The sourcing of many vitamin supplements is murky at best.
When exercise and nutrition coach Ryan Andrews was researching his story for Precision Nutrition on how vitamins and minerals in nutritional supplements are sourced, he ran into some interesting—and frankly, ironic—informational barriers.
"I emailed Nature Made about vitamin B-1," Andrews writes. "They said: 'We appreciate your questions concerning our supplements. Nature Made Vitamin B-1 is manufactured in a laboratory from chemicals. It is synthetically made in our manufacturing facilities in Southern California.'"
Nature Made, in other words, is a bit of a misnomer.
Andrews shines a spotlight on the issue of vitamin sourcing in his article as he calls one company after another:
"I called Centrum. They don't have any information on where the nutrients in their products come from. They told me that their 'vitamins are synthetic and the minerals are derived from natural sources.'
I called Bayer (the maker of Flintstone's Vitamins) two times. They didn't provide any response about where their vitamin supplements are derived."
Such is the case with many vitamin supplements — synthetic or partially synthetic, and made, processed, or extracted using a host of petrochemical ingredients — the sourcing of which is on par with the crystal industry in terms of transparency.
Naturopath Robert Thiel told The Australian that many companies use petroleum extracts in the extraction process and use coal tar derivatives, chemically processed sugar, acids, and industrial chemicals when processing their supplements. And while this may sound extreme, it's not all that uncommon, Australia's RMIT University professor of complementary medicine Marc Cohen told the paper. Petrochemicals are also commonly found in cosmetics, shampoos and medicines. Most standard vitamin supplements on the market today are "bio-identical," meaning a supplement is synthetic but mimics nature, with a molecular structure identical to the same nutrients occurring in nature. Manufacturers often prefer this process because of the cost and scarcity of natural resources. Lesley Braun, associate professor of integrative medicine and director of the Blackmores Institute, says rather than slaughter countless cows to get coenzyme Q10, it's made in labs by the Japanese. "It's bio-identical and proven very effective," she says.
But it's also possible to pop a food-based supplement whose origins came from the ground and not a test tube. Whole food supplements are made with blends of concentrated, dehydrated whole foods, sometimes with additional vitamins and minerals. Because the nutrients are combined as they are in natural foods, advocates argue, the body can use and absorb them better than nutrients in isolation.
The drawback of whole food supplements is their relatively low-potency. "The small doses often used in whole-food supplements are unlikely to confer significant benefits, given how easy it is for the body to rapidly use up micronutrients as a result of exercise, insufficient diet, stress, disease, environmental toxins, and genetic weaknesses," Jonathan E. Prousky, ND, chief naturopathic medical officer at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine in Toronto told Delicious Living.
Which brings us back to what probably got you thinking about vitamin supplements in the first place. Are you getting enough? And can a vitamin help make up any deficit?
The USDA reported that the nutrient content of vegetables has fallen since 1973 due to the degradation of soil by fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, irrigation, and other unsustainable farming practices. Of the vitamins we do ingest from whole foods, absorption can be as low as 20 percent. There are some supplements whose benefits have been well-studied, including: folic acid for pregnant women; iron for those with anemia; B-vitamins for those dealing with alcoholism; vitamin D; vitamin C; magnesium and CoQ10. What vitamins won't prevent is cancer or cognitive decline.
"Vitamin supplements have never been shown to provide the cancer and heart disease preventing effects of a healthy diet," David Cutler, MD, family medicine physician at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, CA told Prevention. In fact, the medical journal Annals of Internal Medicine published an article (with the cutting-to-the-chase headline "Enough is Enough: Stop Wasting Money on Vitamin and Mineral Supplements") noting there was no evidence that multivitamins had any effect on cognitive decline, heart disease, cancer, or overall mortality.
In 2006, the final word at the National Institute of Health State-of-the-Science Conference was that, "The present evidence is insufficient to recommend either for or against the use of MVMs [multivitamins/minerals] by the American public to prevent chronic disease." The Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics (AND) recommends that the best nutritional strategy for optimal health and reducing the risk of chronic disease is to eat a wide variety of whole foods. In the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the UDSA made the following recommendations:
- Adults over age 50 should take a vitamin B-12 supplement
- Older adults, people with dark-colored skin, and people who don't get much sunlight exposure should take a vitamin D supplement
- Women who may become pregnant or are already pregnant, and are planning to carry their fetus to term, should take a folic acid supplement
"Taking a multivitamin is not a substitute for healthy eating," Alana Biggers, MD, MPH, assistant professor of clinical medicine at University of Illinois-Chicago College of Medicine told Prevention. The best way to get the vitamins and minerals you need is to eat a well-balanced diet of fruits, veggies, whole grains, and protein.
