We know what we should be eating, but are we falling short? In a perfect world, we would all adhere to a well-rounded, natural diet that provides us with all the nutrients we need each day. We would never eat processed foods nor drink sugary drinks!
NEWSFLASH: Our world is not perfect, and neither are we, let alone our diets!!
Fortunately, we have resources such as supplements to help us fill in the nutritional gaps our diets leave behind. Whether we need an extra boost of vitamin C during cold and flu season or a daily multivitamin to cover all of our bases, we have more supplement options than ever before.
All of this sounds great right?
Not necessarily. Did you know that not all supplements are made equal?
Nutrients fall into two major categories:
Natural and Synthetic.
Natural nutrients include vitamins, minerals, amino acids, fiber, and antioxidants that are found in whole foods and come straight from the earth. They have been accessible for as long as humans have been here, come in the exact quantities and ratios our bodies need and have become accustomed to absorbing safely and efficiently. When we are not consuming enough whole foods to meet our daily nutrient requirements, we often turn to vitamin & mineral supplements.
Synthetic nutrients are man-made and produced to imitate the effects of natural nutrients through an industrial process which usually involves the nutrients being isolated, which most of the time won’t have the cofactors needed to allow for the efficient absorption and/or utilisation by the body. Synthetically made supplements have only been around for a short amount of time and even though the structures appear similar, there is still a lot of uncertainty as to how our bodies absorb and react to them.
Choosing your vitamins
When picking your nutrient sources, you should be looking for natural options.
One of the major benefits of using natural nutrients over synthetic is you are getting a range of nutrients and not just an isolated compound. Take vitamin E for example.
Vitamin E (tocopherol) is an important fat-soluble vitamin that plays several roles in the body. Its most important role is as an antioxidant that works closely with its partners Selenium and Vitamin C to protect the body from the oxidative stress of exercise, illness and certain medical conditions. Through this mechanism, vitamin E serves to maintain normal neuromuscular function. Vitamin E also helps keep the immune system strong. It aids the body in properly using vitamin K, helping maintain normal blood viscosity.
Well get this,
Synthetic vitamin E does not come from a natural food source and is generally derived from petroleum products! Synthetic vitamin E (dl-alpha-tocopherol or any variation starting with dl-) is found in most supplemental vitamin e sources due to its chemical structure, is only about 12% as potent as natural vitamin E and It is not as bioavailable (easily used by the body) as its natural counterpart!
This means overall absorption is decreased and so too the utilisation of the vitamin. Some studies have shown that three times more synthetic vitamin E is needed to equal the biological activity of natural vitamin E. Synthetic vitamin E is also excreted faster than the natural form, so it doesn’t have as much time to get into the tissues where it is needed.
Natural vitamin E (labelled d-alpha tocopherol, d-alpha tocopherol acetate, d-alpha tocopherol succinate or mixed tocopherols) comes from plant oils instead of petroleum.
Due to its molecular structure, natural vitamin E is much better absorbed in the body. Specific transport proteins in the liver tend to bind better to natural vitamin E, allowing it to be transported to other tissues in the body to be used for important functions, including as an antioxidant.
Food sources include Nuts, seeds, fish, avocados, plant & nut oils, green leafy veg & berries .
Now let’s look at vitamin C, A water soluble vitamin that our bodies do not naturally produce meaning you have to get it from your diet.
And what does this wonder Vitamin do? It helps support the immune system, increases collagen production and it protects the body from free radicals. So where you get your vitamin C from is more important than you may think!
Most Vitamin C supplements are made with synthetic vitamin C or you might see it labelled as ascorbic acid. And what people don’t know is that ascorbic acid is traditionally made in a lab! Even more alarming: it’s derived from GMO corn and processed with chemicals like acetone! I don’t know about you but I certainly do not want to be putting that into my body.
All-natural sources of Vitamin C on the other hand contain a source of bioflavonoids, which improve the therapeutic action and bio availability of the vitamin ensuring optimal absorption and utilisation. As if Mother Nature already knows exactly what we need!
Sources of Vitamin C
Contrary to popular belief, oranges are not the only source of Vitamin C or even just fruit for that matter. Vitamin C can be found in vegetables such as potato, cauliflower, most green leafy veg; spinach, kale, broccoli, nettles and even brussels sprouts as well as the usual suspects.
Simply eating all the colours of the rainbow throughout the week will ensure your intake of vitamin C.
Have you heard Vitamin C aids the the absorption of the mineral Iron!? Well, Funnily enough most plant sources of Iron already contain some amount of Vitamin C too! I mean seriously, you would think Nature knew this all along wouldn’t you?!
Speaking of vitamins and minerals that go together…..
if you were to simply take a synthetic calcium supplement, there is no guarantee you are also getting adequate levels of vitamin D. Without which, your body cannot use that calcium to its highest potential, and it gets filtered out of your body.
Not to mention that synthetic calcium supplements are associated with an increased risk of heart attack whereas calcium from plant sources actually protects against cardiovascular disease.
What about Vitamin D?
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that has come to light in recent years as the only vitamin that we are now recommended to supplement with from birth. It is found naturally in some foods and is also produced from exposure to the suns UV Rays.
