Monday, March 23, 2009

The Secret Life of Synthetic Vitamins

The human body needs certain nutrients to live, I think we all understand that part well enough. For most of the history of the world humans (like every other creature) have eaten whole, unprocessed foods straight from nature, and they got plenty of vitamins in their natural forms. As people moved away from the land (into cities), and stopped raising their own food (relying on grocery stores etc), their nutrition suffered. Currently, in spite of improvements in access to healthy foods, we also have increased access to garbage foods, and the sad truth is that most of us have very poor eating habits, so we take multivitamins in an attempt to make up for it. The problem is, vitamins in pills (or as additives in food, as in "vitamin A and D added") are not the same as the vitamins in their natural food forms. The molecular structures are not even similar [link] (scroll down for photos).
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]
(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)
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.

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.


Becky said...

We just recently decided to stop throwing away money on multivitamins. Now we need to work on the healthy food part. I mean, we do okay, but there's so much crap out there! And it seems like the not-good-for-you food is always cheaper than healthy stuff. It can get frustrating.

Mommy Bee said...

And it seems like the not-good-for-you food is always cheaper than healthy stuff. It can get frustrating.
I know it seems this way, but in the long run I think it's more economical to eat the good foods. 1--increased health = lower (or no) medical bills 2--proper foods usually fill your stomach faster, so you'll find that you are fully satisfied on smaller servings (and getting more nutrients per bite anyway!)

Emily said...

Thanks for this post! It confirms what I have suspect for some time now - that people need to just eat real food. In my last pg, I tossed the prenatals and set out to get the nutrition I needed from actual food sources.

And to PP, it may seem like whole foods are more expensive, because they are often more expensive by unit. However, one unit of "junk" food lasts one meal, while one unit of whole food can make 2-3 meals. We eat almost exclusively whole foods, no canned anything, no sodas, chips, or candy, and I spend maybe $300/mo for a family of 5. When you buy $50 worth of produce, you can make meals for 2-3 weeks.

sara said...

I love junk food ;) I was making lunch today and thinking about what a blessing Peeps were. ;)

The only time I take vitamins is when I know I could possibly become pregnant and during the first trimester. I don't eat much and I'm usually throwing up much of what I do eat. I've gone to the health store and got the "all natural" but this time I decided to research and I ended up with some whole food mega expensive vitamins. It's worth it to me because I'm nursing and pregnant and puking. I lost 15lbs in the first trimester with my last pregnancy and 10lbs with this one. If the only thing I can keep down is ramen, I'm definitely taking vitamins!!! LOL

I love this post. I'll have to share it. That was a great article!

Janeen said...

The really annoying thing are those vitamins out there that contain ingredients found in breastmilk. Well, why not nurse full term? Then you wouldn't need to spend the money on junky vitamins anyway!

Christa said...

Are you really my friend April just pretentding to be someone else?
I give my kids (thanks to April) Whole Food Liquid Vitamins (Animal Parade). I love that I can read the ingredients and pronounce the words and I know what they are because it's broccoli, mangos apples, whole grain brown rice and the such. I also take whole food vitamins now.
I'm starting to think you really are April though, if you aren't you should move here we need another one of "us", then we could start our club. It's just wierd for me to find someone so like minded on so many things is all I guess.

megandjon said...

i totally agree with this and was way excited when i heard about that study! when will people finally learn that man-made and synthetic usually means bad for you? (i said usually-i know there are a few good ones, though i can't think of any right now!) something i wanted to throw out there is that herbs and sprouts are both seriously good sources of nutrition too. a lot of people don't realize that herbs are food, basically, with healing powers and a whole lot of nutrition. you can get almost all the v & m you need from alfalfa and kelp. you have to take more than one a day, but still. and sprouts are major nutritional powerhouses in tiny little packages. they should be a regular part of everyone's diet and a major part of food storage!

Future Mama said...

Wow, what a great post! Does that mean I should throw out thos prenatals and get something with "all food" then? Oh man! You know, you mentioned the vitamins often coming out the way they came in... It makes me want to check out my poop sometimes and see if that's true... I haven't, but I've thought about it, haha.

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