It’s a fact that we need vitamins. Unfortunately, our bodies have a hard time producing them, so we have to mainly rely on food to provide us with these essential nutrients.
What’s more, modern-day food is gradually becoming less nutritious – a result of genetic modification, crops sprayed with pesticides and long storage periods.
What often makes its way to our plates are highly processed foods that taste better and last longer, but which aren’t as nutritious as they should be, leaving us vulnerable to vitamin deficiencies and conditions such as heart disease, cancer, premature ageing, dementia, diabetes, eye disease, multiple sclerosis and asthma.
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This is why vitamin supplementation is necessary for a large number of people. However, including a vitamin supplement in your diet isn’t as simple as merely picking the first one on the shelf.
Many vitamin supplements are manufactured synthetically from chemicals and don’t come straight from their natural sources, but are manufactured in a laboratory and mimic the way natural vitamins act in our bodies.
The problem with these synthetically produced vitamins is that the body often can’t recognise them as vitamins. They also may contain chemical compounds that don’t occur naturally and aren’t suitable for human consumption.
Naturally-derived vitamins, on the other hand, are those that have been derived directly from plants that contain the vitamin.
The shift to natural
As awareness has grown about synthetic vitamins versus naturally-derived vitamins, and as we’ve become more educated about what a diet for optimum health should include, there’s been a definite global shift towards eating more natural foods.
This shift didn’t go unnoticed by the supplement industry, and there are now many different types of vitamins from naturally-occurring sources. Despite being of a lower potency, the body can more easily absorb these nutrients, making them a far better option for supplementation.
However, even if you take only naturally-derived vitamins and avoid synthetic ones, they may still not compare with vitamins found whole in food. Once a vitamin has been extracted and isolated – such as removing the vitamin C from an orange – the bioflavonoids that accompany the vitamin in its food form (essential for the absorption of vitamin C) are lost. This is why you may not get the full benefit of the vitamin.
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Supplements are really only meant to supplement a healthy diet of whole, unprocessed foods. However, this is not to say that people who follow a healthy diet get all the vitamins they need, all of the time.
An important reason is because, in nature, not all fruit and vegetables are created the same. One orange may contain 50mg of vitamin C and another may contain only 10mg. The vitamin quality and quantity depends on where the fruit was grown, when it was harvested, and under which conditions it was transported and stored. This is where vitamin supplementation comes in.
Nature is still best
Following a diet rich in healthy, whole foods is still the best way to obtain and maintain optimal health. This is because real foods, from plant an animal origin, contain nutrients and many other substances that can’t be found in vitamin pills.
The only real exceptions to the “foods are better” rule are two of the B vitamins: B12 and folic acid (B9). As some people struggle to adequately absorb B12 from natural foods, it can be adequately obtained in supplements and fortified foods. This also applies to folic acid (B9) which is better absorbed in supplement or fortified food form than from a normal diet.
While supplements clearly have a role to play, some researchers believe that multivitamins should be avoided. In an article in the Annals of Internal Medicine, which focuses on the role of vitamin and mineral supplements with regards to chronic disease, several researchers claim that the majority of supplements aren’t “justified” and “should be avoided”.
The researchers reviewed four recent studies on different population groups using multivitamins.
The editorial, titled "Enough is Enough: Stop Wasting Money on Mineral Supplements" was co-authored by five doctors, including three Johns Hopkins professors: Drs. Eliseo Guallar, Lawrence J. Appel, and Edgar R. Miller III.
The researchers claim: "Clinical trials have been equivocal and sometimes contradictory. For example, supplemental vitamin D, which might prevent falls in older persons, reduced the risk for falls in a few trials, had no effect in most trials, and increased falls in one trial.
Although future studies are needed to clarify the appropriate use of vitamin D supplementation, current widespread use is not based on solid evidence that benefits outweigh harms."
They do however concede that there is a “possibility that some supplements might have ‘small benefits’ for certain populations”.
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But this report has since been challenged by researchers from among others the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University. In another article published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, the researchers say that in many cases multivitamins help fill nutritional gaps, improve general health and might help prevent chronic disease.
In this commentary the researchers argue that most populations have a less-than-perfect diet and do not get enough of the important vitamins and minerals.
"There's strong evidence that a multivitamin/mineral supplement supports normal functioning of the body and helps improve overall health, and may even help lower chronic disease risk," Professor Balz Frei from the Linus Pauling Institute stated.
"It's irresponsible to ignore decades of nutrition research and tell people they have no need for a supplement that could be so helpful. And if they have a poor diet, people should try to improve that as well," he said. "The two are not mutually exclusive."
What the researchers all agree on, however, is the value of proper nutrition. A balanced and nutritious diet is without a doubt the best way to obtain all the necessary nutrients for optimal health.
History of the vitamin industry: part 1
History of the vitamin industry: part 2
Go 'nuts' about Coconut oil
Image: Vitamin groups on colour wheel from Shutterstock.
1. Brian Clement PhD NMD. Nutri-Con: The Truth About Vitamins & Supplements. The Vitamin Myth Exposed. 2005 December 31.
2. The Global Healing Centre, Natural Health and Organic Living. The Differences Between Synthetic and Natural Vitamins
3. Dr George Obikoya. Natural Vitamins vs. Synthetic. Vitamins-Nutrition.org.
4. Drs. Eliseo Guallar, Lawrence J. Appel, and Edgar R. Miller III, Enough is Enough: Stop Wasting Money on Mineral Supplements.
5. Balz Frei, professor and director of the Linus Pauling Institute, and a biochemist in the OSU College of Science. Debate over value of vitamin, mineral supplements is far from over.