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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?

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