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Synthetic Supplements vs Natural Food

Updated: Apr 9

The difference between natural whole foods and vitamins


spoonful of vitamins

I’ve recently become an avid fruit-eater, consuming around 10 pieces of fruit on any given day. This is in stark contrast to not so long ago when I ate very little fruit, but I did consume a vast quantity of vitamin supplements. This got me thinking and there were a few key questions I wanted answers to -


  • Am I getting as many nutrients from the fruit as the pills?

  • Which is the most cost-effective?

  • Ultimately, which option is the healthier one?


I decided to focus on Vitamin C, this being an essential nutrient (meaning it isn’t produced by the body) and one I think we all can agree is important for our health.


 

In this article

 

 

The Supplemental Pill


pill full of vegetables

Dosage: The NHS says adults need 40mg of Vitamin C per day,

other sources suggest closer to 90


I don’t usually follow dosage guidelines and especially not with Vit C - The amount required by your body will be different to other people and even vary by the day. Instead of going by some arbitrary RDI value, I go on Bowel Tolerance: keep increasing the dose until you get runny poos - this shows you can’t absorb any more and you should decrease to a 'safe' dose.


The typical daily dose as a pill seems to be 1000mg, for whatever reason, and usually in a slow-release form allowing for slower absorption and to avoid potential side-effects. You can’t really overdose on Vit C, but you can get an upset stomach, occasional nausea, and the aforementioned diarrhoea by taking too much.


The bioavailability (the amount able to be used by the body) appears to be similar for both natural and synthetic Ascorbic Acid (Vit C). The synthetic and natural forms also appear to be ‘chemically identical’, though we can of course only really find what we test for. Allow me to indulge in a little bit of pseudoscience and suggest a living form of Vitamin C may differ from a synthetically produce chemical version in ways we simply aren’t measuring.


The Whole Food


vegetables in the dark

Contrary to popular belief, oranges aren’t the best source of Vit C. In fact, they’re not even in the top ten, with peppers, kale, and broccoli all containing more Vit C per 100g than oranges. For example, red peppers have almost 5 times the amount of Vit C as an orange.

To consume as much as a single 1000mg pill, you would have to eat 400g of red peppers (approx. 2.5 whole peppers), which seems like rather a lot.


So, I decided to conduct an experiment and keep a food diary, weighing out and calculating my daily Vit C content from the fruits and vegetables I consume in a day. The table is at the bottom for those interested, but the bottom line is I consumed around 900mg Vit C from my food throughout this gloomy Wednesday.


The Dosage


I’m not reaching the supplemental dose through natural foods alone, though I’ve no idea how this dose is calculated in the first place, and I could be forgiven for thinking I should take a daily pill and more than double my daily intake. The problem with this is I wouldn't be just adding a gram of Ascorbic Acid to my day, I'd be also adding Hydroxypropyl Methylcellulose, DiCalcium Phosphate, Silicon Dioxide, Magnesium Stearate, Stearic Acid, PolyDextrose, Calcium Carbonate, Iron Oxides, and Cellulose.


With fruit and vegetables, however, I'm getting a lot extra with my Vit C and it sure isn’t Hydroxypropyl Methylcellulose. In fact, as Vit C is great at aiding absorption of other nutrients, I’m getting a wide range of other highly beneficial nutrients free of charge. They’re also delicious and, if you’re ever been unfortunate enough to try ascorbic acid powder or bitten down on a tablet, you'll know that Vit C supplements are pretty disgusting.


The Cost


A 1000mg supplemental serving would have cost me 15p and the single grapefruit alone cost me 3 times that, so it seems like a clear victory here for the pill. Pills are far cheaper, easier to take, and seem to be as easily absorbed by the body. In that case, maybe I can get all of my essential nutrients from pills and go back to eating pizza and chips? After all, I’m still getting everything I need and it’s all the same, right?


Which is Healthier?


cheesy pizza with basil

I’ve had direct experience of living on the Pizza and Pill diet for several years. At the time, I coincidentally suffered through regular illness and my mental health was abysmal, to say the least. I took health supplements the entire time because it was easy, far easier in fact than actually taking responsibility for my health.


This is where I believe supplemental vitamins begin to become dangerous. For one, they give the taker the illusion of healthiness and may prevent them actively seeking genuine health. A multivitamin allows you to justify eating poorly, a protein shake replaces a visit to the gym, an extract takes care of your mental health, and a drug takes care of your weight.


