While there is little doubt that a nutritious and well-balanced diet is the ideal way to meet our nutritional needs, the reality is that our fast-paced lifestyles and modern food production methods can make this difficult, if not impossible, for some people. This goes a long way to explain why more than half of Americans reportedly use dietary supplements. According to studies, most of these users are motivated to maintain or improve their health or to “fill in the gaps” missing from their diets.

Most supplement users take their vitamins and feel virtuous about having done so, not thinking about how they are produced. Not many stop to think about whether or not the vitamin supplements they are purchasing are “natural.”  Typically, there is the assumption that, of course, since vitamins are necessary for human health and survival, they must be naturally extracted from foods. This assumption is not entirely—or even mostly—true.  Most vitamins that go into dietary supplements are, as most insiders know, synthetically produced. This is really the only way to obtain the quantities of isolated vitamins the industry sells at an affordable price point. 

At the same time, the majority of synthetically produced nutrients that go into dietary supplements are “nature-identical.” This just means that the nutrient is chemically identical to that which is found naturally in food or within the body. Synthetically derived, nature-identical nutrient forms function the same way in the body as their food-derived counterparts. In fact, most of the time, because they are not bound up in a food matrix, they are more easily absorbed by the GI tract. Thus, synthetically derived nutrients often outperform nutrients from food, as is borne out in scientific studies. Furthermore, there are proven benefits of forms used in supplements that are backed by decades of clinical studies. 

There are certainly issues with respect to bioavailability when it comes to some nutrients, especially multiple-nutrient supplement products and certain nutrients that are not well-absorbed by the body, even in ideal circumstances. For multi-ingredient products, careful attention to formulation can overcome many of the nutrient interactions that might occur.  In the case of nutrients with typically low bioavailability, novel absorption enhancement techniques have recently been developed—and scientifically validated.

Although most consumers are unaware or unconcerned that most of the nutrients in their supplements are synthetic, a growing segment of the market is turning to food-based supplements because they are purported to be more “natural.” But what are these “whole food” supplements and how are they made?  Are they really better?  Are they natural? 

The products in this category are produced through a variety of methods. The term “food-based” can be used to describe supplements that comprise vitamins provided in a base of superfoods like greens and/or concentrated powders of fruits and vegetables. In most cases, the vitamins in these products are the same ingredients used in conventional supplement products—they are just combined with “superfoods.”  Other products consist of isolated or concentrated nutrients derived from actual foods, which are typically much less potent than conventional supplements. Still others are produced using a proprietary process involving yeast fermentation, whereby synthesized vitamins are fermented in yeast cultures and presented as a unique delivery system. One thing all of these products have in common is that they are usually a lot more expensive.

While it would seem that food-based supplements should be better, there is no evidence to back up claims of superiority. There are no published studies using these products, so consumer perceptions of superiority have really been created by marketing campaigns.  Although these products may also be well-absorbed and utilized by the human body, there is no proof of this.  Moreover, how can it be said that they are somehow better than conventional supplements if there is no scientific substantiation for these claims?

Thousands of studies have been done using synthetically produced, nature-identical nutrient supplements, so their benefits are well known and scientifically validated. They are also typically less expensive, more stable, and have higher potencies than food-derived vitamins, and thus require fewer pills per dose, making them more affordable and more convenient for the average family. WF

DEBATE: Also see To Synthesize or Not to Synthesize – “Nature-Identical” Nutrients

Amy Kosowski,

Amy Kosowski, MS, LDN, is a scientist at NOW Health Group where she writes technical literature and label claims for nutritional products and is active in the product development process.  Amy oversees regulatory and compliance activities with respect to marketing materials and, as a Registered Patent Agent, she works alongside the legal team.  She is an Illinois state-licensed Dietitian-Nutritionist (LDN) with fifteen years of nutritional counseling experience.  She has worked with both individuals and groups to educate them on nutritionally related issues.  Amy earned her Master’s degree in Nutritional Biology from the University of Chicago, where she studied medical physiology, cellular and molecular biology, as well as the molecular mechanisms of disease processes. Amy has also been a Certified Personal Trainer (ACSM and NASM) and has taught classes at the College of DuPage, in the Nutrition for the Human Services Department.

Published on WholeFoods Magazine, 5/18/15