Whole food vitamins vs synthetic vitamins? Is one better than the other? Ideally, you get most of your vitamin and minerals from the food you eat and don’t have to take supplements. Whole foods are better. That’s because they contain nutrients in a balanced form – in a form your body can best recognize and use.
Plus, can you really capture the health benefits of broccoli in a broccoli supplement? Not likely. Plant-based foods are a complex blend of vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals combined with other components like fiber. A supplement can’t replicate that.
Another Problem with Taking Supplements
Taking hefty doses of vitamins and minerals can lead to unhealthy imbalances. When you take, for example, a zinc supplement, you deliver high concentrations of zinc to your body. Zinc is structurally similar to copper. With all that zinc around, your body sucks up zinc and absorbs less copper. This can lead to a dangerous copper deficiency.
As an aside, denture adhesives used to contain large amounts of zinc. Some denture wearers actually developed fatal copper deficiency from overusing these adhesives. This is an extreme example of why you don’t want to take large amounts of an isolated nutrient unless you need it.
Taking too much of one thing may reduce the absorption of something else. That being said, there are situations where taking a vitamin or mineral supplement may be appropriate.
Yet, Supplements May Be Necessary in Some Cases
One example where supplements have their place is with regard to vitamin D status. Vitamin D deficiency is common. No wonder! When you consider the risk factors:
- Being overweight or obese
- Having darkly pigmented skin
- Being over the age of 50
- Living in an area that gets little direct sunlight
- Not spending time outdoors or wearing a sunscreen most of the time
It’s not hard to see why vitamin D deficiency is a problem. Diet doesn’t go far in correcting it either. The only foods that are naturally high in vitamin D are fatty fish, eggs, UV light treated mushrooms, and fortified foods like milk, milk alternatives, orange juice, and cereal. If you’re deficient in vitamin D, the only sure-fire way to correct it is to take a supplement.
Not to say that mineral and vitamin supplements don’t have their place. Without going into a lot of detail, there are other groups of people who can benefit from supplements, including vegans, women who are pregnant, some older people, people on certain medications that deplete nutrients, folks on a low-calorie diet, and people with certain medical conditions.
As you can see, we’re pro-food but not anti-supplement since some people need the extra vitamins and minerals that supplements offer. It’s better to take a supplement than to have a vitamin or mineral deficiency.
Whole Food Vitamins vs Synthetic Vitamins: Is One Better than the Other?
You sometimes see whole food vitamins and supplements referred to as “natural,” although natural is a term that isn’t regulated by the FDA. The best whole food vitamin supplements are made by harvesting the whole plant. Manufacturers sometimes use a vacuum technique to remove the water.
The final product contains elements of the whole food rather than just the isolated nutrient in question. This theoretically, makes them easier for your body to recognize since they come from whole foods.
Another way manufacturers make whole food vitamins is by adding synthetic nutrients to cultures of yeast. The yeast take up the nutrients into their cells. Manufacturers then harvest the yeast to yield a vitamin supplement. When vitamin supplements are produced in this way, they’re “food cultured.”
An alternative way is to culture individual nutrients in a medium that contain probiotic organisms. The idea is to transform the nutrients into a form your body can recognize better. Still another way manufacturers produce “natural” supplements is by genetically altering bacteria so that they make key vitamins or nutrients.
Some whole food supplements truly earn their name. These supplements are whole foods condensed into a gelatin-like material that is placed inside a capsule. Some manufacturers also offer whole food supplements as a loose powder you add to smoothies etc. A company that does this is VitaMineral Green. That’s about as “whole food” as you can get from a supplement perspective.
Not All Supplements Are Natural or Made from Food
So, we’ve looked at whole foods supplements – how are synthetic supplements made? Some are completely synthesized in a laboratory. The ingredients used to make these vitamins are sometimes questionable chemicals like coal tar or petroleum-based chemicals.
Chemists can manipulate the structures of these chemicals to make them similar to the vitamin they want to replicate. Unfortunately, they may have subtle variations that make them harder for your body to recognize and use.
