As mentioned in my last post Food Derived Nutrients or Supplements, we are always better off choosing whole foods rather than supplements as our main nutrient source. However, if for some reason you are compelled to reach for supplements remember that not all are made equal.
Which ones should I choose then? Natural or synthetic?
The answer is simple, just as processed food can’t replace whole food, so lab-produced nutrients cannot substitute what nature has created. That is why, when buying supplements you should always opt for food-based, 100% natural vitamins and minerals. These will be more pricey, but considering that artificial nutrients often lack the qualities that allow them to be metabolised by our bodies, and therefore end up being flushed out, it makes more sense to pay more for something that works, than to pay less for nothing or something that can actually harm us. Because in many cases low-quality supplements may also lead to high levels of toxicity. One reason for that is the solvents ans chemicals used during the process of extraction. Second, is the various other ingredients added to the supplement pills for binding, ease of swallowing, extending shelf life, etc.
Nutrients that occur in nature come in bundles with various enzymes, coenzymes, as well as other vitamins and minerals. In such an optimised environment, they can all work together in a synergistic manner providing safe, yet potent nutritional value.
The Dangers of Synthetic Supplements
- Artificial nutrients aren’t as bioavailable as their natural counterparts and may cause toxicity
Our bodies have a hard time metabolising nutrients in their isolated form. Vitamins that have been extracted and refined through chemical processes have been depleted of the accesssory nutrients, enzymes and transporters that aid absorbtion. The best case scenario here is that they are either stored within the body, or simply excreted.
But in certain cases, a prolonged use of these chemical compounds may lead to very harmful consequences. You know how sometimes supplements seem to work for a little while, then their effects subside? The reason behind this is that isolated nutrients lack the necessary co-factors which allow the body to make use of them. At the beginning it works, because we are using up our nutrient reserves to process what we ingest. But when these are depleted, the supplement stops working. Worse yet, dangerous nutritional imbalances can often be the outcome of that. Synthetic vitamins lack the trace minerals required for absorbtion, so the body’s own mineral reserves is being used which can cause serious mineral deficiencies.
- It’s easy to exceed safe dosage
It is vitually impossible to attain dangerous levels of nutrients on a whole food diet. Meanwhile, synthetic supplements often come in super-concentrated forms. Manufacturers are trying to push the idea that the more the better, which in the case of vitamins and minerals couldn’t be further from the truth. As we know, while these nutrients are essential, our bodies can only process very minute amounts. The secret is not raising the volume, but ensuring high bioavailability. In fact as discussed before, excess can even be harmful in this case.
We should be especially careful when supplementing fat-soluble vitamins. The artificial versions of vitamind A, D, E and K can build up in fatty tissues and the liver causing high levels of toxicity.
While water-soluble vitamins can be flushed out of the body quite easily, consuming mega-doses shoud still be avoided as the filtering process is very taxing on the kidneys, especially when performed on a continuous basis.
- Toxic chemicals are used in the production of synthetic vitamins and minerals
- Cheap supplements often contain inorganic minerals which cannot be recognised and properly assimilated by our bodies. Apparently most of these low-cost nutritional supplements are made with iron filings. Calcium comes in the form of ground seashells and instead of magnesium you get magnesium oxide, which doesn’t absorb well and can cause a number of side effects.
- Beware of fortified foods
They seem like a neat option but most often contain synthetic vitamins or minerals that pose the same danger as pills.
- Natural is often not natural at all
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that manufacturers will do anything to sell their products and the government does not have the consumers’ best interest at heart. It is perfectly legal for supplements to labelled as natural even if the contain as little as 10% of the natural form of a nutrient! This is precisely why the only way to know what you’re buying is reading the ingredients list. The colourful label at the front is nothing but marketing.
Natural vitamin C for example, comes with flavonoids and phytonutrients that aid absorbtion. It’s sythetic aounterpart is isolated ascorbic acid – hydrogenated and processed with acetone(!) from genetically modified corn starch. It is however largely labelled as natural by scientists because it appears to have the same molecular structure and has shown some level of effectiveness in clinical trials.
Picking the right supplement is not as easy as it seems. Especially considering the fact that over 90% of the products available on the market comprise of synthetic ingredients.
How to Choose Your Supplements?
- Go natural
- Avoid singular vitamins. Natural nutrients don’t occur in isolated form. If a supplement contains only one vitamin or mineral, it most definiely is synthetic.
- Make sure the manufacturer is ISO and NSF certified or the new Naturally Occurring Standard (NOS)
- If you’re after the best products on the market, look out for the NSF Good Manufacturing Processes (GMP) certification
- Look at prices. Remember that price has some bearing on quality, and quality is of prime importance when it comes to supplements.
- Check the ingredients list. Steer away from ingredients ending in -acid, -ide, or those that begin with dl-
- Toxic ingredients to avoid
Magnesium stearate (stearic acid) – a lubricant used so that the pills don’t stick to one another. Studies show that it may be harmful to the immune system and that it may block the absorbtion of nutrients altogether!
Titanium dioxide – reportely inhibit the functioning of the immune system. It is also an allergen and carcinogen.
Carnauba wax – used in car wax and shoe polish
Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) – often describes as natural flavour is a dangerous additive that can be found in almost all processed food. More about MSG can be found on DR.Mercola’s website