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Are whole food supplements more effective?

"Whole food" supplements were hot at Natural Products Expo West 2012. Getting nutrients in a form closest to Mother Nature sounds great—and is gaining traction with consumers—but are these supplements really more effective?

Walking the supplement area of the Expo West 2012 show floor, “whole food” was everywhere—but somewhat ironically, it was packed inside pill bottles.

At the Nature’s Way’s booth, there were posters promoting the Alive! line’s new “whole food” (and plant-based, a twin trend) calcium. Garden of Life touted the 22 organically grown fruits and vegetables in its Vitamin Code and other products. New Chapter, which prefers to call its products “supplemental food,” introduced condition-targeted products with its signature “food-complexed” nutrients. And MegaFood and Natural Vitality both launched new lines that represent unique takes on the whole food theme.

“There’s a difference between USP and our products. The body recognizes and incorporates it better, there’s a longer half-life, antioxidant levels are higher,” said New Chapter’s Vice President of Science and Innovation Graham Rigby. Enzymes and coenzymes (and sometimes probiotics) in food-based vitamins allow better absorption, advocates say. Whole food supplements are gentle on even empty or sensitive stomachs.

To a foodie like me, getting nutrients in a form closest to Mother Nature sounds great—and it’s certainly a concept that’s gaining traction with consumers. But my rational mind asks: Where’s the scientific proof that whole food supplements are more effective? And with various label terms being thrown around—food-based, whole food, or food-complexed?—how does your average shopper figure out what that really means when it comes to specific brands?

I’ve also heard the contrarian, mainstream science argument: Doctors say that therapeutically, higher nutrient doses are usually needed to be effective in the body. Can a couple of tablets or capsules of dehydrated food alone actually contain an adequate dose of naturally occurring vitamins? Is it more nutritious if it’s grown in the soil than a lab? 

I have more thoughts on this topic—I actually lean toward whole-food supplements as higher quality overall—but I’d love to hear what you think. When it comes to supplements, do you buy the "whole food is better" argument? Why or why not?

Discuss this Blog Entry 10

Ken Bowman (not verified)
on Apr 5, 2012

It seems that terms like "whole food" fall into the same trap as "natural." What does it really mean? There are no regulations governing the use of "whole food" in supplements. Can you just add a smidgen of powdered fruits and veggies to a multi and then call it whole food. I think that is happening.

mxdowns (not verified)
on Apr 6, 2012

Thanks for bringing up the question, Susan! I agree, unless there has been rigorous scientific testing of these so call "whole food" supplements, one would have no way of determining their effect. Although, once any food has been heated above 118 degrees, the heat begins to destroy vital enzymes--a major benefit in consuming whole foods in the first place. I believe Garden of Life, boast its heating process monitors and keeps temps under 118, not sure if the other brands even mention it. It's certainly a slippery slope. Yet, I must admit, I fell for the marketing and use food based supplements when ever possible. And, no, I have not been able to tell a difference. My rule of thumb, is to buy only well respected brand names, in the hope of getting the correct amount of nutrients listed on the label whether whole food or not. In earnest, the pros/cons of consuming whole food supplements can, at best, provide somewhat of a psychological peace of mind if nothing else.

Kristin Volberg (not verified)
on Apr 6, 2012

I do think Whole Food supplements are a lot easier on the digestive tract. Unlike regular vitamins, they don't make you queasy when you take them on an empty stomach. I agree with the comment above...I only carry well-respected brands.

on Apr 6, 2012

Low heat drying is something MegaFood also talks about--I can check on the exact temp. I believe both Garden of Life and New Chapter grow food nutrients on yeast, which theoretically gives probiotic properties and may help with digestion. Similarly, some of MegaFood's concentrates include nutritional yeast. On the flip side, certainly some synthetic vitamins, like E, are to be avoided

Anonymous (not verified)
on Apr 12, 2012

Whole Foods vitamins is the Whole Foods private label.
Using "whole foods" on labels of products that are yeat/probiotics that have been fed USP Vitamins is very misleading and this hurts our industry.
New Chapter has been misleading store employees for years so those employees will unknowingly give false information to customers. They have ZERO scientific evidence to support their 20 year old claims about absorbtion, but now that they've cashed in, who cares?
It's really simple, there are:
Synthetic sourced USP vits- dL-Alpha Tocopherol

Natural sourced USP vits - d-Alpha or Ascorbic Acid from Corn.

Food Based - USP Vitamins mixed with food in the pill (the same as taking a USP with a meal,)

Food Grown - usually very low potentcy fortified yeast / probiotics that are very expensive.

I'd love to see NFM do a serious debunking of the "Whole Food Vitamins" claims using science.

on Jul 12, 2012

I wrote a 16-page document debunking the "Whole-food" vitamin issue.
They were called "food-grown-type vitamins" when I wrote it. You can read it at

Anonymous (not verified)
on Apr 13, 2012

Country Life has a different approach. They have multivitamins where most of the nutrients ( all but 4 ) listed on the panel come from a blend of organic, fermented foods. Low potency but high in actual food content. I like taking products from both categories, USP and food grown.

belle (not verified)
on Jun 18, 2012

for me food supplements are good, but of course you need to be more smart in choosing food supplements it's not just its good looking and very persuading food supplements but we need also to read its nutritional facts and if it is legally approved by a health organization. example of a good food supplement is the ingredients of it are all natural like lean and fab food supplements. check this site for more information about this food supplement. thank you!

on Jul 12, 2012

The main problem with whole-food vitamins is that some manufacturers claim they absorb better than pure USP formulas. A search of the published medical literature show four studies on "food-grown-type" vitamins aka whole-food vitamins. None of the studies show superior absorption for whole-food-type vitamins. What published studies do show is that the optimal effects of nutrients happen at optimal doses, which tend to be much higher than most whole-food vitamin manufacturers put in their products. If they don't absorb better, then there is a problem with a lack of potency. For optimal effects we need specific dosage ranges for each nutrient.

on Sep 30, 2013

Well,No doubt that vitamins has own importance for the skin care and skin beauty so vitamins are the best for cure the different health issues. vitamin C is best element for skin care and protection of tissues so we should be drink the milk in more quantity for get the vitamin c....

belmont gym

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