A large proportion of the Australian population take nutrient supplements with research showing 47% of women and 34% of men reporting that they regularly consume supplements. Supplementation use varies with different populations with the United States, United Kingdom and Denmark being the highest in supplement use, reported at between 35 and 60% of adults.
There has been much debate over whether synthetic nutrients provide the same benefits as a natural nutrient such as those that are found in whole foods. The recent rise in the interest of supplements that may help to reverse or reduce the risk of disease has led scientists to investigate wholefood supplements and their potential ability to be absorbed better than traditional vitamin and mineral supplements (6).
What is meant by “whole food” supplements?
Nutrients (vitamins and minerals) can either come from natural sources or they can be synthesised. Synthetic nutrients are made in a laboratory setting or industrial process and natural nutrients are those found organically in whole foods.
Whole food supplements are typically made with plants that have been concentrated or dehydrated such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, roots, and legumes.
The important fact to remember about whole food supplements is that they contain “whole” and complex structures that are organically found in foods. This means you are not only consuming a particular vitamin or mineral but also the enzymes, co-enzymes, trace elements and antioxidants that are naturally found together in that plant.
The production method of synthetic nutrients is very different to the way plants and animals naturally create them. This means that even though they may have a similar structure, the body can react differently when ingesting synthetic nutrients. At present, it is still a little unclear how well the body absorbs and uses synthetic nutrients. Some may be more readily absorbed and used than others (7).
Synthetic versus whole foods- what the research says
Synthetically made nutrients are often produced the way pharmaceuticals are. If there is not enough of the natural enzymes or cofactors in the end-product then the body might not be able to absorb and use the nutrients in that supplement. When we eat real food, we are not eating synthetically made, single nutrients, but instead we ingest an abundance of vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and co-factors that allow for optimal use by the body.
Recent studies have shown that the natural nutritional state of a plant is believed to be far superior to a synthetic supplement. Evidence is now showing that the best nutrition comes from whole foods; however, when nutritional supplementation is required then whole food nutritional supplements offer a more reliable delivery of nutrients (5).
In 2014, a review investigated current clinical trials that had compared whole tomatoes with a single nutrient lycopene supplement (lycopene is a powerful antioxidant found in tomatoes) and how each improved the risk factors of people suffering with cardiovascular disease. The research showed that the best approach to improving cardiovascular health should firstly be to consume whole tomato-based foods as they provided more beneficial results than using only lycopene supplementation in this study (1).
In 2011, researchers set out to compare the bioactivity of broccoli and broccoli containing supplements, specifically in their potential to reduce various forms of cancer. The study used a broccoli supplement that didn’t contain all the enzymes that broccoli in its natural state contains. The study focused on some specific plant chemicals that broccoli contains and found that broccoli as a whole food contained significantly higher levels of these important immune boosting plant chemicals that may help in the prevention of cancer (2).
Thus, research so far tends to promote whole food sourced products as a more efficient way to deliver health enhancing nutrients to the body.
Choosing the right supplement for you
Choosing high quality supplements can be challenging, especially since there is an abundance of options and that many multivitamin supplements contain chemical preservatives and fillers. Not all supplements are equal and whole food supplements are proving to have a more beneficial therapeutic effect. This is because while synthetically based supplements are made to mimic the same activity of natural nutrients, the body may not be able to absorb or use them in the same way as whole food based, natural supplements (3, 4.)
In exceptional whole food supplements, great care is taken to make sure that the whole foods used in the product are organically grown, are as minimally process as possible, produced at low temperatures (proteins in foods are denatured by high heat levels) and contain the naturally occurring co-nutrients that support maximum absorption, disease prevention and optimal long-term health (5).
1. Burton-Freeman BM & Sesso HD, (2014). Whole Food versus Supplement: Comparing the Clinical Evidence of Tomato Intake and Lycopene Supplementation on Cardiovascular Risk Factors, Advances in Nutrition;5;5,457–485.
2. Clarke J, (2011). Comparison of the response to broccoli sprouts or broccoli supplement consumption in human subjects. The FASEB Journal;25; S1, 234.7.
3. Nutri-Con: The Truth About Vitamins & Supplements. (2006). Retrieved from https://www.organicconsumers.org/news/nutri-con-truth-about-vitamins-supplements
4. Liu, R. H. (2003). Health benefits of fruit and vegetables are from additive and synergistic combinations of phytochemicals. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 78(3), 517S-520S. doi:10.1093/ajcn/78.3.
5. Rubin, Jordan, (2004). The case for whole food nutritional supplements. Townsend Letter for Doctors and Patients;247-248, Gale Academic OneFile, Accessed 27 Jan. 2022.
6. Burnett AJ, Livingstone KM, Woods, JL & McNaughton SA (2017). Dietary Supplement Use among Australian Adults: Findings from the 2011-2012 National Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey. Nutrients, 9(11), 1248.
7. Yetley EA, (2007). Multivitamin and multimineral dietary supplements: definitions, characterization, bioavailability, and drug interactions. Am J Clin Nutr; 85(1):269S-276S.