Over half of U.S. adults take some vitamins and supplements on a regular basis, such as multi-vitamins, vitamin C, and fish oil. When asked, most people say they take them as an insurance, to compensate for whatever is lacking in their less than optimal diet.
However, you may not be aware that the hundreds of dollars you spend on supplements every year may not be the real deal.
Do you know that the vast majority of vitamin supplements, not just the ones sold by warehouse stores and pharmacy chains but also the expensive brands, use synthetic vitamin isolates instead of whole food nutrients?
Did you ever look at the ingredient list of your supplements? Do they contain additives and fillers that may be harmful to your health?
What about your fish oil supplements? How do you know that they are not already oxidized during the extraction process or contaminated with heavy metals and PCBs?
In the following, we will examine in greater detail why whole food supplements are far superior to synthetic vitamin isolates, recommendations on how to choose a good whole food multi-vitamin, and lastly, what to look out for when buying fish oil supplements.
Whole Food Supplements vs. Synthetic Vitamin Isolates
Most people know the different between whole foods and refined foods. They know that raw unprocessed honey is more nutritious than white refined sugar; brown rice is better than white rice. The same concept applies to supplements.
Whole food supplements are what their name suggests – the supplements are made from concentrated whole foods and the vitamins found within these supplements are not isolated. They are in a highly complex food matrix that our bodies can readily recognize and utilize. They contain proteins, carbohydrates, lipids, bioflavonoids, enzymes, coenzymes, antioxidants, trace minerals, activators and many other food factors.
Synthetic or isolated nutrients, on the other hand, are not natural as they never exist in isolated form in nature. For example,
retinoic acid is not natural vitamin A,
thiamine is not natural vitamin B-1,
pyridoxine hydrocholine is not natural vitamin B-6,
ascorbic acid is not natural vitamin C,
vitamin D2 or irradiated ergosterol is not natural vitamin D, and
alpha tocopherol is not natural vitamin E.
Whenever you see that the ingredients are USP (United States Pharmacopeoeia) vitamins, it tells you that they are isolated pharmaceutical chemicals manufactured in the laboratories. This type of isolated vitamins is often used to “enrich” or “fortify” many processed foods.
Case in point, to the right is a complete vitamin C complex as found in nature. All parts of the complex are required for the proper function of the vitamin; any missing parts have to be drawn from the body’s reserves before the body can use the vitamin.
However, the vast majority of vitamin C supplements contain only ascorbic acid, which is a laboratory-synthesized copy of the naturally occurring ascorbic acid that wraps around the outer portion of a natural vitamin C complex. Whole vitamin C should include ascorbic acid, plus the P factors (rutin and bioflavonoids) which maintain vascular integrity, K factors which promote healthy clotting, J factors which help transport oxygen to the tissues, important enzymes such as tyrosinase, and a host of other compounds.
Another example is Vitamin E. To the right is a complete vitamin E complex as found in nature. However, most vitamin E supplements are made of either the synthetic dl-alpha-tocopherol, or alpha-tocopherol or mixed tocopherols extracted from refined cottonseed, soybean, and other vegetable oils. A whole vitamin E complex should instead include alpha, beta, gamma, and delta tocopherols, vitamin E2, vitamin E3, unsaturated fatty acids F1 and F2, xanthine, lipositols, selenium, and coenzyme Q, all of which are surrounded by the protective tocopherol antioxidants.
For an isolated nutrient to work properly in the body, it needs all the other parts that are naturally present in the food. If these parts are not there from the start, they will be taken from the body’s stored supply. This is why isolated nutrients often work for a little while, then they seem to stop working. Once your body’s store of the extra nutrients is used up, the isolated nutrient you take will not work anymore. Worse yet, if you regularly take a high dosage of the isolated vitamins, a deficiency in these extra nutrients can be created as a result.
Another point worth mentioning is that it is extremely important to use natural forms of fat-soluble vitamins because the synthetic forms can cause toxicity when taken in much smaller amounts. This is the reason why there is so much media frenzy about the dangers of vitamins A, D, and E. Unfortunately, both the mainstream media and the medical establishment fail to distinguish between the synthetic and natural forms.
How To Choose Whole Food Supplements
Quality whole-food vitamins are obtained by taking a vitamin-rich plant, removing the water and fiber in a chemical-free, cold, vacuum process and then packaging them for stability. The entire vitamin complex can be captured intact, retaining its function and nutritional integrity, and upon ingestion, the body is not required to draw on its own reserves in order to complete any missing elements from the vitamin complex.
When you read the labels of whole food supplements, you will not see pharmaceutical-sounding words that you may not recognize. Instead, you will see the names of all the fruits and vegetables that the vitamins were extracted from.
Supplements may contain binders and fillers. They are used to enhance the production process, extend shelf life, add color, and make the pills easier to swallow. Watch out for any potentially allergenic ingredients derived from corn, dairy, egg, gluten, shellfish, or yeast. Always avoid supplements that contain hydrogenated oils (usually from soybean, corn, safflower, or sunflower), artificial colors, and titanium dioxide. Be very skeptical if they contain chemical names that you are unfamiliar with.
