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.