In spite of years of recommending multivitamins to the masses, recent science has officially reached the same conclusion that some of us believed for years: vitamin supplements are "next to worthless" and people should just "eat real food." (Yes, those are direct quotes from the article--it's a good article, just published last month, go read it!)
"It is not possible to get a US patent on naturally occurring vitamins as found in food--anytime a health professional hears that some vitamin is patented, that should set off warning signals that it is not real food." [link]It is worth noting that there are vitamins that are made from whole foods--they are made from ground up spinach and carrots and so on rather than from chemical powders, and they therefore have the vitamins in their natural forms. They tend to cost a lot more, and my own feeling is that eating real food is always preferable to a vitamin--even a good vitamin, but there's more information below about how to find whole food vitamins.
(in other words, if it's in a jar with a brand name or 'patented formula' on the label, then it's probably not appropriate for consumption)
This article is excellent, and packed full of well-referenced information, including going over each vitamin one by one, explaining both its natural food sources and how the synthetic version is made. Just so you are aware, some of those synthetic vitamins are made from cattle brains, hydrogenated sugars, coal tar, petroleum, formaldehyde, or acetone (aka nail polish remover). Mmmmm, even if you didn't like broccoli and spinach before I bet they sound pretty good now, don't they?!
I'll conclude with a quote from the conclusion of the article:
There are really only two types of vitamins sold: food vitamins and non-food vitamins. Food vitamins will normally state something like “100% Food” on the label. Sometimes the label will also state “No USP nutrients” or “No synthetic nutrients.”
Non-food vitamins...are somewhat less obvious. First of all, no non-food vitamin this researcher has seen says “100% food” on the label and none of them state ‘No USP or synthetic nutrients”—thus if none of these expressions are present, it is normally safe to conclude that the vitamins are not from food. If a label states that the product contains USP vitamins or ‘pharmaceutical grade’ nutrients, then it should be obvious to all naturopathic practitioners that the product is not food. Also, if a multi-vitamin or a B-complex formula states something to the effect that it “contains no yeast” that is basically a guarantee that it contains synthetic nutrients.
However, just because a company uses the term ‘natural’ or ‘all natural’ as a description of its vitamins does not make them, in fact, natural—this is because the US Government has no definition of natural! Also, just because a company may have a reputation for having natural products, this does not mean its vitamins are not synthetic—carefully check the label for proof that the product is truly 100% food.
Some companies seem to confuse the issue by using the term ‘food-based’ on their supplement labels. ‘Food-based’ vitamins are almost always USP vitamins mixed with a small amount of food. This mixing does not change the chemical form of the vitamin, so it is still a vitamin analogue and not a food vitamin (this differs from food, as true food vitamins are not simple mixture).
Most vitamins sold are not food--they are synthetically processed petroleum and/or hydrogenated sugar extracts--even if they say “natural” on the label. They are not in the same chemical form or structural form as real vitamins are in foods; thus they are not natural for the human body. True natural food vitamins are superior to synthetic ones. Food vitamins are functionally superior to non-food vitamins as they tend to be preferentially absorbed and/or retained by the body. Isolated, non-food vitamins, even when not chemically different are only fractionated nutrients.
...[It] seems logical to conclude that for purposes of maintaining normal health, natural vitamins are superior to synthetic ones. Unlike some synthetic vitamins, no natural vitamin has been found to not perform all of its natural functions.
The truth is that only foods, or supplements composed of 100% foods, can be counted on as not containing non-food vitamin analogues. Natural health advocates are supposed to build health on foods or nutrients contained in foods. That was the standard set for the profession in 1947—that standard—that commitment to real naturopathy should remain for natural health professionals today.