According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Dietary Supplements, Americans have been taking vitamin and mineral supplements since the early 1940’s. In 2014 the sales of dietary supplements in the United States totaled $36.7 billion, which included $14.3 billion for vitamin and mineral supplements.
More than half of the United States population is taking supplements, and this figure is expected to rise.
Most Americans, consuming the Standard American Diet (SAD) do not get enough nutrients from the food that they eat. The lack of proper nutrients in the diet can lead to dysfunction in the body. For example, vitamin deficiency anemia, or the lack of healthy red blood cells in the body, can occur when the diet does not contain enough vitamin C, vitamin B12, and folate (B9).
With so many people turning to supplements to correct nutrient deficiencies today, let’s take a look at whether there is a difference between getting our nutrients naturally or artificially.
A natural nutrient is one that is unprocessed, unrefined and coming from whole food sources in the diet such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes.
When we consume whole foods, they contain a vast array of nutrients including macronutrients, micronutrients as well as fiber and phytochemicals that all play a role individually and synergistically within the body.
For example, when we eat an apple we are consuming carbohydrates, water, protein, fat, fiber, vitamin C, B complex vitamins like folate (B9), biotin (B7), and pyridoxine (B6), as well as beta-carotene, and vitamin K. Apples also contain minerals like potassium, iron, calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus, as well as antioxidants like quercetin, chlorogenic acid, and catechin, among other nutrients.
One study, reported in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, found that natural vitamin C was more effective than its synthetic counterparts used as food additives today, such as BHA, TBHQ, and BHT.
Bullock, of the Community Care Chemist, states that nutrients are best consumed through natural, unadulterated foods that our bodies can absorb and utilize more effectively than their synthetic counterparts.
Studies show that absorption of natural vitamin E occurs twice as efficiently as the synthetic version, again indicating that the whole food sources of nutrients are better assimilated and used by the body.
Whole food nutrients are associated with health benefits. For example, increased fruit intake has been linked to lower blood pressure, reduced oxidative stress, and improved blood sugar control.
As natural nutrients are consumed in the diet, the body can determine whether or not a nutrient, such as a mineral will be absorbed and used. For example, when an individual is iron-deficient, the body will absorb iron from the diet at higher rates than someone who is not deficient.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, through Nutrition.gov, states that individual nutritional needs should be met by eating a variety of foods, as supplementing may cause an individual to exceed safe levels of a particular nutrient. For example, overdoing vitamin A with supplements can cause birth defects, liver problems, and blurred vision.
For details on the recommended levels of dietary nutrient intakes for healthy individuals, you can go to https://ods.od.nih.gov/Health_Information/Dietary_Reference_Intakes.aspx for the Dietary Reference Intakes (DRI).
A synthetic nutrient is one that is industrially and artificially made and typically refers to isolated substances such as forms of vitamin C or ascorbic acid.
Synthetic nutrients are not identical to their natural analog. The size and structural differences of synthetic nutrients are said to prevent the synthetic analog from delivering the same health benefits experienced from the natural nutrient as they tend to store in body tissue and fluid and can be less bio-available.
Also, synthetic nutrients come in various forms such as pills, powders, tablets, and liquids. These substances include various other ingredients, such as binders and fillers, that may prevent the proper breakdown of these substances for absorption of the nutrient, and can themselves lead to health complications. For example, titanium dioxide found in many supplements today has been found to cause lung and kidney damage and small intestine inflammation.
When a single synthetic nutrient, such as zinc, is supplemented it can cause imbalances and deficiency in other nutrients in the body. For example, iron, copper, and zinc all compete for absorption and the same binding sites. When zinc is supplemented, it can inhibit copper absorption, which is necessary for iron’s conversion to hemoglobin and can lead to a secondary deficiency in iron which can lead to anemia. Therefore, mineral supplements tend to be a main factor in secondary deficiencies.
Studies show mixed results from supplementing with synthetic vitamins. For example, one study assessed the use of vitamin and mineral supplements in relation to the total mortality in 38,772 older women in the Iowa Women’s Health Study and found that several commonly used vitamin and mineral supplements were associated with increased total mortality (death) risk, with the strongest risk associated with iron supplementation. However, this study also found calcium supplementation provided a decreased risk of total mortality.
The U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services through the NIH advises that some ingredients found in supplements are being added to foods, and as a result individuals may be consuming more of these synthetic nutrients than they think, which could raise their risks of side effects such as liver damage, reduced bone strength, and birth defects.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates dietary supplement products and ingredients, but they do not test for safety and effectiveness before the supplements are marketed. The FDA does state that taking supplements creates risks as many contain active ingredients that have strong biological effects in the body.
We see from the current research on natural versus synthetic nutrients that natural nutrients, from whole food sources, are the better option. However, if an individual is diagnosed as lacking a specific nutrient, supplementing from a trusted source may be beneficial.
Isaiah 38:21 “Now Isaiah had said, "Let them take a cake of figs and apply it to the boil, that he may recover."
Dae-Ok, K., & Chang, Y. L. (2004). Comprehensive study on vitamin C equivalent antioxidant capacity (VCEAC) of various polyphenolics in scavenging a free radical and its structural relationship. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 44(4), 253-73. Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/199110142?accountid=158302
Bullock, S. (2011, Mar 09). Mineral health essential. Geelong News Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/856366583?accountid=158302
Mahan, Escott-Stump & Raymond (2012) Krause’s food and the nutrition care process (13th ed) p. 107
Gil-Soon CHOI, et. al. (2014, March 7). Titanium dioxide exposure induces acute eosinophilic lung inflammation in rabbits. Industrial Health. Retrieved from https://www.jstage.jst.go.jp/article/indhealth/advpub/0/advpub_2013-0105/_article
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Suxin Gui, Xuezi Sang, Lei Zheng, et. al. (2013). Intragastric exposure to titanium dioxide nanoparticles induced nephrotoxicity in mice, assessed by physiological and gene expression modifications. Particle and Fibre Toxicology. 10:4 doi:10.1186/1743-8977-10-4. Retrieved from http://www.particleandfibretoxicology.com/content/10/1/4
Nogueira, C.M., Mendes de Azevedo, W., Dagli, M.L.Z., et. a. (2012 September 14). Titanium dioxide induced inflammation in the small intestine. World J Gastroenterol. 18(34): 4729–4735. doi: 10.3748/wjg.v18.i34.4729. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3442211/