Do not be fooled by many multi-vitamins that emphasize the convenience of just one pill a day. It is highly unlikely that any single pill can pack enough vitamins and minerals to truly make any real impact on your health. With whole food supplements, it is best to take a dose with every meal to optimize nutrient absorption.
Due to the superior quality of whole food supplements, they are more expensive than synthetic isolate vitamins. If you cannot afford to take a full dosage of whole food supplements every day, an alternative is to take a reduced dosage daily.
Only a handful of companies produce high quality, whole food multi-vitamin supplements; over 99% of the companies make the synthetic isolate version. The following are several brands of whole food supplements that you may find in health food stores; various quality brands that are only accessible by healthcare professionals are not listed here.
Garden of Life
How To Choose Fish Oil Supplements
In choosing a good omega-3 (EPA and DHA fatty acids) fish oil supplement, there are several important factors to consider:
What kind of fish does it use? What are the levels of heavy metals (mercury, lead, cadmium, and arsenic), dioxins, and PCBs in the fish oil?
Bigger fish species tend to have more contaminants than smaller species such as sardines and anchovies. A good product should specify the source from which its fish oil is derived.
Most manufacturers use a process called molecular distillation to remove toxins from the fish oil. When done correctly, it is capable of reducing the toxins to safe levels for consumption. However, almost every manufacturer will claim that its product is free of toxins but independent third-party analysis tells a different story. Therefore, check the manufacturer’s website for a Certificate of Analysis to confirm its purity level.
How fresh is the fish oil?
Omega-3 oils are very delicate and susceptible to oxidation from heat, light, and air, making them rancid. The problem with most fish oil supplements is that they were already damaged during the extraction process that often involves heat and harmful chemicals such as hexane.
Ingesting oxidized fish oil will produce more oxidation and inflammation in the body, exactly the opposite of what you want the fish oil to do in the first place. For this reason, you want to be 100% sure that the fish oil you buy has the least possible oxidation, uses minimal heat and no chemicals in the manufacturing process. Check the manufacturer’s website for a third-party Certificate of Analysis to confirm its freshness level.
Is the fish oil readily absorbable by your body?
The vast majority of all fish oil supplements are in the ethyl ester form, a synthetic fat with only about 30 years in the human diet. Studies on fish oil absorption shows that the natural triglyceride form is absorbed far better than the ethyl ester form.
Always take your fish oil with a high-fat meal. Studies show that absorption improves substantially when more fat is eaten at a meal.
What about krill oil?
Krill oil is not only rich in EPA and DHA, but also contains potent antioxidants including vitamins A, E, and astaxanthin. However, there is much concern about krill being a sustainable source of omega-3 supplements. Krill are shrimp-like crustaceans that are a crucial link in the marine food chain. Concerns about the ecological impact of increased krill fishing have resulted in a ban on this practice on the U.S. west coast, and strict limits in Norway and Antarctica.
What about cod liver oil?
Cod liver oil goes through similar manufacturing processes as fish oil, hence, the potential for oxidation. One concern about cod liver oil is that more contaminants may be present, depending on whether the cod is farmed or where it is sourced. Compared to fish oil, cod liver oil is much lower in EPA and DHA even though it is very rich in vitamin A and contains some vitamin D. As most cod liver oils have the A and D in the ratio of 10:1, one should watch out for vitamin A toxicity if too much cod liver oil is consumed.
There is one company called Green Pastures that uses a cold process to make fermented cod liver oil. Its oil contains the natural form of vitamins A, D, E, and K with the A and D in the ratio of about 5:1. The cod is sourced from the Arctic, so it is less likely to be contaminated with heavy metals, PCBs and dioxins. However, for those with significant inflammation, this may not be the ideal product due to its lower EPA and DHA levels.
What about flaxseed?
Omega-3 fatty acids fall into two major categories: plant-derived (flaxseed) and marine-derived (fish). Flaxseed oil contains ALA which can be partially converted to EPA and DHA, but that conversion is somewhat slow and can be inhibited by lifestyle and health factors. Therefore, do not expect all the flaxseed you take to be fully converted to omega-3. If you take flaxseeds, it is best to grind it just before consumption. If you take them whole, they are likely to pass out whole too.
The majority of fish oil supplements from warehouse stores and pharmacy chains are of suspicious quality. It is true that they are economical but you run the risk of taking oxidized and contaminated fish oil. As mentioned above, always check the Certificate of Analysis before purchase.
Based on third-party lab tests, the following manufacturers have top scores in their freshness and purity levels. These fish oil supplements are also in the easily absorbable triglyceride form.
Green Pasture Fermented Cod Live Oil
Pharmax Pure Fish Oil
Vital Choice Wild Salmon Oil
Omega-3 fats have numerous health benefits, the most important is reducing chronic inflammation in the body, the key contributor to many degenerative diseases. However, since all fish oil supplements, even the best ones, have some degree of oxidation or contamination, it is advisable not to take a super high dosage unless there is a specific reason otherwise. A low to moderate daily dose of 0.5-1.5 gram of EPA and DHA is hence recommended. Also, keep your fish oil in the refrigerator after opening to minimize oxidation.
In conclusion, although the supplements recommended here are of superior quality, every additional step taken in processing a natural food into supplements introduce the potential of damaging the nutrient. Therefore, supplements, no matter how good they are, should never be a substitution for a good healthy diet.