It plays a massive part in health and wellbeing as it promotes calcium absorption, enables normal bone mineralization, bone growth and prevention of osteoporosis. It also plays a significant role in the reduction of inflammation in the body and immune function. We are only just learning the importance of this vitamin in overall brain and mental health too.
Foods that naturally contain vitamin D such as the flesh of fatty fish (such as trout, salmon, tuna, and mackerel) and fish liver oils are among the best sources. An animal’s diet affects the amount of vitamin D in its tissues. Beef liver, egg yolks, and cheese have small amounts of vitamin D, primarily in the form of vitamin D3.
Mushrooms provide variable amounts of vitamin D2. Some mushrooms available on the market have been treated with UV light to increase their levels of vitamin D2. In addition, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved UV-treated mushroom powder as a food additive for use as a source of vitamin D2 in food products.
Fortified foods provide most of the vitamin D in western diets. For example, almost all milk supply is voluntarily fortified with about 3 mcg (120 IU), usually in the form of vitamin D3
So why are we asked to supplement with something that occurs naturally in nature? Well Vitamin D synthesis is somewhat complex requiring processes involving the liver and the kidneys. Most people in the world meet at least some of their vitamin D needs through exposure to sunlight. For this to happen you need a minimum of 15 minutes sun exposure for your body to make vitamin D with the best areas of the body for this to happen being the nape of the neck, ears, face, and wrists. Season, time of day, length of day, cloud cover, smog, skin melanin content, and sunscreen are among the factors that affect UV radiation exposure and vitamin D synthesis. Older people and people with dark skin are less able to produce vitamin D from sunlight .
FYI, UV radiation does not penetrate glass, so exposure to sunshine when indoors through a window does not produce vitamin D.
Considering all of this, coupled with the fact that we are also advised to reduce sun exposure and wear a daily spf it would make sense for health officials to recommend the use of a supplement. If you do not supplement your diet with Vitamin D, then you need to ensure you get enough sun exposure without burning your skin and eat a varied diet of the foods mentioned above.
With Vitamin D being a fat-soluble vitamin, our bodies can store excess for future use, for example, during the summer months we can make more than is necessary, that can then be used during the winter season when sunshine and UV levels are low.
Top Sources of Natural Nutrients
It may seem that picking up a bottle of synthetic supplements is much easier than hunting down natural nutrients, but natural nutrients are found in foods you are probably already eating! A balanced diet provides you with the perfect combination of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, fatty acids, fiber, and antioxidants that your body needs to operate at its best.
The cornerstone of a healthy diet is whole foods or foods that have been minimally processed or not processed at all. When planning out your next meal, try to include the following excellent sources of nutrients:
- Dark, leafy greens: Dark, leafy greens are packed with vitamin A, antioxidants, fiber, folate, magnesium, iron, and loads more. The nutrients in cruciferous vegetables play a role in almost every vital bodily process.
- Fish: Fish, especially cold water and oily fish, are some of the largest sources of omega-3 fatty acids that our bodies use for protecting our organs, fighting inflammation, and keeping our joints healthy.
- Nuts and legumes: Nuts and legumes can serve as a vegetarian source of protein. They also provide zinc to boost our immunity and phosphorous to keep our bones solid and sturdy as we age.
- Fruits: We have all heard the saying “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” – and to a degree, it’s true! Fruit is a low-fat, low-calorie option that is packed with essential nutrients. Fruits provide us with vitamin C to bolster our immune systems, fiber to protect our gut health, and potassium to prevent cramps and maintain healthy blood pressure.
- Whole grains: Whole grains are full of antioxidants our bodies can use to protect our cells from damage and fiber to lower cholesterol. In a meta-analysis performed across the United States, United Kingdom, and Scandinavia, participants who had diets high in whole grains saw a 23% lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease and a 20% reduction in cancer mortality.
- Herbs: Mother Nature’s very own supplement and your new secret weapon.
Common herbs you may be familiar with that contain a vast amount of nutrition include:
- Nettles a nutrient dense super food containing full spectrum vitamins, minerals & micronutrients, with polyphenols that reduce inflammation in our bodies. Chronic inflammation can lead to diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.
- Raspberry Leaf which has high levels of vitamins E, C, and A and various other minerals.
- Dandelion herb another nutrient rich herb is a wonderful source of potassium which plays a vital role in heart health and detoxifying the body.
- Peppermint is another medicinal herb that has withstood the test of time. Peppermint contains flavonoids, which are antioxidants that protect our cells from free radicals. It is also a good source of folate which aids in the production of healthy red blood cells and prevents the development of birth defects during pregnancy.
Fresh juices, smoothies, soups, and stews incorporating an array of various plant based organic ingredients are an excellent way to get substantial doses of essential nutrients.
Not to mention, drinking herbal infusions such as our HealthTea Iron Brew Blend which combines all these benefits into a single cup, allowing you to reap all the goodness in a more natural way than taking a synthetic pill of each ingredient separately.
Not your cup of tea? Then why not try adding fruit & veg powders to your smoothies, juices or even just mixed in your water? An easy & quick way to get an extra dose of vitamin & minerals in a more natural way.