We forget the definition of 'supplement' and appear to read it as 'replacement'.


a meal of pills

Digestion starts before you even put food in your mouth, as anyone who’s ever seen a salivating dog will know. While you chew, your body responds to what you’re eating and begins to produce what it needs to handle it, even digesting food in the mouth itself (saliva breaking down starch). When you pop a pill, you’re skipping many stages of the digestion process and you’re depositing a highly concentrated version of something straight into the stomach, which the body now has to respond to the best it can.


Not only that, it’s coming without all the additional components found in the whole food which would usually be present to assist in digestion, absorption, etc. It’s a wholly unnatural way to attempt to achieve greater health, unique to the last 0.03% of human existence, which should probably say it all.


I believe herbs are wonderful and can be life-changing when used correctly, but I don’t take any supplemental pills anymore. Since ditching the tablets and eating a diet of almost entirely fruit and vegetables, I’m fitter and healthier than I’ve ever been before. In theory, I’m ingesting far fewer vitamins and minerals than I was before, yet my physical and mental health have vastly improved. If these compounds are ‘chemically identical’, then we’re missing something monumental.


what we know and what we don't

Additional Thoughts


  • You don't know what's in your pill, but you know fairly well that an orange is an orange. Poor regulation often means supplements don't contain what they say they do and are often found to contain hazardous off-label ingredients

  • While you can be sure it's an orange, it's not so simple as it used to be. These days, it could be genetically modified, covered in chemicals, or filled with drugs... It's a mad world, but these things can still be avoided with some small effort

  • Studies on people taking multivitamins often find people's health getting worse and not better whilst taking them. No studies yet show that a diet of fruit and vegetables is harmful to health

  • The pharmaceutical industry practically owns and controls the supplement industry, and this fact alone is enough to make me reconsider just how healthy my supplements are. If the companies making them will profit more from my health deteriorating instead of improving, are they trustworthy?

  • Vitamin C is an interesting vitamin in particular, as Humans are one of the very few animals which no longer produce it, alongside Bats and Guinea Pigs




FAQs

12 Frequently Asked Questions


1. What are vitamins?

A vitamin is an organic compound your body needs to function. They're divided into various categories depending on what they do, how they behave, and whether we produce them ourselves.


2. What is an essential vitamin?

The body produces some vitamins and others we need to acquire from our diets, these latter vitamins are therefore considered 'essential'


3. What are the different types of vitamins?

Beyond essential and non-essential vitamins, they are further divided into water-soluble and fat-soluble


4. How many vitamins are there?

There are generally 13 vitamins: A, C, D, E, K, B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7, B9, B12. There are also some potential extra vitamins like B17 (Amygdalin)


5. What are the most important vitamins?

In my opinion, Vitamin D3 and Magnesium are 2 of the most important. Magnesium is responsible for over 300 enzymatic process in the human body. Vitamin D3, as synthesized through sunlight exposure, is important for many health reasons including supporting your immune system


6. Should I take supplements/vitamins??

You can most likely get everything you need through your diet. In the rare event you can't, a supplement from a respected and trustworthy company could be an option


7. Are synthetic and natural vitamins the same?

Sometimes the synthetic versions are claimed to be identical to what is found in nature, other times the synthetic version will differ. An example of this is naturally occurring B12 and synthetic B12 - methyl/adenosyl-cobalamin and cyano-cobalamin respectively.


As I mentioned in the article above, a claim of 'chemically identical' can only be limited by our current knowledge and techniques.


8. Are vitamins all the same?

Vitamin D alone comes in three types - D1, D2, and D3. Vitamin K is the same with K1 and K2, then further variations of those - MK-4, MK-7, etc. Some forms are more useful to the body than others and some will be better for you depending on the reason you're taking them.


They also come coated to get it past the stomach or slow down the release, or in liquid form for quick absorption. B12, for example, is sometimes sold in a form to be taken sublingually (under the tongue) for quick absorption into the bloodstream and to bypass digestion


9. Are vitamins dangerous?

Based on poor regulation, high incidence of contamination, and apparent disregard for consumer safety by many manufacturers, yes, vitamins can be dangerous. Cheaper probably means more shortcuts taken, so at least buy from the more reputable sources


10. Will vitamins heal me?

If you have an illness due to a vitamin deficiency, then taking that vitamin will likely have a positive effect. We only have to look at Scurvy (vitamin c deficiency) and Rickets (vitamin d deficiency) to see this can be the case


11. What about megadosing?

There's a lot of conflicting research on megadosing and the only ones I've direct experience of is with D3, K2, and Probiotics. Do your due diligence and always research before taking potentially harmful doses of anything


12.   Are vitamins better than whole foods?




 
Adam Pike - Holistic Healer

Looking for nutrition and dietary advice?

Get in touch with Adam Pike

Holistic Healer & Health Consultant | Director of Spiritual England


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