"The best has always been whole, organic food, in season and locally grown," professor Marc Cohen said. "Nature has being doing its job for years." The closer you can come to consuming nutrients in their natural form, the better, he added.
Exercise common sense in your kitchen and medicine cabinet by balancing a healthy diet with supplements, understanding that the more you can find out about the sources of both, the better.
Is this the health craze of the future?
According to the dictionary, adaptogens are an herbal medicine derived from certain plants and fungi that help the body adapt to stress, but this doesn't really provide the whole story. When we get stressed our cortisol levels rise, triggering the "famous flight or fight" response. Cortisol is important, as it give us energy when we're stressed or exercising, but if there is an excess of the hormone, it can contribute to weight gain and high blood pressure. Chronic stress, one of the main culprits behind high cortisol, has been tied to a number of issues including anxiety, fatigue, and sleep loss. While the science behind adaptogens isn't 100% clear, there is a strong contingent of loyal users who swear by these natural products and their abilities to combat the effects of high cortisol. Since adaptogens are dietary supplements, the FDA doesn't play a very active role in regulating them. This means there's a pretty high rate of fraudulent marketing in the field. Still, peddlers and users alike will rabidly defend the health benefits of taking these natural stress reducers.
Part of the appeal of adaptogens is that they have deep roots, using Chinese and Ayurvedic herbs, medicines that have been around for thousands of years. Unfortunately, these deep roots don't mean much in terms of flavor. According to Jack Latner, owner of Lifehouse Elixirs and Tonic Cafe in Los Angeles, "99.9% of [these herbs] taste horrible on their own." The herbs also have tough-to-pronounce names like astragalus and ashwagandha, which according Latner makes them slightly unapproachable to newcomers. Latner focuses on creating beautifully colored, adaptogen-infused smoothies to get customers to come into his shop.
Latner's commitment to making adaptogens more accessible has been derided by some however. Many nutritionists believe that these supplements need to be consumed consistently, and that occasionally having them in smoothies or other beverages is unlikely to have any effect. The idea is that these products need to be treated like a form of regular self-care. The real question, however, is do these supplements actually work?
Nearly 68% of the population uses some kind of dietary supplement, despite the fact that most supplements aren't tested in a controlled environment. Instead of performing tests comparing effects against those of a placebo, most newsworthy studies surrounding supplements are purely observational. That is to say, there isn't much evidence to support their purported health benefits. Still, possibly due to sensationalist headlines, the market for dietary supplements is estimated to hit $278 billion by 2024. While there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Americans don't get enough nutrition through food, it's still unclear whether or not supplements are the answer to this problem.
All that in mind, as a niche segment of the reasonably suspect supplement industry, adaptogens actually seem to be effective. They've been studied extensively since World War II, most notably by scientists in the USSR, and while some of their effects have been exaggerated, there are studies that indicate that adaptogens, particularly the plant Rhodiola Rosea, can reduce fatigue and increase a subject's ability to pay attention after being administered regularly over a four-week span. Unlike many supplement tests, the testing of Rhodiola Rosea was done in a placebo-controlled setting.
It's important not to take the results of single study as an unfailing endorsement, but as it stands, it can be argued that at least some adaptogens are effective. That said, the lack of FDA regulation should give potential consumers pause. While it has been discovered that most adaptogens are innocuous, it's worth thoroughly researching the exact supplement you want to take before going out and buy some. These supplements probably won't do any bodily harm, as studies show they're safe for human consumption, but, as with anything, studying up on adaptogens before buying them is a good idea.
Matt Clibanoff is a writer and editor based in New York City who covers music, politics, sports and pop culture. His editorial work can be found in Inked Magazine, Pop Dust, The Liberty Project, and All Things Go. His fiction has been published in Forth Magazine. -- Find Matt at his website and on Twitter: @mattclibanoff