Other manufacturers synthesize vitamins in a laboratory, making them technically synthetic, but the structure of the final product is identical to the natural vitamin. This makes it more likely that your body can absorb and benefit from it, yet it lacks the other healthful components that you find in foods that contain that vitamin.
Natural always sounds better but it’s not always what you think. A vitamin can be called natural if as little as 10% of its ingredients are from natural or plant-based sources. That means the rest can be made in a laboratory or be synthetic in nature.
So, seeing the term “natural” on a vitamin or supplement bottle doesn’t mean you’re getting a vitamin made from whole foods. What’s in the bottle could be up to 90% synthetic.
The reality is most of the vitamins and supplements you see on store shelves ARE synthetic. The question is whether it matters with regard to whole food vitamins vs synthetic vitamins. Are you better off paying the extra money for vitamins that come from a whole food source or will synthetic vitamins do?
The Issue of Purity
When Consumer Lab analyzed whole food vitamins they found they often contain less of the vitamin in question than a synthetic vitamin would. You might expect them to be purer – but are they?
When they looked at contamination levels in whole food vitamins, they weren’t as pristine as you would hope. Some were contaminated with heavy metals like lead.
So, buying whole food supplements is no guarantee of purity. The biggest advantage is they contain other plant-based components that you don’t get from synthetic vitamins. This may help your body better assimilate them.
You plan what you wear in the morning – but how much are you planning your diet? It matters.
Whether whole food vitamins vs synthetic vitamins is better may depend upon the vitamin. Based on research from Consumer Lab, non-synthetic vitamin E is superior since there’s a slightly higher risk of bleeding problems when you take synthetic. This is only a concern if you take high doses.
Another situation where natural or food based is better is vitamin K2. The best vitamin K2 is made from fermented soybeans. This form is better for raising your vitamin K2 level than synthetic forms.
For most other vitamins and minerals, whether you take a whole food based form or a synthetic one probably won’t make a big difference in how much of that vitamin ends up in your body. Theoretically, whole food vitamins and minerals are more bioavailable but there’s no definitive proof of that.
If you don’t like the idea of taking something made in a laboratory, then whole food vitamins might be for you. You’re also more likely to find additives like polyvinyl alcohol and polyethylene glycol in synthetic vitamins.
The downside of choosing a whole food vitamin or supplement is the expense. In most cases, they cost significantly more. Makes sense since they cost more to make.
How Do You Recognize a Whole Food Vitamin or Supplement?
When you look at the ingredient list of a synthetic vitamin or mineral supplement, you’ll see a list of vitamins and minerals and the quantity. When you check out a vitamin made entirely from whole foods, you’ll see a listing of foods instead. That’s the mark of a truly whole foods vitamin or mineral supplement.
Here’s a whole food-based ingredient list from a vitamin K2 product:
But remember, if a supplement is completely whole food based, you may need to take more pills than you would a synthetic vitamin supplement.
The Bottom Line
If you can get your vitamins and minerals from eating a diet of whole foods, that’s the best way to go. If you need to take a supplement, whole food vitamins have an advantage. They offer the nutrient in a form that’s closer to nature and, theoretically, more recognizable by your body.
Yet, buying a whole food supplement is no guarantee that the product is free of contamination and that it contains exactly what it says on the bottle. Plus, they’re more expensive.
If your budget allows it, choose whole food supplements but buying a synthetic vitamin from a reputable source is a decent alternative. Most importantly, do your research before buying a supplement.
Don’t be afraid to call the manufacturer and ask them questions about how their product is made and how it’s tested for purity. It’s YOUR body and you have the right to know.
Am J Med Sci. 2010 Aug;340(2):164-8. doi: 10.1097/MAJ.0b013e3181e3648c.
Organic Consumer’s Association. “Nutri-Con: The Truth About Vitamins & Supplements”
Precision Nutrition. “All about Where Vitamin Supplements Come From”