If you do decide to take a supplement then natural is the way to go.
How to Check if Your Supplements Are Natural or Synthetic
When looking at supplements it is easy to believe that if it has ‘natural’ written on the label then it must be healthy, when in a lot of cases, this isn’t necessarily true, and these supplements may only contain about 10% of natural ingredients.
There are non-synthetic supplements readily available to us in the form of pills, powders, and gummies. The key to finding the right product for you is hidden in the ingredients label.
Natural options will be labeled as plant-based or animal-based and have food sources listed as their ingredients. A dead giveaway to a synthetic supplement is the ingredient labels will list individual nutrients or chemical names instead of whole foods. Folate for example will be labelled as folic acid and vitamin C as ascorbic acid
Do we really need supplements?
Well, that depends. You may think that in days gone by that the answer to this would have been no, quite simply because supplements were not around then.
But in fact, they were, just not as you would think.
Our Great grandparents would have used the herbs, weeds, flowers, and plants that grew all around us as dietary supplements, knowing exactly which plants to use to treat various ailments and deficiencies long ago.
For instance, scurvy was cured with oranges and other fruits! Paleness, weakness and lethargy was treated with nettle soup or tea. Natural Vitamin C and Iron supplements.
Fast forward a few years and we have more food intolerances, allergies, absorption issues than ever before. You would think our diets should be better today, with more access to whole foods from all over the world, when in fact, a lot of our food quality is not the same as it was due to the depleted soils caused by modern farming practices.
In data collected by the USDA, vegetables and fruit have declined in iron, calcium, phosphorus, riboflavin, vitamin C and protein by 15% since the 1950’s. This is quite a significant amount when you are talking about micronutrients and is clearly influencing our health and wellbeing overall.
Unfortunately, these are the effects of mass farming, use of pesticides and chemicals, mass production and supermarket pricing. Considering this then maybe a multivitamin is a good idea to ensure sufficient vitamin & mineral intake.
Another option would be to buy organic, local, and seasonal produce that uses natural growing methods to grow your food, ensuring it retains its goodness so not only can you support your local farmers, but you are also supporting change and ensuring that organic becomes the norm again as it was once in our grandparents’ time.
Personally, the answer is simple.
Natural Supplements are readily available to us through super herbs, plants, fruit & veg which can be easily accessed by making juices, herbal teas, infusions, decoctions, smoothies, soups, powders, and sun exposure etc. These should always be our first choice.
Another reason to opt for natural is that synthetic supplements are not always as effective as their natural counterparts.
Finally, another downside to supplementing our diets with synthetic nutrients is we can actually be overdoing it. When we take synthetic supplements we may be discounting the amount of the nutrient we have already received from our diet. When we regularly exceed the recommended levels of a nutrient, through supplementation we can start to see adverse effects.
For example, experts at the Cleveland Clinic explain that too much iron has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease and heart disease while high levels of ascorbic acid can leave men prone to developing kidney stones. This is less likely to happen when you are eating and drinking your nutrients as nature intended.
A healthy balanced wholefood diet is all that is required to obtain everything the body needs to function properly. In saying that, there will be times in our modern world when a good multivitamin is needed, and we are so lucky that we have that option.
Just remember that when choosing your powder, tablets, gummies etc., to choose ones of high quality that are made from natural whole foods and try not using them as a substitute for a lackluster diet! Do you agree?
Burton, G. W., Traber, M. G., Acuff, R. V., Walters, D. N., Kayden, H., Hughes, L., & Ingold, K. U. (1998). Human plasma and tissue alpha-tocopherol concentrations in response to supplementation with deuterated natural and synthetic vitamin e. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 67(4), 669–684. https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/67.4.669
Kubala, J. (2021, May 26). Synthetic vs. Natural Nutrients: What’s the difference? Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/synthetic-vs-natural-nutrients-whats-the-difference#bottom-line.
Team, W. (2020, October 13). 5 vitamins you might be overdoing. Cleveland Clinic. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/5-vitamins-you-might-be-overdoing/.
Zong, G., Gao, A., Hu, F. B., & Sun, Q. (2016). Whole grain intake and mortality from all causes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. Circulation, 133(24), 2370–2380. https://doi.org/10.1161/circulationaha.115.021101
Hossein-nezhad A, Holick MF. Vitamin D for health: A global perspective. Mayo Clin Proc 2013;88:720-55. [PubMed abstract]
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Prevent Skin Cancerexternal link disclaimer. Washington, DC: U.S. Dept of Health and Human Services, Office of the Surgeon General; 2014.
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Tripkovic L, Lambert H, Hart K, Smith CP, Bucca G, Penson S, et al. Comparison of vitamin D2 and vitamin D3 supplementation in raising serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D status: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Am J Clin Nutr 2012;95:1357-64. [PubMed abstract]
Lehmann U, Hirche F, Stangl GI, Hinz K, Westphal S, Dierkes J. Bioavailability of vitamin D2 and D3 in healthy volunteers, a randomised placebo-controlled trial. J Clin Endocrin Metab 2013;98:4339-45. [PubMed abstract]
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