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Whole-Food and Synthetic Nutritional Supplements: Is one better than the other?

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A fresh, whole-foods diet is the optimal way to obtain nutrients. However, environmental conditions and farming practices have depleted the soil of key nutrients we would typically obtain from food, making it impossible to get everything we need from food alone. Nutritional supplements provide a way to support the body's needs. There are two broad categories of supplements to choose from - whole food-based and synthetic (lab-created). Is one better than the other?

There aren't many studies comparing whole-food supplements to synthetic varieties. Whole-food supplement manufacturers claim their products are superior, but there is no specific criteria to define "whole food" in the supplement market. Many different practices can be used to claim a supplement is whole-food. Some brands do add concentrated fruits and vegetables to their product. Others simply add yeast and use a fermentation process. Does this make a supplement more available to the body for absorption? Not necessarily.

From the research available, we know that the bioavailability of a nutrient depends on many factors including:

- a person's state of health

- the proper production of stomach acid necessary for vitamin absorption

- whether or not the supplement is digested in the stomach; pills that pass through the stomach are less bioavailable

- the supplement manufacturing process

The only way to measure bioavailability for comparison purposes is to do blood tests and there simply is not enough valid and reliable research that makes such comparisons.

Of course, better digestibility and assimilation by the body are important factors for anyone considering nutritional supplements. The bottom line is that either type of supplement may be better than the other depending on the reason it's being taken (for general health or a specific medical need) along with the factors mentioned above. In some cases a truly food-based supplement could be the better choice; but not always. The best way to ascertain your need for supplements is to consult with a natural medicine physician who understands the manufacturing practices for nutritional supplements, as well the physiology of how different types of nutrients work in the body.


ScientificAmerican.com "Do vitamins in pills differ from those in food?" Accessed 17 July 2020: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/do-vitamins-in-pills-diff/

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Bae YJ, Bu SY, Kim JY, et al. "Magnesium supplementation through seaweed calcium extract rather than synthetic magnesium oxide improves femur bone mineral density and strength in ovariectomized rats." Biol Trace Elem Res. (2011). 144(1-3):992-1002. doi:10.1007/s12011-011-9073-2

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