couldn’t even count that high until I was in my teens.

You could change your choice of vegetables, or maybe you could take exception to my assumed vitamin and mineral content, but it wouldn’t change the picture all that much.

And we haven’t really talked about how the laws of Physics make it very, very difficult to condense that much food into a pill.  (There’s a reason the whole food multivitamin almost seems like Santa Claus with the way it gives you so much for nothing).

Take a look at the above table and compare it with the fruit and vegetable content in these vitamins.  

It’s probably not even remotely close.

I Don’t Hate These Products, I Just Wanted to Clarify A Lil’

If you made it this far (god bless you), you might think I hate whole food multivitamins.  I don’t.  Most of them are fine, and all else being equal a vitamin with fruit and vegetable extracts is more useful than one that doesn’t have them.

Heck, I was seriously considering making one myself.  That’s what led me down the whole food multi rabbit-hole to begin with.  (That and some discerning remarks from industry insiders who politely clarified to me what an ostrich I was with my previous articles.  If you’re reading this: thank you).

I’ve also come around to the fact that a variety of synthetic versions of vitamins are probably superior to ones you’d find in nature, or at least equal.

Metafolin would be a great example.  Unlike folic acid it bypasses the liver and crosses the blood-brain barrier.  It’s also hella expensive.  Using Metafolin doesn’t signal that someone’s cutting corners, it signals that they’re willing to pay top-dollar to make their product.  That’s a good thing.  But it most definitely means they’re using nutrient forms that are as isolated as isolated can get.  And when I read long-form sales pages going Old Testament on vitamin isolates that have Metafolin in them it’s just…….odd.

So I’m not trying to convince you not to take one of these.  Or demonize the companies that make them (the ol’ Cease and Desist letter from the corporate offices is never fun).  Or try and argue that fruit and vegetable extracts don’t comprise *some* of their nutrient content.  Or that there’s no way they could be of any use to anyone.

If you’re happily poppin’ a whole food multi, then god bless.

There was just a tiny sliver of daylight between perception and reality that I wanted to try and fill.  I hope this did the trick.

Are There Any Whole Food Multivitamins That Truly Are Only Whole Foods?

There might be others, but the only one that fits the bill that I know of are those made by the company Phytovitamins.  Just don’t be surprised when you look at the vitamin content on the label.

Okay.  I’m done.

Th-th-th-th-th-at’s Allllllll Folks!


  1. It is often used as a fortifying agent for vitamin B12, but nutritional yeast doesn’t naturally provide it.

  2. To be more specific, there ARE studies done on nutritional yeast, but no controlled studies on humans that test absorption of vitamins with it.

  3. If you’re wondering, most fruits and vegetables are not very good sources of thiamin, so they’d be even less dense.

  4. There are actually more, but FMN and FAD make up the vast majority of flavin molecules in the body.

  5. Esterified means you have an alcohol group (an oxygen and hydrogen molecule) bound to an alkyll group

  6. If you’re at all curious, it looks like this:

    dietary folate the “penta” in pentaglutamate can actually change a little bit from one food to the next but the rest is the same.

  7. cofactors are molecules that help enzymes work in the body.

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About Jonathan Bechtel

Owner of Health Kismet, maker of Incredible Greens, a green superfood supplement that combines 35 different raw greens, herbs, probiotics, grasses and fruits into a sweet tasting powder.

Comments

  1. M Donnelly says:

    Great article, I had always wondered about these with a bit of suspicion and this confirms then. I was under the impression that most foods do not contain vitamins and minerals in dense forms which is why you have to eat so much of them in order to get what you need.

  2. Eva Nguyen says:

    Thank you for this post. I´ve been wandering around the internet (google) searching for the right vitamin supplement for me, only to find out that they are all… well, odd, with the way they show their information about the product. I will look into PhytoVitamins :3

    • Jonathan Bechtel says:

      The one thing that stands out about phytovitamins is the vitamin content………which is the whole point! You can’t get vitamins from food into a pill…….it’s not dense enough.

      You can source vitamins E and K from food, but just about everything else is from synthetics, regardless of whether or not a whole foods claim is made.

      • You had me up until your “sane Republican” comment. I am neither a Republican nor Democrat, but see no need for you to politicize this topic.

  3. Hi, You have raised some good questions.I can’t help but ask, have you read any of the data from Paul Blake ( http://theherbprof.com/ ) All the best, Mrs. C.

  4. Thank you for this information. Now it leaves me questioning though, which vitamin should I be taking?? I was searching for the “best whole food vitamin”, which is how I came to your site, but now I know that a true whole food vitamin won’t give me what I need. I’m still reluctant to go with a full on synthetic vitamin. Am I just brain washed that my body won’t be able to absorb the vitamins from a synthetic source? (I’ve been taking zinc for over a year and my levels actually went DOWN not up!) Is there a “best” hybrid option?

    Please help!!

    • Jonathan Bechtel says:

      Most synthetic vitamins are actually absorbed *better* than whole food vitamins, particularly ones that come from plants. The bigger issue is that the co-factors that come packaged with the vitamins might have unobserved benefits that allows your body to use the vitamins in ways synthetics don’t provide.

      Your body doesn’t store zinc very well and if you were taking it to help alleviate some other condition it’s possible your body’s condition pre-disposed from being able to maintain it very well inside the body.

    • Jonathan Bechtel says:

      Most whole food vitamins are actually a mix of synthetic and natural plant foods. I like Douglas Labs’ Preventive X or Mercola’s. They fit this description.

  5. Bonus points if it’s certified kosher

  6. What do you think about naturelo’s whole food? They look promising

  7. Hi there,
    You have obviously looked into this subject for quite a while. What is your opinion of Garden of Life’s mykind whole food multivitamin (like their Men’s Once Daily) ? Thanks for your input!

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