Important: I’ve updated my priors about these products. This article is now the most complete summary of how whole food and synthetic vitamins work.
About two and a half weeks ago on my post about the dangers of synthetic vitamins Cindy asked:
How exactly do we tell if our multivitamin and supplements are whole foods based or synthetic?
and Nicole Lyles added:
That would be very useful! My children and myself are vegans and this information has been the topic of discussion since we’ve recently transitioned to a plant-based diet. Thank you!
So this post is my best attempt to give the curious shopper practical advice on how to shop for whole foods supplements and vitamins. It’s going to cover
- The important differences between the two
- Differences in how whole foods vitamins are made
- Where you can buy them
- What types you need, if any
But first, let me give you a disclaimer:
I own a company that manufactures a whole foods based greens powder. So yes, you could say that I have a vested interest in the type of answer that I would give. However, I promise I’m writing this to help, not sell. Hopefully you’ll see that my advice is unbiased. And I’ll also add that my professional craft gives me a unique viewpoint on the differences between vitamins and supplements and how they’re made, making my opinions on the topic unusually unique.
Okay! So with that out of the way….
Let’s get started!
A Brief Overview On Whole Foods and Synthetic Supplements
If you want a background on this topic, it’s best to read my previous post about differences between the two. However, if you’re too lazy to do that, here’s an abbreviated recap of the important points:
- Many supplements, especially multi-vitamins, are derived from synthetically manufactured substances and not edible foods
- Synthetic substances are typically not absorbed as well, and are sometimes even harmful if consumed in large quantities over time.
- Long term epidemiological evidence increasingly suggests typical multinutritional vitamins don’t do much for your health
- Supplements and pills derived from whole foods erase many (but not all) of the deficiencies of synthetic vitamins
How To Tell if a Multi-Vitamin or Supplement is Synthetic
A good assumption is that a vitamin or supplement will be synthetic unless otherwise noted. Whole foods supplements are more costly to manufacture so the makers of such vitamins will be sure to point it out so you will know why you’re paying more money for their product.
The majority of multi-nutritional vitamins you buy in stores are synthetic.
In fact, before I wrote this post I stopped in CVS and took a look around the vitamin section to see what they offered. A snapshot of their multinutritional vitamins looked like this:
These are all synthetic vitamins. Most popular brands like Centrum, Spectrum, etc are synthetic. As a general rule if you can buy a big bottle for less than $20 it’s synthetic, because it’s impossible to manufacture a whole foods based vitamin and sell it for a profit at $20.
Of course, another decent way is just to look at the label. Here’s the label for the Centrum Vitamin:
A glance will show you that things like polyvinyl alcohol, polyethylene glycol, etc are all in there.
Would you feel good about buying a food that had those ingredients inserted into them? I wouldn’t. Why would you want them in your multi-vitamin?
So! With that being said, here are some brands that make whole foods vitamins:
- Megafood multi-vitamins
- Pure Synergy Organic Vitamins
- VitaMineral Green Vegan Caps
- Dr. Schulze Superfood Plus Tablets
That’s a start.
Like I said, there are more, but for whatever reason many of the brands don’t go through the traditional retail channel. I’d guess it’s because the median consumer doesn’t distinguish between synthetic and natural vitamins, and hence doesn’t see the need to pay a higher price. So there’s no point in stocking the shelves with them.
Different Types of Whole Food Vitamins
Among the latter supplements I mentioned, there are important differences between them.
What are they?
- Some whole foods supplements attempt to mimic a traditional multi-vitamin exactly. That is, they isolate different nutrients like vitamin C, E, etc, but they do it entirely from plant sources and not synthetic processes. The MegaFood, Garden of Life, and Pure Synergy vitamins do this.
- Other whole foods pills make no pretense of isolating nutrients, and instead compress whole foods into a highly dense, getalinized form that’s put into the capsule. VitaMineral Green and Dr. Schulze do this.
How can you tell which one is which?
You’ll be able to tell by looking at the label.
For example, an organic whole foods vitamin will have a lable that might read like this:
And so on.
These vitamins take different whole foods and boil them until they form a condensed broth that contains loose forms of the different nutrients. From this broth different plant based and bacterial culturing agents are added and the nutrients are extracted into a dense getalitinized form that’s turned into a vitamin.
The whole foods pills that don’t isolate nutrients, like VitaMineral Green or Dr. Schulze simply condense different foods until they are gelatinized. There’s no isolating of nutrients.
Their ingredient list will simply read as a list of the foods:
Which One Is Better?
For your health, the whole foods pills that don’t isolate nutrients are better for you. Because there’s not as much nutrient extracting going on, you get a wider variety of micronutrients which are essential to bodily functioning, but harder to quantify with labels.
The vitamins that isolate nutrients are more useful than traditional vitamins because the form and state of the nutrients will have a higher bio-availibility. Digesting nutrients that are not capable of being metabolized by their body also puts you at risk to some health problems if done over a long period of time.
However, isolated nutrients in general are simply not as useful in your body because nutrients have their maximum impact when they are accompanied by the delicate array of micronutrients which support the primary functions of well defined essential compounds like vitamin C, A, calcium, etc.
The Downsides of Whole Foods Pills
However, there are a few downsides to the “champion” pills that I mentioned.
- more expensive
- require unusually large serving sizes to get the recommended dosages
You simply can’t stuff that much whole foods into a pill, so you have to take a lot more (6-12 a day) to get the recommended daily amount.
Pills Vs. Powders
If you’re content with the wisdom of taking a supplement that’s simply condensed foods, then nutritionally you’re probably better off with a powder.
- More nutritious. As far as preserving nutrients, whole foods >powders>pills
- More reasonable serving sizes
- Often a little cheaper per serving
Of course powders have a taste, and need to be added to other foods, etc, and this is problematic for some.
I’ve written extensively about this before, so if you’re curious about this approach then I’d recommend reading my greens powder buying guide.
I also make such a supplement and allow new customers to name their own price if they’re interested in trying it out.
Do You Need To Take A Vitamin Or Supplement?
I’ll wrap up this post by briefly touching on the subject of whether or not supplements are necessary at all.
Lots of people have strong opinions on both sides.
If you want the most persuasive argument for why supplements are not necessary, I’d recommend you read the arguments put forth by Dr. McDougall.
They’re eloquent and well thought out. However, I think he specifically attacks synthetic supplements and doesn’t consider the important differences between whole foods vs. synthetic supplements.
Kristen Suzanne makes a good argument for the importance of supplements.
What do I think?
- In general, you don’t have to go crazy with supplements
- A B12 supplement is a good idea if you’re vegetarian or vegan
- A well rounded whole foods powder or pill is also a good idea, especially if you’re on a restrictive diet (vegan, macrobiotic, etc)
If you’re going to go with a whole foods based powder or vitamin, the health benefits generally work like this:
whole foods powder > whole foods pill > multi nutritional vitamin derived from whole food sources
The reason I think a basic all around whole foods supplement is essential is because many frozen foods and vegetables are less nutritious today than they were 30 or 40 years ago due to depleted nutrients in the soil and the competitive pressures of industrial agriculture.
This makes the food less expensive and more accessible….which is good, but makes their nutritional value less reliable. So take a whole foods supplement as nutritional insurance.
However, you don’t have to stock up on a million different supplements in order to be healthy. Keep it simple.
If nothing else you’ll get a better bang for your buck spending your extra money elsewhere. A nice pair of running shoes or a pilates class is better for your health than an extra $50 a month on supplements.
Okay….hope this helps!
All the best